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The New Sunday School?

By Dr. James Emery White


I am about to enter into the most volatile subject imaginable.  No, not abortion or same-sex marriage, not even immigration reform or gun control.

Those are tame.

I want to talk about parents, sports and the church.

How many of you already felt your defenses go up, blood pressure rise, and claws and fangs extend? 

I’m kind of dumb, so I’m going to keep writing.

But I am smart enough to say a few things before I go any further:

*I believe that on the eighth day, God created ESPN.

*I played organized sports from grade school all the way through to college.

*All four of my children were involved in sports during their formative years, from basketball to football, swim team to gymnastics.  I even coached many years of basketball when my boys were on teams with the YMCA and AAU.

*I believe sports are a good and healthy investment for parents to make, even when it involves sacrifice to have your children involved.

*Finally, I don’t reduce following Christ to attending church.

Whew!  There now – have I covered all my bases?

So here’s the inevitable “but” you sense is coming…

According to a new study published in the Review of Religious Research, an examination of declining attendance at 16 congregations revealed that many pastors place the most blame on children’s sports activities, since both practices and competitions are increasingly “scheduled on Sunday mornings at the very time when many churches traditionally have provided religious education.”

I’ve seen the same thing.

I see parents letting almost every other extracurricular activity in their child’s life take precedent over investments designed to make a spiritual impression.  Meaning soccer, or baseball, or swim team gets first dibs on the calendar. 

For example, our church has a periodic event called “Family Night.”  It’s designed for the entire family to attend together, and highlights a specific character trait through a program involving music, dance, skits, video and more.  Parents are then equipped to go further with that trait with their children in the home, as well as through our MecKidz program during the weekend services. 

It’s one of the more popular events in the life of our church, and combined with our weekend MecKidz program for children birth-fifth grade, it reaches thousands of parents and their children and strategically serves parent’s efforts to build Christ-like character – not to mention a relationship with Christ Himself – into their child’s life.

Yet I’ve actually overheard parents say things like, “Yes, we’re going to do Family Night – we wouldn’t miss it for the world - but only until soccer starts.”  Or, “We’re doing MecKidz on weekends, but not once swim team starts.”

That’s a concern.  And it isn’t about our church, much less it’s attendance.  I’m talking parent to parent, dad to dad, pastor to people.

Think about what you’re saying.  In fact, say it out loud, in front of a mirror.  Listen to it. 

“I will do spiritual things for my child’s sake until sports conflict, then sports win.” 

Do you mean it?  Really?  Is that how you want to prioritize things?

When our kids were younger, my wife Susan and I saw this one coming.  We wanted our kids in those events every bit as much as anyone else.  But with some of the sports, there kept being conflict after conflict.

So we decided to take a stand.

For every team, every league, we’d put the same thing down when we registered.  We would ensure that there was at least one weekend service our children could attend.  Back then, it was Sunday mornings (we’ve since added more days and service times).  Further, we let the coaches know, in advance, those select Friday evenings when “Family Night” would be offered and we wouldn’t be able to participate.

There was even a season in our church’s life when our boundaries included not only every Sunday morning, but every Wednesday night.  For us that was important, too.

But in all those years of parenting, involving four children, we never once had a kid penalized.  We never once had anyone kick us off a team.  We never once felt that we deprived our kids of anything substantive.

And even if we had, who cares.

That’s not important.

Their hearts were.

Their character was.

What they were gaining spiritually was paramount .

That’swhat mattered.

And they turned out fine – valedictorians and athletes, prestige college acceptances and good marriages – all the things that parents are so insecure about.  But more important, all four know Christ intimately (and are even in vocational Christian ministry).

I’ve seen too many parents make sports their priority as if that’s what it means to raise their children in a healthy and holistic way, only to see that child travel far from God during their high school or college years, or leave the faith altogether as a young adult.

They had field hockey, basketball, or swim team, but they didn’t seem to end up with much of Jesus.

Hear my heart:  it’s not about choosing between Jesus and sports.  At least, it doesn’t have to be.  But if it comes down to that choice, how exactly does soccer rank over your child’s eternity?  How is it we’ll spend half a day travelling to a volleyball tournament, but fail to protect an hour a week where they will learn about God? 

Let’s just say I watch my sports scores carefully. 

But I don’t see that one adding up to a win.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“The Main Reason for Declining Church Attendance: Children's Sports?,” Melissa Steffan, Christianity Today, April 8, 2013, read online.

“The Final Four, travel teams and empty pews: Research on sports and religion,” David Briggs, The Association of Religion Data Archives, April 3, 2013, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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