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Jun. 2 2010 - 12:43 am | 173 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Is youth sports your God?

Wyman Richardson, a Baptist minister in Georgia, is asking some questions of his fellow Christians so they themselves can discover what they value more: their faith or sports.

The objection doesn’t seem to be against sports, per se. Richardson prefaced his questions with this statement: “Athletics are good, build character, and help children grow. If our kids commit to a team, they should be taught to stand by their commitments. I played sports in school (albeit, poorly!), and am glad I did. My daughter plays, and I’m glad she does.”

However, Richardson and the late Pope, my old Catholic priest and my current United Church of Christ pastor have the same concern, as spelled out by the Georgia Baptist: “[M]y point is simply that there is now an observable, verifiable shift in priorities among Christian parents that is overall damaging to our kids, to the body of Christ, to our corporate and individual witnesses, and to our and our children’s spiritual development.”

As you might have guessed by the foreshadowing in the previous paragraph, Richardson is hardly the first Sunday-oriented religious leader to notice that the pews got a little emptier whenever youth sports kicked into higher gear. Of course, Christianity for years had the advantage, unlike other faiths, of blue laws to mandate there was nothing to do on Sunday but go to worship, so until recently it hasn’t had to deal with the competition.

Pope John Paul II, so much of an athlete that he’s under consideration to be the Catholics’ patron saint of sports, in 2004 felt the need to remind his flock that Sunday was God’s day, not just another day for sports and entertainment (youth and otherwise). Inspired by that message, the priest at the Catholic church affiliated with my basketball league stopped us from having games on Sunday, even though attendance by men, oh, quadrupled because they would show up with their hoopin’ shoes for a little pregame Mass, when otherwise they would have not shown.

My own church’s pastor has led movements to keep Sunday event-free, and she isn’t Baptist or Catholic or Dutch Reformed (the faith of one of my 10-year-old daughter’s softball teammates, who never plays on Sunday). She’s with the United Church of Christ, where they’ve let gays be pastors since 1972.

Of course, Christianity for years had the advantage, unlike other faiths, of blue laws to mandate there was nothing to do on Sunday but go to worship, so until recently it hasn’t had to deal with the competition.

The demands of travel sports, the fear that missing a practice could mean the end of the college scholarship dream, or the simple joys your child has in playing a sport — Richardson gets that. “My point is not that your child should always choose a church event over an athletic event.” What he’s wondering is, hey, parents, are YOU getting so much of a rush out of your child’s sports that you are unwittingly sending the message to your child that sports is the most important thing, that the sports tail SHOULD be wagging the family dog? The questions Richardson asks demand soul-searching for your answers, no matter whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i or Richard Dawkins.

Among Richardson’s questions:

What percentage of your child’s ballgames do you attend?  What percentage of church services do you attend with your child?  Which is higher?  Why? …

For what reasons would you allow your child to miss practice?  For what reasons would you allow your child to miss church?  When you compare those reasons, how are they alike or different? …

How excited are you about seeing your child excel in athletics?  How excited are you about seeing your child excel in Christlikeness?…

Which is a more exciting thought to you:  your child receiving an MVP award for his team or your child leading a friend to faith in Christ?

How excited do you get about the big game?  How excited do you get about corporate worship?

If your child routinely asked to stay home from practice, would you speak with him/her about “commitment”?  If your child routinely asked to stay home from church, would you speak with him/her about “commitment”?

There is an easy answer to a lot of these questions: if you miss church, there’s always next week for the rest of your life. If your child misses sports, that narrows an already small window of opportunity. But is that really the right reason?

Richardson’s questions, even if you’re comparing, say, music with school rather than sports with church, do raise a little spiritual food for thought about how healthy it is for you and your family to tie your schedules to your child’s pursuits. Particularly if you have, even in the back of your mind, the thought that this is all going to lead to that magic scholarship or pro career, despite the overwhelming odds otherwise.

After all, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than your child to go pro.


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  1. collapse expand

    My ten year old grandson asked my daughter the other day “why can’t we go to family camp?” Meaning Christian Retreat, Our Golden Boy had just spent an evening with his Christian buddy “homework burning,” an end of the school year party they had made up. In our town it is very likely that our spiritually oriented family – but non-churchgoing – will be in the minority. His club soccer team is highly competitive, advancing from Bronze Division to Silver Elite in just two years. Many of the boys on his team are Christian, with the decals, t-shirts and “praise the lords” to go along with it. As great a kid as there ever was, my grandson’s parents had to ask that the team re-evaluate the pregame prayer – which they fairly did and quit it. This is 2010 and spiritual values can be wide and varied, not always including traditonal worship services. You make the choices for your kid, your kid should not be compelled by others to follow their ideologies. Bob, these religious discussions are hard! Tom Medlicott

    • collapse expand

      Yes, yes, Tom, they are. As you might have noticed, I’ve written disparagingly about nonreligious sports organizations where the organizers and/or coaches try to nudge a little bit o’ religion in there — OK, maybe a LOT of religion to a very captive audience.

      It’s interesting that pastors and church organizations are questioning the emphasis on sport, given — as Tom Farrey in “Game On” noted about the Muscular Christianity movement of the early 20th century — that religious organizations HAVE been heavily involved in sports. When my kids went to Catholic school, pretty much the only extracurricular activities were sports. However, when religious organizations control the league, they at least can set the schedule and ensure it doesn’t interfere with worship.

      In this discussion, I’m not coming down on one side or the other on religion v. sport. I just think the questions are interesting in general, whatever the conflict. They also can help unmask whether you or your kid is getting the bigger juice out of sports.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    We lived this conflict this weekend when my son played in his first ever baseball tournament and unexpectedly made it to the championship game which was scheduled for the exact same time as his first cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. We had told him and the coach previously that he wouldn’t be able to play on the last day of the tournament because of this, but when we had to tell our son he had to skip the championship game, it was painful for everyone. He was devastated and furious. In the end, we said we didn’t expect him to understand or agree at this point, but that this was an important day for his cousin and on an occasion like this, family has to trump baseball. For us it was more about family than religion and the fact that a Bar Mitzvah happens once in a lifetime and there will be many more baseball tournaments for him to participate in. It was a tough thing for us to see our son so upset but we felt we did the right thing. And he survived…although he did wear his dirty baseball team shirt under his dress shirt and tie!

    • collapse expand

      Great story, Karen. Hopefully the coach was understanding. It speaks better of you that you made the decision to pull your son, and he was upset, rather than your son was upset at the thought of playing, and you made him go.

      By the way, when my oldest son played baseball — in a heavily Catholic area — he once had a game canceled in second grade for “too many communions.”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Hi Everyone,
    FIrst of all, I respect everyones viewpoints as I desire not to be self-willed. I have a son who loves baseball and if it arrives on a Saturday or Sunday, the game is on, church or other circumstances other than health or a serious situation keeps him on the field. This may make me a sinner but I look at the facts of life which is to get to know God requires more than stepping into a church full of republicans and democrats for example. John 17 states for us to become one in the lords prayer. Acts 2 states the same thing. Problem today is that the sheep are scattered and the church has a big responsibility to work with this. The baseball field for my son demonstrates that the hand cannot be without the foot. It is a team sport and I am deligently seeking a place of prayer that will never end, lead all to repentance and then the outpouring. But it is not easy to do in these times when responsibilities exceed normal peoples ways of Life. I’m so busy, I am doing too many things but do realize one thing. If God can speak to everyone … and I know He does based on any part of the Bible, God maybe implying a sports enthusiast to excel in order to let the world know about a LIVING GOD.

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    About Me

    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

    Most importantly for this blog, Bob is a father of four who is in the throes of being a sports parent and youth coach in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. He reserves the right to change names to protect the innocent and the extremely, extremely guilty.

    You can follow me at facebook.com/rkcookjr and twitter.com/notgoingpro. I'm endlessly fascinating.

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    You can see what I’m up to by following me at facebook.com/rkcookjr and/or twitter.com/notgoingpro. You can also become an official fan of Your Kid’s Not Going Pro on Facebook. I’m endlessly fascinating.