A few years ago, I led a small group consisting of 10th grade boys. We always began our time catching up and, often, our conversation centered around sports. Very casually, more than half the boys began discussing the bets they were making on football, basketball, and baseball games.
While I was shocked to learn that 10th graders were gambling, I was also confused as to how I could minister to them in relatively uncharted waters. Here are 3 principles youth ministers and parents should consider as they address this issue.
God Grants and Sets Structures of Authority in our Lives so That We Can Live and Walk in True Freedom.
Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C. have legalized sports betting since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling struck down the 1992 ban on sports betting nationwide. In most states, citizens have to be 21 before they are legally allowed to bet on sports.
The apostle Paul teaches young believers like our students to submit to the governing authorities and to their parents. We honor God and submit to him when we obey, respect, and honor the authorities God has put in place (Rom. 13:1-2). We need to help students see that they are breaking the law when they lie and register to bet through a gambling app or place bets through bookies. As much as we are wisely and appropriately able, we remind students they obey the law much like they would the coaches, teachers, and parents whom God has specifically placed over them for their good.
Since parents have the most influence on their children, a student’s proper love and respect for authority begins in the home. Parents must accept the responsibility to love, teach, correct, and train their children in righteousness (Prov. 22:6). As we communicate with parents about the risks, dangers, and general foolishness of underage sports betting, we have the opportunity to help students obey and honor their parents so that they can live wisely and “enjoy long life on the earth” (Eph. 6:3).
Students tend to view rules and authority as burdens, obstacles to doing what they want to do. Our task as youth ministers (and parents) is to help students see that true freedom is not about “doing what I want to do.” For students, then, sports betting is a slippery slope that can lead to other bad habits, addictive behaviors, and unhealthy relationships. This is why the writer of Hebrews urges believers to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles so that we can run the race set out before us” (12:1). While gambling may seem harmless compared to other sins, youth ministers need to call out gambling for the slippery slope that it is.
God Made Us To Work With Discipline and Integrity.
Gambling promotes quick, easy ways to “earn” money. Students certainly fall into this trap; why work a job when you can make money with a few clicks of a button predicting outcomes for the weekend’s games?
When God created the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1 and 2, he worked for six days and rested on the seventh. As soon as God created Adam, he took him to work and care for the garden. From the very beginning, work and rest are crucial elements of what it means to be a man or woman created in the image of God. God ordained work and service to others to be fulfilling for us.
While gambling is a quick and relatively “easier” way for students to make money, it circumvents God’s design for them. We must remind students that easier is not always better, especially as it relates to earning money (Prov. 10:4). In my first job working at a sporting goods store as a teenager, I felt so satisfied earning my paycheck. God-honoring, personally fulfilling work requires a healthy amount of labor, but seeking to win money through gambling on sports devalues and deemphasizes the discipline and integrity to work “unto the Lord.”
God Blesses Us With the Ability to Steward His Good Gifts for Our Benefit and for His Glory.
James writes, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights (1:17, NIV). Ultimately, the way any of us, including our students, view money is a matter of the heart. If students believe that they can gamble (illegally) because it is easy and fun, then they will miss that their good and gracious God is the real source and owner of everything they have and that whatever we do is for his glory (Col. 3:23).
Let’s remind our students that God calls us to steward his resources, like money, wisely and faithfully. If a student takes an allowance he receives from his parents and uses it to gamble, that is not a wise or faithful way to steward his parent’s undeserved gift. It is instead “me” focused, looking externally for money and the thrill of sports betting to satisfy the soul. By contrast, a steward views what he or she has been given and orients it toward God and to others. This is why Paul is able to thank the Philippians for their gifts to him, leading him to declare, “for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Challenge your students. Ask them if they think sports betting is a wise and faithful way to steward their allowances or paychecks. This is not to shame or judge them harshly, but rather to offer them the perspective they need in order to grow as more mature, complete followers of Jesus by God’s grace. Teenagers are growing in their understanding of how the world works, especially as they begin to steward money.
How the Gospel Gives Our Students More Than Enough
The high school boys I led in that small group weren’t looking to do the wrong thing by sports betting. Each of them simply wanted to have fun and feel accepted by their friends and peers. I quickly learned that betting on sports was a fun way for high school boys to connect with one another and feel accepted. In the process, they could “make” money and feel a sense of independence.
However, I am convinced the boys in my discipleship group gambled to try to fill a void that only Christ is fully able to fill. Only in Jesus are any of us fully loved and accepted as his adopted children. No matter how hard we might try, no amount of personal success or sense of achievement will make Christ love us any more than he already does. Christ paid for our sins, and we have been washed and set free by his blood and through his sacrifice. The hope of the gospel is not dependent on the fickle outcomes of professional sports and or trying to win bets, but on the triumph of the cross and the empty grave. Unlike sports gambling, this hope of the gospel gives our students, and all of us, more than enough.
Rooted offers mentoring cohorts for youth ministers and family ministers looking for more encouragement and equipping. Consider joining our next round of groups starting in January 2023.