(RNS) — More than 90 years ago, on a cold and stormy December night in Kansas, a Christian minister named Charles Sheldon walked into a crowded gymnasium to take in a college basketball game.
Sheldon is best known as the author of “In His Steps,” the 1896 book that popularized the “What Would Jesus Do?” phrase.
But in 1929 Sheldon was not wondering what Jesus would do; he was wondering what his church members were already doing.
As he watched the basketball game play out in front of him, Sheldon began to reflect.
“I couldn’t help wondering, while looking at the big crowd and the athletic ten young men running around,” he wrote, “how many church members would be in the fifty different churches at a prayer meeting on a night like that, and paying a dollar apiece for the privilege of going.”
Sheldon’s question was more like an observation.
When he started his ministry in Kansas 40 years before, basketball had not yet been invented. Now, it was so ingrained in the community that people would brave harsh winter conditions and pay money to sit shoulder to shoulder watching a game — a level of devotion they did not seem as eager to give to the church.
Religious leaders like Sheldon could wonder if their congregants’ priorities were in order. But from Sheldon’s time to the present day, those leaders have had to accommodate themselves to the cultural power of sports in American society.
Sports in America, John Tunis declared in 1928, are “a kind of national religion.”