When my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our oldest son, we quickly realized there were a lot of parenting issues that we spent little to no time discussing beforehand like discipline, education, bedtime routines, etc. The countdown to the due date ends up being filled with conversations surrounding these and other topics related to parenting. As children get older, the questions and conversations change. It also seems that parents are always playing catch up. One of the issues that sneak up on families is the question of children and sports. More specifically, for Christian parents, the question is, “What are we going to do about sports if they conflict with Sunday worship services or other church-related activities?”
In recent years, there has been a lot written about church attendance and sports engagement in the United States. For decades, this issue wasn’t that big of a deal because for many people in this country Sunday was still a day where many attended church or spent significant time resting with family and friends, and organized sports were not played as regularly on Sundays. However, those days are long gone, and we find ourselves getting involved in sports at younger and younger ages, especially competitive sports that require a significant time commitment from children and their families.
This article is not meant to tell you that all youth sports are bad and never get your kids involved in them, and it isn’t to bash your choice if you already have your children in sports. I recognize that sports are one of the good gifts of God’s common grace to the world. There is so much good that comes out of playing on a team. I’ve been a recipient of many life lessons, memories, and joy-filled moments in playing and coaching sports from little league through the college level. I hope that all my sons are interested and involved in sports whether formally or informally.
Sports are a good gift from God. Like all good gifts, there is a danger to place the gift over the giver or to want the gift more than the giver. It happens with sports, with music, with academics, with vocation, with sex, and the Bible is clear that this is idolatry.
One thing that my parents made sure of as I was growing up is that sports never got in the way of church attendance (or youth group attendance for that matter). It was a value of our family that we would be at church regularly on Sundays, worshipping with the people of God. This value led to my parents – who were my biggest baseball fans growing up – to make some hard decisions like not allowing me to play travel baseball.
The trend of our day is that many families will choose sports at the risk of missing church, rather than choosing the church at the risk of missing sporting events. Over the years in my ministry, through conversations with parents and reading, I’ve heard many of the following statements regarding engagement in sports from Christian families. Here’s some examples:
“Our children have committed to the team.”
“We don’t want our kids to miss out on the opportunities that we had especially because all that sports taught us.”
“Sports is all about politics. If they don’t show up to everything, then they will be punished with lack of playing time and sitting on the bench.”
“It is just for a few weekends or one season, and we don’t have any ministry commitments.”
“We don’t want our kids to despise Jesus and the church because it keeps them from pursuing sports.”
Are any of the above reasons enough to keep our children and our family from attending church? Are we asking the right questions when it comes to making decisions about involvement in sports? Are we missing out on an opportunity to teach our children about sacrifice and the cost of discipleship? Parents, when deciding on participation in sports or deciding whether or not to continue in sports, here are five questions to ask as a family.
- How will this impact our family’s regular attendance and worship with God’s people in the local church?
There are only 52 Sundays a year, and when you factor in missing for vacations and a few for sickness in the family, you are quickly approaching 45 possible Sundays to attend church. Once sports are added to that number, our chance of attending corporate worship decreases. This question will force your family to define what is regular attendance at church and how many weeks become too many to miss. Hebrews 10 says that we cannot give up “meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (v. 25). I heard a sermon where Josh Patterson of the Village Church said that “what we hold casually our kids will casually drop.” And that is a scary thought. We don’t set out to create the habit of missing worship, but if we don’t intentionally ask questions about how sports impact our attendance, it will create the pattern of missing for our children and us. Our children will tend to do what they see modeled and so the question is, “Do they see us choosing sports at the risk of missing church or choosing the church at the risk of missing sports? “
- How will this impact our family’s regular service at church?
The church is the body of Christ, and every part must do its work (1 Cor. 12:12-27). You are more than a pew-filler. In fact, you have something that is vital to the life of the church. Spiritual gift, talents, and abilities that God can use to encourage and build up others that may be missing when we are not in attendance. The same Hebrews passages above mentions that one of the purposes of us gathering together is to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). We need to ask ourselves honestly, “Is missing consistently for sports keeping others from the benefits of your contribution to their spiritual growth?”
- Why do we as a family go to church?
A helpful exercise for your family is to have everyone answer this question, “Why do you go to church?” The answers may surprise you. My wife relayed a story from this past spring when she heard Kristie Anyabwile speak at The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference. The story was about her husband, Thabiti, and his response to this all-important question of why we go to church. Thabiti was very sick one Sunday, and since he was not preaching, it would have been easy to stay home. However, Thabiti went to the service, and while he was praying up front, their son leaned over to Kristie and asked why dad was there since he was not feeling well. She told her son to ask him, which he did when his father sat down. Without missing a beat, Thabiti’s answer was, “Because he [Jesus] is worth it.” When we decide to attend church over other things, we are saying Jesus isn’t worth it, and when we consistently choose other things over Jesus’ church, his bride, that he died and gave his life for (Eph. 5:25), we are saying something else is more worth our time, attention, and effort.
- Does participating in this sport hinder our mission as a family?
One justification for participating in sports is that it is a mission opportunity for families which can create a great mission focus. . we should be participating in local sports so that we can engage with families from our communities. However, what does that mission look like? If you were to connect with a family and eventually get to the point where you want to invite them to church, why would they decide to attend when your own family misses for the same games? If they do choose to attend, chances are they will visit when they know you will be there, but if you are consistently missing for other things, then their opportunity also diminishes. The question of mission then becomes, “What would have a more significant impact, missing church for a game or showing others that the value of the church and following Jesus is more important than a game?”
- Are sports the only place for our children to learn the importance of teamwork?
Learning to work as a team is a considerable value of participating in sports. There are some incredible lessons to be learned when a team is all working toward a common goal. The Bible is very clear that the church’s mission is the highest goal to strive for and doing that together as a “team” is of utmost value. We participate in the Great Commission of making disciples by telling them about Jesus and seeing them come to Jesus, getting them plugged into a church, and helping them grow as disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).
Parents, this is where we must step in to make decisions for our family and not allow our children’s feelings or passions decide for us what we should do. We are hopefully members or at least active attendees of a local church. We have made a commitment, and this commitment must come first, and all others are secondary which includes what our kids want to do.
One of the critical roles we have as parents is living as disciples of Jesus Christ in front of our children, and if we are indeed following Jesus, then that cost of discipleship should be evident to our children. There is a cost associated with following Jesus. In fact, Jesus said in Mark 8:34, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Please make sure that in your decisions regarding sports that you let your kids know why these decisions are being made, and show them that Jesus is better because while sports are good, they cannot save.