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