There is no doubt that our culture is sports-hungry. The money spent and made in the professional and college sports world is astounding. It was only a couple of generations that long ago that professional sports leagues were relegated to the northeast in the US and team travel was by bus. Of course, now our professional leagues are international and the number of teams and players continue to grow.
New leagues develop. Creative logos and team names are popping up, all while the attempt to remove and relegate to history the now understood offensive team names and logos. My prediction is that no teams in the future will be named after a group of human beings for fear of being politically incorrect and insensitive. As PETA and other "animal rights" groups influence the culture, we may see a decline of animal logos and mascots as well. You know what this means? It means that all future team names will be named after concepts and things that make little sense. You know, like Magic, Heat, Dynamo, Fire, and Ice. However, given time, someone will find offense in these names as well.
But I digress...
The growth of team sports on a professional and collegiate level is clear, but the added impact for those in high school and younger is immense.
In a recent pastoral leadership gathering, the question of ministering to and with those families whose lives shift each year based on their children's AAU and travel ball schedule is no longer something relegated to just a few families in the community.
Since there are now weekend tournaments and travel games for sports that in the past weren't even considered sports, such as competitive dance, cheerleading, and even jump rope (thanks Kendrick brothers,) more and more families are traveling to exotic locales such as Lake City, Ormond Beach, and Gainesville over the weekends for the competitions.
The dilemma for the church and families has been clear for years. As a pastor and parent who years ago made the AAU basketball travel circuit, I not only understand, but lived through the challenges. I'm not sure I always responded correctly, but nevertheless, I do not speak as one in the ivory tower proclaiming that every family should put away the athletic gear.
Forsaking the gathering together as God's church is not up for debate either. God settled that need already.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV
While the argument that "We will just do a devotion in the hotel on Sunday morning as a family" may suffice for some, it it truly not the same as the gathering as the local body of believers. Sure, we're not giving out "Perfect Attendance" pins any longer, but there is value in prioritizing the gathering as a church family. There will be exceptions, certainly, but it seems that for many, and not just travel ball families, the exceptions become the norm.
This conflict between church and family time as it relates to youth sports has been addressed by others over the years. Here are a few articles. I don't necessarily agree with every point presented, but this is a good indicator of the tension and desire for resolution among churches and Christian families.
- 5 Tips for Parenting Travel Ball Players by Jeff Land
- The Sunday Sports Dilemma by Megan Hill
- Balancing Youth Sports and Church by Mark Moore
- Why Christians Should Play Sports on Sundays by Jordan Sok
- Florida Baptists Find Different Ways to Tackle Sports Ministries by Nicole Kalil
- On Sports and the Christian Life: An Interview with David Prince by Jeff Robinson
The discussions regarding the redemption of travel ball and summer leagues with the church continue. I personally am not opposed to the leagues, but do see the church as needing a strategic plan for engaging those who participate.
Quality Sports Ministry
Numerous churches and parachurch organizations have sought to engage the sub-culture of athletes with the Gospel with varying degrees of success. A group meeting at a high school for athletes may work well, but it is dependent on the leader, the openness of the school, and the commitment level of local churches and students.
There are some really good sports ministries around. That being said, there are some pretty bad ones as well.
A former church member who now lives in another state, Coach Brian Ferguson and his wife Mary Beth have formed a good and focused sports ministry - Building Powerful Athletes. It is focused on reaching and engaging young athletes with the Gospel. Coach Ferguson has coached football at various levels from prep to professional and has seen first-hand how Christianity and sports need not be mutually exclusive.
In one conversation with him as we were planning opportunities for future camps and clinics, he expressed how many of the clinics made available are less than effective. I have heard this from many others as well.
It seems when churches seek to enter the arena of sports, a weak version of sports training is often paired with a watered-down version of the Gospel leaving attendees with little more than a T-shirt, "coaching" tips from dads and older teenagers in the church, with the "celebrity" athlete arriving just to give a 15 minute pep talk garnished with just enough Jesus to make it a "Christian" event (yeah, the quotes are intentional.)
This is basically Sports Light with a dose of Diet Gospel.
David Prince, pastor, professor, theologian, author, and sports fan, has written an excellent book titled In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship. I highly recommend it for parents, pastors, coaches, and all believers who love sports, or just want insight into how God uses such for his glory.
Connecting To Athletes
If the young athlete is immersed in the game, he/she becomes part of a sub-culture. There is a language that develops and customs too. To seek to engage an unreached people group, missionaries pray and train and study to best determine how to enter the world of those being sought. Far too many Christians who love sports have ignored how God utilizes such things for his glory.
Last weekend, our church's sports ministry hosted former University of Tennessee Lady Vol and WNBA player, Sidney Spencer Marlborough for a one-day basketball clinic. The purpose was to engage those young ladies in our community who play basketball at their junior high or high school. We learned that hosting a clinic the week after AAU ends is not the best timing, but we did have a group of twelve attend. These girls came from various schools in our county and Sidney's history and expertise in basketball allowed her to speak the language with authority that these young ladies understood. Her husband Bryan, owner of Complete Strength Gym near Kansas City, shared details on exercise and strength training as well. These two were our resident experts who spoke with clarity and authority.
Yet, it was during lunch when the girls could ask questions and Sidney and Bryan had the opportunity to share more about their lives where the message of the Gospel became very clear. Sidney clarified that sports does not define us. Both she and Bryan affirmed that Christianity and athletics are not mutually exclusive.
Following lunch, another three hours of basketball ensued.
It was a full day, but at the end, there was solid, quality basketball instruction. There was clear Gospel presentation. And, there were relationships birthed and young ladies in our community discovered a church that loves God enough to love them, even without knowing them first. May this be a catalyst for more quality sports ministry engagement opportunities.