Can Church & Sports Coexist?

‘Sorry Pastor Jeff, but Kayla has a soccer tournament this weekend, so we won’t be in town for youth group.’

‘Sorry Rev. Binder, but Aiden has baseball on Sundays, so you won’t be seeing him at church for the next few weeks…or months.’

‘Sorry Jeff, the mission trip seems like a great opportunity, but my kids literally are scheduled for every week of the summer already with their travel teams. Merry Christmas to you as well.’

Kids are busy these days. We get it. In fact, everyone is busy these days. In some cases, it seems like a point of pride for people to tell you how busy they are; do we feel somehow more valuable or important? But children and youth…it’s not about pride for them; it’s about options. Yes, there are TONS more options of things to do than just ten years ago, and our young people enjoy participating in those events. School is one example. Nowadays children receive more homework than before, have more tests than before, and certainly more pressure.

Church is not innocent of this new demand for ‘more, more, MORE!’ from its participants either.

‘See you Sunday morning for worship?’

‘How about Sunday school before?’

‘See you Sunday night for youth group?’

‘And Wednesday for small group?’

‘What about Friday for fellowship?’

‘And Saturday for the service project?’

And then there are SPORTS. Youth sports have been taken to a whole new level. I grew up playing sports…lots of sports. My dad loved playing sports as well. He grew up in the ‘Sandlot’ age when kids gathered from around the neighborhood in the morning to play baseball until the sun set…every day. By the time I was growing up in the 1980’s, things were beginning to change a bit from ‘the good old days’ he grew up in. The city recreation department now developed well organized recreation leagues for all sports and all ages; and then there were these special ‘travel’ teams organized.

I grew up playing baseball and basketball in those recreational leagues from an early age through high school; and don’t forget the hours of backyard and street football! In the fifth grade my gym teacher said that I would make a great soccer player. Following my younger brother who started a little before me, I joined my first soccer team, the Terminators (it was the 90s after all). We had a blast, and even won the Parma Heights recreation league that year! We were so good in fact, that many of us were invited to ‘move up’ to play travel soccer. In middle school my friends and I played travel ball for a while (also hearing whisperings of a ‘premier’ league). In high school I even tried out for the school’s soccer team and played a year of Junior Varsity before deciding to spend my energy, time, and efforts in other parts of my life (church, school groups, etc.).

I love sports. To this day I wake up each day listening to sports radio, watching ‘SportsCenter’, and watching some of the games each evening. I still love to play baseball, basketball, tennis, bowling, volleyball…basically anything, and I thank my dad for teaching me the basics of just about every sport out there. Sports has been connected by researchers with developing interpersonal skills amongst young people, building self-confidence, problem-solving abilities, better physical and mental health, and let’s not forget the countless memories and relationships formed amongst teammates and families.

Today, lots of youth play travel ball, or with club teams, or with any other variation of leagues and teams. Kids have private coaches and trainers, go to sports camps, and even special schools so they can focus on the athletic development. Most parents love the idea of their kids excelling in a sport. Some parents consider it an investment in the hopes of a college scholarship, or even a professional salary. I worked at a school that recruited high school hockey players from around the continent. On top of being 15 year olds, these young people were playing over 80 games a season!

While many churches invite our young people to participate in events, many coaches demand (and even threaten) attendance and participation in sporting events and practices. So how do we reconcile all of this? How do we make peace with an overactive and over scheduled culture, the wonderfully positive experience of athletics, and the spiritual formation of our children and youth? ‘Back in my day, nothing was scheduled for Sundays except church.’ Well, great. Yes, life in 1950s…or 60s…or 70s, or 80s, or even 1990s (my favorite decade) America was different than life in 2016, especially when it came to youth sports. But we are not going back to life in the Twentieth Century—sorry to disappoint you.

What we can do is to accept the realities of our lives today, and to creatively prioritize our time. Here are some thoughts to perhaps get us thinking and talking how to develop our athletic practices and our spiritual practices:

  • Prioritize our time. The fact is that there are only 24 hours in a day for everyone, so we are living with limited time. How we spend our time reflects our values in life. How many hours a week involve sports? How many involve school? What about church? If you notice that there is an imbalance, perhaps it’s time to reorganize your weekly schedule.
  • Creative church planning. No, it’s not only the parent’s responsibility. Most churches schedule and program ministry the same way it has been done for the past 50 years. What would it look like to program for these families that have different availability? Different days, times, locations, even curriculum is all on the table when it comes to getting creative with our ministry.
  • Instill the value of spiritual formation. Young people learn from their parents when it comes to religion—it’s a fact. If parents are not spending time with scripture, prayer, or in spiritual community, then the children will follow. Parents and adults, we need living examples on how to prioritize.
  • Bring Jesus on the road. Just because you are at a hotel this weekend doesn’t mean that you have to forget about faith. Perhaps during some downtime between games there is an opportunity for discussion, Bible study, and prayer? What a great opportunity to bring together teammates, coaches, and family on a whole new level!
  • Family time. Family time is just that; time with the family. You can have family time at home, or in the car, or even at church. However, is it really family time if you just drop the kid off and don’t see them for an hour? Being intentional about the limited face-to-face time we have with one another is important—make the most out of it!
  • Spiritual discipline. I’ve had many parents leave up the decision making up to the young person when it comes to spend their time. Are we surprised that children tend to choose playing sports over going to church? While spiritual formation may not be the most entertaining experience in one’s life, it is most important; just like eating vegetables, doing homework, and going to the dentist.
  • Be a fan. Sorry Kyle Idleman. I love the fact that parents and youth spend time focused on sports. It’s not only great personal development for children, it’s great family time. Keep on supporting your young person no matter what. They most likely won’t become a professional athlete, or even a college athlete, and that’s okay. They are learning life skills each and every day, and will be happy to look back and see you in the stands cheering them on. Pastors and youth leaders, be a fan! Show up at their games as well. Talk with their parents. Let them know that you support them in all parts of their life; not just inside the church walls.

I also hope we can all be just as big of fans of their spiritual formation. While young people will not always be at church, we can support their growth in a lot of creative and supportive ways. While our athletic abilities will certainly diminish over time, our spiritual walk is eternal; we’re all in this together for the long haul.

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3 comments

  1. Jeff, you make a lot of good points. But I am not sure we “can’t go back” to decades that weren’t that long ago. It will take conscious decisions on the part of families to protect their children from overscheduling, the modern scourge of youth, and to prioritize church — at least a little more. I coach a travel volleyball team and many of these girls are way overscheduled. Lessening that load will help them both spiritually as well as psychologically.

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  2. Thank you for this article. As a 4th year Session member of our Presbyterian Church this has become a serious concern. We are struggling to find a solution.

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  3. What if churches in the community got together to sponsor a sports organization? Called “The Sabbath League” , it would pledge to hold no games or practices from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. The only requirement for participation is a nominal fee AND a letter from a house of worship that states the athlete is an active member. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues would all benefit. Kids (and parents) could learn about different traditions as different faiths took turns sharing what is important to their religion. At the end of the season, young people could have an introductory understanding of Easter, Hanukah and Ramadan and perhaps even more.
    Instead of fighting against the tide of the crazy-busy congregants, take part in their scheduling. And faith leaders can see what is important to the young family demographic and how to better serve that population.

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