There appears to be a growing concern among researchers that our obsession with sports (at least in America) has moved it from “recreation” status of yesteryear to that of “folk religion” today. If that’s true, then it makes sense that the Christian Church as a whole (as well as local churches) would be greatly affected. A recent article by David Briggs entitled The Final Four, Travel Teams and Empty Pews: Who is Winning the Competition Between Sports and Religion? makes this point well. Essentially, the author uses recent statistics and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that the “religion” of sports is winning the competition. His central question is: Will churches adapt to this new reality, or die?
Now I’m not even going to deal with the premise that sports may one day kill off the Church, other than to say that our God is much bigger than the sporting world (even if it doesn’t know it). Yet I do agree that organized sports is greatly impacting church attendance and participation today. One of the problems for those of us in church ministry is how to address this issue without sounding mean-spirited, legalistic, or condemning. After all, it’s not just pagans or “fringe” churchgoers who are choosing sports over traditional Sunday and Wednesday night church attendance. If this is what we were facing, then we could just call them to faith and repentance, telling them to put away their idols and follow Jesus. But the truth is that many core members of our churches also become more scarce during certain times of the year, especially when they have children or youth that are athletically gifted. So how do we address this issue with grace?
I’ll begin scratching the surface by dealing with some of the underlying assumptions found in Briggs’ article. First, there is the assumption that the local church should look at sports activities as its competition. Is that really the best posture to take? I know from personal experience that ministry leaders tend to get frustrated when our children or youth have baseball practice on Wednesday nights, or play in soccer tournaments on Sundays. And, I understand the desire for the bygone days when the Lord’s Day and Wednesday nights were “off-limits” for organized sports and other activities. But when we look at sports programs as our competition, then we are naturally tempted to change our methods and “up our game” to give Christians a better alternative. So youth groups become more “fun” with possibly less teaching of the Word. Or we stop teaching the poorly attended children’s catechism class altogether, and have a church sports program instead. Or, the church finds alternative times to have their services and activities (when are those times, exactly?). This is not to say that churches can’t have sports and recreation as part of their programming. Any changes should fit within Biblical goals of ministry, and not just as a reaction to poor attendance. But what will “winning” this competition require?
Another assumption is that local churches should be disheartened and panicked that they are losing this “competition” to sports. I know we long to see more people becoming followers of Jesus and, as a consequence, engage as active members of our churches. But shouldn’t we really be focusing on the spiritual growth of those in our congregation, rather than just looking at the attendance numbers? In our church, we have over 300 children and youth that could be in Sunday School, or Sunday and Wednesday night activities. Would I love to see 100% attendance? Sure! And some visitors too! Yet do we want families choosing church activities out of some believed requirement, or guilt, when they would rather be doing something else? Let’s rejoice and minister well to those who are in attendance.
A final assumption is that parents who choose sports activities for their children and youth are less “spiritual” than those who choose church activities. While it is tempting to think in those categories, we are wandering into the realm of judgment reserved for the Holy Spirit. Do we need to challenge our families about their priorities at times? Certainly! Can over-participation in sports come at the expense of Christian nurture and growth? Sure. Yet we have to deal with the reality that many Christians see organized sports for their children and youth as more of a requirement (and maybe more important) than church activities. After all, most coaches make it clear that commitment to the team is of highest importance, whenever the practices or games are scheduled. Church just seems much more optional these days, especially with so many competing options. And, after all, nowhere in the Bible are we required to go to Wednesday night service or youth group! Like it or not, the days are gone where people viewed church activities as essentially required, and recreational activities as much more optional.
“If you can’t beat ’em…join ’em” is the best and most practical mantra of many churches today, according to the Briggs article. But should our objective be to “win” the competition with organized sports? Or should we just stay focused on the faithful worship of God and passionate ministry of the Word, trusting God to do His work in the lives of our church members? Like I said, just scratching the surface…