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A Sporting Chance

Keith Johnson

John has played competitive basketball since second grade. He's missed his share of Sunday school since most weekend tournaments include Sunday morning games in their schedules. By the time he reached his preteen years, most of the kids thought John was a visitor when he did come to Sunday school.

Did John miss out on significant spiritual formation? Contrary to most thinking, John may not have missed out on spiritual growth -- even on the court. In fact, because of John's character and his regular attendance during Wednesday night clubs he was immediately recognized by the youth pastor as leadership potential when John graduated to the youth group.

Most children's ministers would lament the fact that John wasn't in church every Sunday morning! They're keenly aware that sports programs are jockeying for children's attentions and families' loyalties. Practices, games, tournaments, and fund-raisers have a propensity to distract children from growing in their relationship with God, most children's ministers figure.

Should sports programs be seen as a danger to the aim of spiritual formation in our children at church? Should they be seen as a secular interruption, a low priority, or even a dangerous intrusion into the Christian life? Can a children's ministry compel children and their families to commit to Sunday school and at the same time cater to or accommodate the intense schedules that participation in sports demands? So far, churches have had one of three responses to the sports phenomenon in kid culture: frustration, accommodation, and outreach.

Frustrated Churches

Some churches have become frustrated at the lack of commitment in their Sunday school or other Christian education activities that form the backbone of spiritual formation. And many blame sports programs primarily.

Churches that are frustrated at the decline in attendance in their Christian education programs have simply closed their midweek programs early. Midwest or northern climates benefit from a late start in soccer and baseball, yet church programs have to close shop at the beginning of April. Southern churches are in a constant state of flux with a longer playing season, greater variety of sporting programs, and more outdoor opportunities. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which 10 years ago tracked participation trends in 60 sports, now tracks 103, including new extreme sports such as wakeboarding.

Frustrated churches hang attendance charts on the walls of their classrooms that graphically illustrate (and unintentionally castigate) nonattending sports enthusiasts, custody kids, or Sunday school slackers -- making no distinction between the three. Some frustrated churches are in denial about why children are increasingly unlikely to attend church versus sporting events. One large church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has made a feeble attempt at accommodation by building a basketball court in their church that lacks regulation floor dimensions or basket height standards. This oversight may make the shuffleboard crowd proud, but it communicates a huge ignorance at best or a subtle insult at worst to those who find the rules of sports to be important. Frustrated churches may describe themselves as against competition, against rowdy parents, or against anything that threatens the priority of things spiritual over sports.

Accommodating Churches

Other churches have accommodated the reality of children in sports by starting their own church leagues, complete with Christian uniforms and regulation-sized courts. Churches from North Phoenix Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, to Grace Church in Edina, Minnesota, have included space variously known as Family Life Buildings or Community Life Centers that look more like posh athletic clubs than the traditional education buildings. I recently stayed overnight in the Prophet's Room at Gardendale's First Baptist Church in Gardendale, Alabama, and I could walk outside my room to run on the elevated jogging track overlooking several basketball and volleyball courts. Churches all over America are adopting multiuse sports-friendly facilities that seem to quite capably cater to our ever increasing sports-minded culture.

There are many churches in America today that've taken on the competition and feel they've won the Sunday school versus children's sports game. They're not just megachurches with big budgets that are competitive by nature and have the suburban space to taunt their frustrated neighbors. They simply have recognized that competition is healthy; sports are part of American life and for many subcultures, sports is actually a way to stay out of trouble and focus on appropriate social maturity.

Accommodating churches fall within one of two categories, and often skirt them both. Either they've said sports are a high priority for the families in their church so they'll celebrate that, or they say they can't compete so they'll adjust their schedules. They don't say that Christian education is second to sports; quite the contrary. They find that even in Scripture, sports was neither denigrated nor ignored. Paul says that physical exercise is good for some things, but spiritual exercise is good for the soul -- neither implying one against the other, just each appropriate for its own goals. Paul is constantly comparing the Christian life to a race or a walk.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, "Of the 60 students listed in the May 14, 1998, USA Today's All-USA High School Academic First, Second, and Third Teams and the 51 who earned honorable mention, 75 percent were involved in sports, speech, music, or debate." A fully formed mind, body, and social and spiritual life was even attested to Jesus as he was growing up -- Jesus increased in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and man.

One church in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area has made its summer programs revolve around gaining an understanding of the fundamentals of certain sports programs. Churches such as this one have recognized that balance doesn't mean they're immune to the dangers of sports programs. In sports there are games won and games lost, but there are always winners with these accommodating churches. Losing well can be a significant lesson in spiritual formation (as can winning with grace and decorum). These natural life lessons are often overlooked by frustrated churches that see sports through a good/bad prism.

Sports Outreach Churches

Still other churches have rejected a "church-league" approach and have simply opened their facility to be used by their cities' Parks and Recreation Departments as an alternative site that saves the city money, involves church kids in the community activities, and exposes children in the community to the inside walls of a church they don't attend. This third type of church is increasingly adopting a community-friendly, outreach-oriented approach. These churches wouldn't consider a "church league" any more than they'd conduct Christian cooking classes or only shop in the Christian Yellow Pages.

One church in Dayton, Ohio, has a unique outreach mindset when it comes to children and sports. They have ample space at their church and have set aside three baseball fields for the community Parks and Recreation Department to use when scheduling children, youth, and adult leagues. You can imagine the effect, week in and week out, on a family that doesn't attend church. When the invitation comes to attend a church, where do you suppose these parents would more than likely want to attend? Of course, they'd feel comfortable at the church they've been regularly attending each Saturday with their athlete children.

Sports can provide a metaphor for excellence in our children's ministry and infuse our programming with creative outreach opportunities. My kids recently found my fourth-grade report card, which is itself a humbling discovery. In it, my teacher, Miss Nellie Van Horne, gave me great grades. But what my children found amusing were her notes in the "other" section of the report card. There, in her perfect schoolteacher cursive, she wrote, "Keith is a sore loser on the playground." All the lessons learned in Sunday school that year didn't prepare me for the lifelong lesson of accepting loss gracefully -- even at foursquare! cm

Keith Johnson is national field services manager for Group Publishing and the author of Teacher Training on the Go (Group Publishing, Inc.).


Ministry As Coaching

The concept of a coach is more akin to our ultimate aim in ministering to children! A coach's attitude is paramount to the successful progress of team and individual accomplishment. So, too, children's ministers are judged by their attitude and sensitive display of content mastery balanced with the students' capabilities.

A coach stands on the sidelines and creates a context where play is fair and rules are enforced. Likewise, a children's minister who's learner-centered understands that the teacher isn't the focus of the classroom aims; the student is. The teacher adapts methods to meet the needs of the children. Likewise, coaches are only capable if they can deftly handle the unique qualities of a player-in-training.

The coach may not have been the best player; indeed, he or she isn't looked upon to play well, but to get the team or players to achieve their best. Likewise, a teacher may not have been the best student, but it's his or her job to motivate and compel students to attain their best. I always find it interesting that Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest golf player on the planet, has hired a coach. If someone exists who can coach even a Tiger Woods, why is this person not on the PGA tour making millions? Because it takes a whole different set of skills to help others achieve than it does to individually succeed. It takes humility, patience, an eye for excellence, and a diligence to tirelessly encourage even the most cantankerous child to succeed.

Pray Then Play

"I believe the single remaining common interest or entrance point for nonchurched people into the life of the church is children," said Bill Hybels, one of the leading pastors in America and the author of Courageous Leadership (Zondervan), in an interview in Children's Ministry Magazine.

Children's pastor Keith Helsel and senior pastor Eddie Gandy couldn't agree more. At the First Baptist Church of High Springs in Florida, Helsel first approached Gandy with an innovative idea.

"Keith walked into my office and said, 'Pastor, why can't we have a league here where all the kids can play?' One of the things we had in mind is bringing a community together as families."

Helsel had coached kids on and off the gridiron, and with Gandy's approval, he's now developed a dynamic new program called Pray Then Play Sports through his church.

"This league is growing and it's getting ready to just take off. The interest that we have in the league is incredible," Helsel says.

Pray Then Play Sports welcomes all boys and girls. Dads and moms can coach or referee. In its second year, the Pray Then Play flag football league grew from 80 to 110 players, with eight teams. Kids in kindergarten through fourth grade made up League A, and League B's roster included kids in the fifth grade up through age 17.

"We had been losing kids to city sports every Wednesday night and Sunday morning. We went with this: We practice just two nights a week and never past 7:30 p.m. We have our games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings," Helsel says.

Through their involvement in the league, kids learn character development. Pray Then Play coaches John Marshall and Victor Young say their team came from behind and beat incredible odds to win the championship game at the very last second -- 7-6.

"These kids came back from a record of zero wins and four losses, and they went the rest of the season without losing a game. They just stuck together and played hard," Young says.

Several local churches have signed up to join the league for district play next spring. And a Pray Then Play basketball league is also underway.

"Churches have this mind-set that everything costs money. It doesn't have to be like that if you are doing things people want done. Pray Then Play Sports costs the church nothing," Helsel says.

Whether it's flag football or basketball, a $35 registration fee provides a Pray Then Play jersey and a trophy for each child. Funds raised from concessions and sports photos also cover the cost of equipment and an end-of-the-season banquet.

"The whole point is that there are so many people in our community who are unchurched, and this is an outreach for them," says Young. "For the first time ever, Keith got permission from the school board to go in and pass out fliers for this program."

Parents say they like the local, church-based league because it's a lot of fun and there's no extensive travel. "Unlike city leagues, we will never have an all-star team. The big thing about Pray Then Play Sports is every child has a starting position and every child plays," Helsel says.

Teresa Ring is a big fan. Her twin girls, Emily and Lily, played, and her son, David, was a "rusher" for the winning team.

"They really push team effort," Ring says. "And they relate the teams to this: Everyone has a spot on the football team, just as everyone's got a spot on God's team."

--Patricia Carr


Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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