Juggernaut: When Church Culture and Sports Culture Clash

Youth-soccer-indianaSo a Southern Baptist minister and an administrative director for a Jewish synagogue walk into a cupcake shop and agree that extracurricular sports are killing both our religions.

No … This isn’t the beginning of a terrible joke.

Back in July, my wife and I had an opportunity to catch up with a good friend, who has been an executive director for a Jewish synagogue for many years. Of course, our conversation turned to the inevitable small-talk question: “How’s work going?” Turns out that many of the synagogues in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia have been declining in attendance, and considering the best options for how to serve their community. While the reasons for decline were varied, one primary reason caught my attention: Kids sports programs. I chuckled as I immediately understood the problem. When the snow pack melts and softball/baseball season begins in Indiana, you’re more likely to find kids at the local ice cream stand in post-game celebrations than in church programs. What ensued was a fascinating ecumenical discussion of the impact of extracurricular programs on religion.

Due to my calling to Seminary and full-time ministry, I have lived in several states over the past few years. I lived in a rural Virginia county that invested millions on a children’s sports complex. I have lived in the home of Texas “Friday night lights,” where the high school football stadiums would dwarf many college campuses. Now I live in a small mid-Western community littered with shrines to intramural basketball with standing room only seating capacity. Different communities across America … Same obsession with children’s extracurricular activities. And our obsessions range from the ubiquitous (i.e. soccer; football; basketball; baseball) to the unabashedly nerdy (i.e. marching band; show choir) to the inane (i.e. elementary age cheerleading) to the practically insane (i.e. any “sporting event” – and I use that term loosely – involving an army of distracted pre-K kids).

Across America, many churches are engaged in an epic struggle with the veritable juggernaut of ever-expanding extracurricular activities. Throughout my tenure in Christian ministry, the skirmishes have become predictable and familiar:

  • The kids who drop out of youth group when a particular sports season begins.
  • The families that follow the travel team for months of weekends and become MIA from Sunday morning worship.
  • The kids who have to drop out of a week of camp ministry because a teacher won’t release them from band camp or sports camp.
  • The kids who darken the doors of church when they need easy, elderly targets for sports fundraisers.

And now that I have an elementary school age daughter, I have been personally engaged in the church-sports struggle. Last year, I had to pull my daughter out of the soccer program at our local YMCA, because the coach wanted to hold practices on Wednesdays. The coach was shocked speechless when I informed her that we were choosing our church’s kids programming over our child’s interest in an intramural sport so inconsequential that they don’t even bother to keep score.

Our obsession with the extracurricular and intramural has dented church attendance. The dirty little secret behind the decline in many churches’ attendance numbers is the issue of frequency of attendance. While many churches are staying steady in membership, the frequency of which members attend is actually declining. Members that used to attend weekly are attending every other week. Members that used to attend monthly are attending sporadically. Why are believers attending church less frequently? According to a 2012 Pew Research Poll, the top 3 reasons for the decline in frequency of attendance among the religiously affiliated were: (1) Belief that worship attendance is not important; (2) Too busy to attend; and (3) Work schedule conflicts. In other words, personal priorities keep more believers out of the pews than theological issues. More than ever, even Christian families are choosing gymnastics meets, soccer road trips and Dallas Cowboys football games over worship services.

To some extent, I think that churches need to adjust to the cultural change: Sports culture is here to stay … Sundays and Wednesday are no longer sacrosanct. The monolith of NFL football has killed traditional Sunday night services. We’ve already held a funeral for the traditional Wednesday night prayer meeting. And there’s no need to perform CPR on dead programs that don’t work in a post-Christian culture. Simply yelling at people with legalistic views of church attendance and beating believers with Hebrews 10:25 won’t work either. Instead, churches need to shift their game plan to reach people in the midst of their hectic lives. Some Christian parents legitimately feel hornswoggled and trapped into their kids schedules, and would love for the church to offer some escape hatch from the perpetual hamster wheel. Our church has shifted to a small group strategy from a traditional Sunday School model in order to reach people in the midst of the chaos of modern life. Other churches are generating their own sports programming, such as the Upwards program, to reach sports-oriented families for the sake of the Gospel. My desire for our church’s ministry to echo Paul’s call in 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

On the other hand, our churches must not be naive enough to think that simply accommodating sporting events will make some believers attend church. Many Christian parents would find some excuse to avoid church even if worship services were held at 3AM in their backyard.

And therein lies the crux of the issue: A heart that worships activities more than Christ is firmly ensconced in idolatry. Sports is God given, fun and healthy … But sports cannot be loved more than Christ. If our time, temptations, finances, hopes, dreams, worries and comfort all revolve around activities instead of Christ, then we have given our hearts over to an idol. Proverbs 4:23 declares that the problem really starts with our hearts: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” If your entire weekend seems to revolve around driving to some rank gym that smells like foot odor in Podunk, USA … If your entire weekend diet consists of concession stand hot dogs … If you’re constantly selling candy cars for uniforms or travel team trips … If the staff at Dick’s Sporting Goods knows you by name and your pastor doesn’t … Then maybe it’s time for a heart check.

As parents, we have many hopes and desires for our kids: Good paying jobs … Strong educations … Social adjustment … And to move out in exactly 18 years. But God’s desire is radically different … His desire for our kids to personally know Him. As such, the Bible speaks of the primary role of the Christian parent in terms of evangelism and discipleship:

  • Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
  • Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Our primary role as Christian parents is to share about Christ and to help our kids grow in Christ. Don’t delegate that responsibility to someone else. As a senior pastor and former youth minister, I delight in any opportunity to share about Christ with your kids. But I will also tell you that parents are the best evangelists that our kids have, and our kids generally grow to worship what their parents worship. When you teach your kids that flag football, gymnastics, cheerleading, hunting, basket weaving or pottery making is more valuable than Christ, then you’re simply molding another generation of idolators … And you’re the mold.

Above all, the grand scope of the Gospel must remain central to our parenting. Without Christ, our kids are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). Read that again: DEAD. Our kids simply need Christ more than sports programs, fundraisers, school dances, part-time jobs, shopping trips or cookouts. Only Christ can bring them to eternal life (Ephesians 2:5). And if Christ is that important, we have no business flittering around with our bizarre obsessions with unimportant things that moth and rust will destroy. Our priority as parents must be the Gospel.

My parents have gotten old enough that they are downsizing into a retirement size home, which means that they donate to me a box of my old stuff from their house every time we meet. Last time, the box was filled with 30-year old memorabilia from extracurricular activities from my youth: Flimsy soccer trophies … Certificates of achievement from choir … Obligatory soccer team photos … An gigantic trophy for best soloist at a show choir competition (really). As I sifted through the moments from my youth, I kept saying this mantra to my wife: “Why did I hold on to all this junk?” Items that were once priceless treasure transformed into garbage simply due to time and space. In that moment, I was reminded of the repeated description of the stations of life in Ecclesiastes: Vanity. Mist. Vapor. Meaninglessness. The ebb and flow of extracurricular activities comes and goes in most American households but – in the end – provides little purpose or meaning to life. At the point of your death, ribbons, certificates and team photos are meaningless curiosities. The Christ life is infinitely more important. You will never regret taking the time to share about Christ with your kids.

Let’s enjoy the life that God has graciously given but place our priority on eternal things.