By David Briggs
Talk to pastors about youth sports, and few will not have stories lamenting how some children and their parents in their congregations are missing on Sundays due to a child's softball tournament or softball game.
The 2008 Faith Communities Today survey found school- and sports-related activities, more than driving distance or work-schedule conflicts or other potential obstacles, were the biggest challenge to regular participation in church. More than a third of congregations said it was somewhat or quite a bit of an issue.
In an in-depth study of 16 Protestant congregations, more than half of the pastors interviewed said competition with sports was one of the main reasons fewer people were attending their churches. In focus groups with members, many also identified children's sports activities on Sundays as the main reason more people are missing, researcher Stephen McMullin reported in the current issue of the Review of Religious Research.
The challenge for congregations is how to respond. And it is not an easy one. Say or do nothing about parents who choose youth sports over church and the losses will continue. Draw a line in the sand demanding parents choose one or the other, and many young families will walk away.
One way many congregations have responded is to offer additional services. This gives people with busy schedules, including parents ferrying kids to sporting events, more options to attend.
More than one in five congregations in the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey reported starting a new worship service in the past five years.
Many congregations also offer their own sports programs.
Twenty-two percent of congregations in the 2008-2009 survey said they offered sporting activities or teams. In addition, more than half offered other social, recreational, or leisure activities.
This combination may beneficial. In the 2010 Faith Communities Today survey, more than two-thirds of congregations who said sports and fitness programs were a specialty of the congregation reported more than a 10 percent growth in attendance from 2000 to 2010. In contrast, only a third of churches with no athletic programs reported such growth.
“Any time you can include programs that are of interest to people in the community, that is an advantage,” said Cynthia Woolever, research manager of the congregational life survey.
But much more can be done by the church to be a light to its own members and the community, say some scholars and observers.
"The church hasn't thought deeply about this," said John White, director of the Sports Chaplaincy/Ministry Program at Baylor University. "We simply said, 'World, we'll capitulate in how you do sports."
He advocates developing a theology of sports that emphasizes the positive values of athletics, while also criticizing its negative aspects, including unbalanced family lifestyles.
Religious education about athletics should begin at an early age before kids and their parents make decisions about travel teams and other ways they will be challenged to balance sport and faith in their lives, White said. The church can also partner with other community group that share similar concerns about the excesses of some aspects of youth sports.
In his study of declining congregations, McMullin also visited two rapidly growing churches for comparison purposes. The pastor of one rural Canadian Church with an average Sunday attendance of 600 is a hockey coach in the community, and encourages people in the congregation to be active in sports organizations.
“So it’s not like we’re going to win against the culture; it’s a reality. So we try to partner with people and help them understand that,” the pastor said.
At the same time, the pastor said he will “challenge our people that when sports and God collide in terms of church, when sports and God collide every Sunday, if sports wins every time you have sent a message to your kids that could damage them spiritually forever. And that you better have God win sometimes. I try to make that balance.”
In deciding how to face an increasingly pervasive culture of sport, the best advice for congregations may be simply to not sit on the sidelines.