Youth Sports and the Church
Part One: How to encourage spiritual growth in absent families
Contractors, architects and city planners spend a great deal of time imaging where people will walk and laying sidewalks for them. However, in many cases you will find a well-worn path where people have actually decided to walk, outside the carefully laid lines. You can complain, put up signs and try to get people to walk on the paved paths. Or you can create a better path that’s more in line with where people are going.
For many years now, youth sports have become that well-worn path that parents and kids have decided to walk. For better or worse, youth sports have become a dominant force in America. Maybe it’s the Tiger Woods effect, giving parents the hope that their child will be the next prodigy. Or maybe it’s the natural benefits our kids reap, from competition and teamwork to simple physical fitness. Whatever the reason, families spend an extraordinary amount of time and money on these activities.
Clubs and traveling teams cut into a family’s disposable income and free time. We’re also seeing this affect their church attendance. Parents work full-time and then travel with their kids on weekends for tournaments. A recent Barna survey found that the average church attender comes to church just once a month. Youth sports is one reason this is the case.
I have to confess that my family is one of those families. And I’m in full-time ministry! But I’ve seen both sides of this problem. I pastored a church where I saw families miss at times because of youth sports. And now that I have kids old enough to play on traveling teams, we spend a good deal of time on the road during weekends.
Having spent time on both sides of the fence, I tend to believe the old way of corralling parents onto our sidewalks isn’t working. In this two-part series, we’re going to look at this issue and attempt to create a new path. In part one, we’ll briefly discuss how to handle this issue when it comes to families in your church. In part two, we’ll look at what to do when your own kids are in youth sports.
Church Attendance or Spiritual Growth?
How should we address the issue of youth sports and church attendance? One option is to preach against it. You can guilt people into giving up youth sports for their kids and be at church 52 weeks a year. This has been the approach of many over the years. Church attendance is really, really important. And playing sports doesn’t seem to be a valid reason for missing. As a pastor, I agreed with this logic, and I still do now to some degree.
However, church attendance is one stat we use to evaluate someone’s spiritual growth. But it’s not the only one. Church attendance is an output to measure. But discipleship and spiritual community is an outcome to achieve. This is the goal we hope to achieve. It’s not perfect attendance we want our kids to strive for, but a heart and soul devoted to God.
It’s not perfect attendance we want our kids to strive for, but a heart and soul devoted to God.
Outcomes are more important that outputs. The ultimate role of a parent is not to create a chuch-goer, but to create a disciple. That’s the pattern of Proverbs 22:6, to “train up a child in the way he should go” (ESV). That should happen at church, but also at home, school and the ballfield.
As a pastor, you will feel the push and pull of youth sports and church attendance. It’s unavoidable. But instead of harping on parents and giving them a guilt trip, let’s draw circles around where they live and work and move. By resourcing them in their everyday life, we can equip them to be everyday disciples, reproducing other disciples along the way.
Giving Our Parents a Better Pathway
So how do we resource parents? It takes being intentional as a pastor to make sure these families are known and valued and cared for even though they may not be in church every Sunday. It takes creating engagement and volunteer opportunities that match the rhythm of their lives. It takes helping them see the church is who they are not just where they go.
One option is to identify the families in the church who are involved in youth sports and create a small group just for them. Let them take the Sunday sermon on the road and help them create spiritual community as an affinity group. They can be at church by being the church wherever they are, including the ballfield.
As they carry their church with them when they travel with youth sports, new avenues of service and evangelism open up. Consider how many families are drawn to your church because of the witness of your church people in youth sports. You may have parents inviting other parents, kids talking about church to their teammates and a new avenue of involvement in the local community. Though they may be missing some Sundays, they still represent an active presence in the world. And they’ve turned a perceived negative into an evangelistic opportunity, reaching out to other parents who may never step into your church otherwise!
Hear me out, this is not the church caving to culture or catering to convenience. It’s not about lowering spiritual expectations but setting the bar higher for discipleship. Rather than seeing it simply as a function of church attendance, spiritual growth is something that happens in the real world on real time. Please don’t be the church that puts up another sign about the sidewalk. Instead, create new opportunities for engagement where people are already walking!