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Sick and Tired of Competing With Sports

Greg Baird

"Strike one!" the umpire bellowed as Eric, a 10-year-old Little Leaguer, swung and missed.
"Strike two!" after he swung once again.
"Strike three-you're out!" the ump yelled as Eric turned, head down, to walk back to the dugout.

At the same time down the road, Pastor Brad's frustration mounted. As he walked from room to room doing his weekly check-in with each class, he couldn't ignore the obvious truth: Kids from every class were missing...


"Down again!" he muttered. He paused between rooms to stare out the window at the green field with a game going in the distance. Inside he seethed, wondering, "What in the world are those parents thinking? Why can't they understand that church is infinitely more important than some stupid baseball game? And why do all the sports leagues in town schedule their games on Sunday mornings these days? Why can't they leave that time for us?"

And so it goes. Sunday after Sunday, children's ministry leaders everywhere bemoan how sports have taken over the weekend-the entire weekend. After all the practices, games, tournaments, and other activities related to sports, there seems to be little time left over for church. And typically mild-mannered kidmin leaders admit they feel frustrated, disappointed-even soured-by the situation.

But should they? Is kids' involvement in outside activities really an enemy of the church? of children's ministry? of spiritual formation?

I'm not sure the same answer to those questions applies to every child. But I do know this: A child's involvement in sports doesn't have to be a hindrance to his or her spiritual growth and, in fact, can greatly enhance it.

But rather than embracing sports functions as opportunities to engage with and invest in children and families for spiritual formation, we tend to strike out by taking offense to families participating in youth sports. Here's the play-by-play.


STRIKE 1: Negative Attitudes Toward Sports Participation

Whether your feelings are public or private, a negative attitude will only impede your leadership when it comes to dealing with this particular challenge. And the reality is, a negative attitude also exhibits your inward focus-one that clearly communicates that you believe what you and your church do is more important than what the family chooses to do. This attitude can be disrespectful and divisive.


STRIKE 2: Lack of Awareness of the Community
When kidmin leaders schedule programs that conflict with community events or when we over-program in general, we do a great disservice to our families and put them in a difficult predicament. We also risk alienating the very community we want to reach.

Keith Tusing, a children's pastor at Gulf to Lake Church in Crystal River, Florida, and creator of CMBuzz.com, said this in a recent blog post: "When missionaries go into a foreign country, one of the things they invest a great deal of time in is discovering how the community functions. Why would we attempt to reach our community without the same mindset?"

Good question.

Now does that mean we cancel children's ministry across the board? Of course not. But perhaps we can feel challenged to get creative as to when we offer our programs. Perhaps we can provide more than one or two options for families. Perhaps we always check the community calendar before we schedule the next big event.


STRIKE 3: Refusal to See Value in Children's Outside Activities
It's ridiculous to think that kids won't want to participate in activities other than ours-or that they can't benefit equally from that participation. It's arrogant for us to believe that spiritual formation happens only within the walls of our church, and negligent to not embrace opportunities for spiritual growth beyond the walls of our church.

As Eric's dad drives him home from the Little League game, he takes the opportunity to talk to his son about failure: It's not only an important lesson in baseball (in which great hitters fail seven out of 10 times), but in life, too. Dad talks about how to deal with failure from God's perspective, and the experience ends up being a great life lesson for Eric.

Meanwhile, Pastor Brad is still fuming after church, talking with a group of parents about how much it irritates him when sports win out over church. The parents don't mention the soccer tournament their daughter is playing in the next weekend. Instead, seeing how upset he is, they offer reserved smiles and nod in agreement.


As ministry leaders, we don't want to strike out with anyone-not kids, not parents, and not the community. Our goal is to hit a home run with each group. But how? This situation won't go away. So how do we adapt and offer programs at church but engage with those who choose sports over church?

Every church has different demographics and different challenges. Creativity within your own church environment will be essential to stepping up to this challenge. Here are a few ideas to help you step up to the plate and smash a homerun.


HOME RUN 1: Change Your Perspective
We often view the church as The Place where spiritual formation occurs. While it should be a primary place of spiritual influence, it's not the only place it happens. Deuteronomy 6:7-9 suggests spiritual formation happens all over the place-on the road and at home. Interestingly, church isn't even mentioned in that passage.

What we do in church is important, but it's not the only important avenue where spiritual formation happens. Being out and about in the community presents tremendous opportunities for kids to engage in the spiritual formation process. Rather than seeing this challenge in a negative light, view it as a positive. Kids are getting real-life, real-time exposure to experiences that can help them grow in their faith.


HOME RUN 2: Partner With Parents Concerning Sports
Our top goal shouldn't be church attendance numbers. Our top goal must be spiritual growth-whether kids are in the church building or on the sports field. What if our positive perspective led to a genuine partnership with parents? What if, when families choose sports, we equip them to be ambassadors for Jesus in that environment?

Dave Truitt, a children's pastor at Mechanicsburg Brethren in Christ Church, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, puts it this way: "What if we took the church to the people? What if we saw the people who go to sports instead of our programs as missionaries instead of 'skippers'? What if we talked to them about their decision and acknowledged their struggle…and asked them to be missionaries on those days they miss? Then they'd miss with purpose. I'm not saying that we eliminate the gathering of believers for teaching, equipping, prayer, worship, and more. But can we acknowledge the decisions that families make and help equip them?"

I think equipping parents means two things in this area.

1. Help parents make good decisions about their child's involvement in sports. One of the reasons families choose sports over church, according to Sam Luce, a children's pastor at Redeemer Church, Utica, New York, is because of the "perceived benefit" kids gain from sports involvement. In Luce's experience, parents see the value in sports to be relationships (community) that the entire family experiences, as well as the specific skill kids gain through participation (being a better baseball player, for example). Do these same parents understand the very real benefits of being in church? Are they experiencing valued relationships? Have you invested the time to cast vision for what's really happening in children's ministry-the real benefits and eternal impact of their child being there?

As parents understand what's really taking place when their kids are in church, they can effectively compare "apples to apples" and make a better decision about whether their child is in church or on the playing field. And at times, even with an adequate understanding of church, they'll still choose sports. When this is the case, here's your next play.

2. Help families serve as ambassadors for Jesus in the community. The ball field offers an almost unprecedented opportunity to engage your community outside of church. Sports provide natural connectors, easy conversation starters, and instant bonding agents. Why not help parents (and kids!) take advantage of this opportunity to make an impact for Jesus?

Craig Wilson, a children's pastor at Lifebridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado, says "the challenge would be to get the 'sports crazed' families to begin to think of that particular community as a mission field, building relationships and engaging these other families. To say, 'Hey, we realize [sports] is a value for your family, but would you consider being intentional about your time with these people [in the community]? How can you steer the conversations to deeper things? How can we help you do that?'"


HOME RUN 3: Make Children's Ministry the Best of Families' Week

Okay, let's get real for a second: As children's ministry leaders, we want kids in our ministries, right? We want parents engaged in the spiritual formation process that we're trying to offer at church. I get it, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I'd be a little worried if this wasn't the case.

But our approach is often one of entitlement, something along the lines of: "They ought to be here just because it's church." Maybe that's how it was decades ago, but that's not the case today. Rather, our approach has to be: "We're going to make this a place that families absolutely want to be part of."
Ask yourself:

• When children walk into our ministry, do they feel the same excitement as when they're walking onto the playing field?
• Do children experience the same positive relationships in our ministry as they do with their team?
• Do children and parents understand the purpose of church as clearly as they understand the purpose of the sport they play?
• Do parents feel as comfortable in our environment as they do in their child's sports environment?
• Are parents as equipped to "practice" spiritual formation in meaningful ways at home as they are to help their child "practice" their chosen sport?


If you answered "no" to any of these questions, then ask yourself one more: What do I need to do to get closer to a "yes"?

Eric showed up at church the following week with a couple of his teammates, much to Pastor Brad's delight. Ironically, the lesson Pastor Brad was teaching in children's worship was about how Peter failed Jesus by denying him three times. On hearing this, the boy blurted out, "That's okay, because God never gives up on us no matter how many times we swing and miss. That's what my dad told me when I struck out at my game last week!" Pastor Brad could only smile as he realized that maybe church isn't the only place where kids can learn about God. cm

Greg Baird is a 20-year veteran of children's ministry. He now equips and connects kidmin leaders through KidMin360 and KidMinJobs (KidMin360.com).


CONNECT THROUGH SPORTS
Use these ideas to engage your community through sports.

Become a coach. What if the local community Little League could count on local children's pastors to be coaches? I did, and I was soon asked to lead the prayer at the season opening ceremonies, giving me instant rapport with kids, parents, other coaches, and league organizers.

Serve on a league-organizing committee.
It's not necessarily a case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em"-but what better way to gain influence than to serve alongside the very people you "compete" with on Sunday morning?

Start a sports program in your church.
Whether it's a full league, a weekly program, or a summer sports camp, bringing sports to church is often a great way to engage the community and communicate that you recognize their value in kids' lives. Here are a few ministries that can help you: Upward Sports (upward.org), High Power Soccer (kidzmatter.com), and MEGA Sports Camp (megasportscamp.com).

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