In the last couple of decades, it’s been an often heard complaint in churches in the United States that many children, young people, and parents have been lost to sports. Sunday morning sports practices, in particular, are pointed to as especially damaging to church attendance and Sunday School rolls.
Over the years, I’ve heard this complaint countless times. The problem though is that, in the church, people rarely move on from that complaint to wonder about why this dynamic is going on and why it has been so damaging. After all, sports are not—technically speaking—required of children and youth. Not the school department, nor the government, require any parent to register their child for the local youth soccer league—or little league, or peewee football, etc.
So, why is it that sports have become part of the bedrock of childhood in America?
I recently had a conversation with a good friend whose child is now attending the junior high school that my son attends. I mentioned that one of the highlights of my son’s experience (who does participate in sports, I should note) has been the junior high jazz band, which rehearses one day each week after school. This friend responded by saying that the jazz band just won’t fit into her child’s schedule. Without any hesitation at all, she declared, “Sports come first.”
Why is this? The reasons are many and complicated. But, one of the reasons that has become very clear to me, as I attend back to school open houses, as well as social gatherings at the homes of my friends who have school-age children, is that while sports may very well be a good experience for the children, the world of youth sports is also significant and important for the parents.
On the sidelines and in booster groups, parents meet each other, and make new friends. Also on the sidelines, parents do business. Parents who own businesses wear their business shirts, emblazoned with the business logo, or they sponsor the team’s t-shirts (sometimes in quite large and outlandish ways, with the name of the team smaller than the name of the sponsoring business), so that other parents will know where to go when they need something.
The sidelines of a youth sports game have become the modern equivalent of fellowship hour at the local church. In essence, the sidelines of a youth sports game are where community is created and nurtured.
In so many ways, youth sports have taken the place of the church. It’s where parents expect their children to learn certain values of teamwork, competition and that practice is important to competence—and in some cases, even the significance of prayer! It’s also where parents expect to find community and friendship for their children and for themselves. It’s where parents find that common ground to begin a new conversation with a stranger.
And, sports provide an easier language than religion. It’s one thing to go up to a stranger to talk about soccer or baseball. It’s quite another to go up to a stranger and ask a question about their faith.
I’m not sure what this means for the local church in these days, but when I’m surrounded by youth sports parents, I am aware that the local church is up against a lot—and certainly more than they realize.
It’s not enough just to complain about youth sports, and that youth sports leagues have “stolen” children and families from us. We, in the church, must grapple with the religious components of youth sports, to understand why families are drawn to sports, and what we may be able to offer as an alternative. Sports, after all, are not for everyone.
Church people must contend with the religion of youth sports, and the spiritual dynamic that parents find meaningful and satisfying in youth sports. If church people are serious about wanting to attract families, they must be find the courage to get beyond the complaining and to be open to learning about youth sports and then to find new ways of articulating and sharing the good news of their Christian faith.