Church vs. children’s sports

There was a time (I’m sounding old) when community activities were never planned on Sunday mornings.  There was never such a thing as a soccer or little league practice scheduled for the time when most families were in church.  That has changed.  Now children’s sporting events are routinely scheduled on Sunday mornings.  In fact, new research suggests that children’s sports contributes significantly to the decline in church attendance.

My question:  Why would Christian parents let their kids be in sports when that keeps them from going to church?

From Christianity Today (for the links to the research, go to the site):

Sunday used to be a day reserved by many Christians for attending worship services, but new research indicates the extent to which American churches today are competing against myriad other activities.

The biggest competition? Children’s sports.

According to a new study published in the Review of Religious Research, an examination of declining attendance at 16 congregations revealed that many pastors place the most blame on children’s sports activities, since both practices and competitions are increasingly “scheduled on Sunday mornings at the very time when many churches traditionally have provided religious education.”

But that doesn’t mean that families whose kids are highly involved in athletics will stop attending church (though that does seem to be the case among churches that stigmatize parents who miss church for sports, as the Association of Religion Data Archives’s David Briggs points out).

via Christianity Today Gleanings: The Main Reason for Declining Church Attendance: Children’s Sports?.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    Chariots of Fire

  • http://theoldadam.com/ the Old Adam

    There are a lot of competing words out there.

    A lot of them.

  • mikeb

    Why do Christian families yield to Sunday morning sports?

    Because they don’t fully recognize what Sunday means. They know ‘remember the Sabath’ and lots of fundagelical or Roman legalism that says ‘if you don’t go to church/mass’ and so they see Sunday as something they do. We do call it worship, don’t we, and a big God who loves all certainly won’t mind if we miss this one time. Or the next.

    If they saw Sunday morning as Gospel not Law–I get too not I have to–and recognize its not about us or what we bring to the equation but instead it was about receiving God’s grace and Word of forgiveness again and again and again it would be a higher priority. Church, for the sinner, is like a doctor visit for the sick. Restore that practice and you don’t have about Sunday morning soccer.

  • Booklover

    My husband and I raised four sons and it was a huge issue for us. I made the boys stay home and attend church while the traveling teams competed all over the place, even out of state, almost every week-end, it seemed. This hurt the athletic chances of some of our sons. Honestly, to make it athletically in some of these big schools, one has to be a member of a traveling team, and play during the off-season. I don’t think a couple of my sons have forgiven me for this. I didn’t feel I was being legalistic about this–we did miss a few services. I remember missing Easter services for an American Legion baseball tournament. :-( But we didn’t miss consistently, and many families do.

    Some churches are big enough that they don’t miss every family who is gone on a Sunday morning due to sports. Many churches offer both Saturday night church and Sunday morning church, so a family can choose. But that wasn’t our story.

  • http://twitter.com/jonalanschmidt aletheist

    Both of my children have played youth soccer, and I established a policy from the very beginning that they would not be available for games on Sundays before noon. None of their coaches ever had an issue with it, and neither did my kids. When I coached them myself for a few seasons, I informed the league that my teams would not be available for games on Sundays before noon. They always accommodated this when putting together the schedule. It is really just a matter of parents assertively taking a stand; most people will respect it and help them make it work.

  • sg

    Where I live, nothing is ever scheduled Sunday morning. My son has gone to some out of town tournaments that had stuff on Sunday, but usually not so early that they couldn’t go to church somewhere in the area. So, if the first game/session starts at 10:00 am Sunday, there is time to go to early service nearby before the tournament resumed.

  • sg

    Oh, one other thing. There is an LCMS church here that has Tues. 7:00 am communion service. So, when my son says he wants to go to something on a weekend including Sunday morning, I like to remind him that I can drop him off there for the service before taking his brother to school. So far, he has decided against such activities.

  • sg

    Okay, another thing. What about chapel services at school? Most schools have weekly, but others have daily or bi-weekly. If the child is going to these services, then doesn’t that sort of count?

  • http://www.intrepidlutherans.com Douglas Lindee

    I remember a time when businesses were closed on Sunday, too. They’re not anymore. And the people who run them aren’t in church on Sunday morning, either.

    Right or wrong, regardless of the reasons used to justify it, Sunday morning activities (whether work or play) instead of church, is a cultural reality of our generation. When Christians are taught by the Church in America – including many “confessional” Lutheran churches – that everything about Church practice is so-called “adiaphora,” and that in order remain relevant to contemporary culture Christians and the Church must follow the leadership of secular culture, why isn’t it expected that, in following that leadership, Christians discover they have more important things to do and are perfectly free to justify doing them? And what’s wrong with that? There’s no Ceremonial Law in the New Testament that says Christians are required to be in a church building on Sunday, or any other day of the week – such practice just a cultural artifact of a bygone era. Further, when Lutheran laymen are taught that “everyone is a Minister” regardless of whether they have a Divine Call, and consistent with this teaching, are granted license to write new liturgies for their congregations, to mount their church pulpits and preach the Sunday sermon, and to regularly teach adult Bible class (instead of the Pastor), who’s to say that, when the poor Lutheran layman gets a butchered rendition of Matins and a poorly executed puppet show on Easter Sunday, he’s wrong in thinking, “Gee, I can do a better job following the Matins Service, or some other informal agenda, and preaching for my own family and close friends in my own home. Who needs this stuff?”

    The combination of this “adiaphora” run amok, and of asserting contemporary culture’s authority and leadership over the practice of the Church, has, over time, done nothing other than grant laymen “Christian freedom” to do something other than church. What else could one possibly expect? And what recourse have churches who teach and practice this stuff to keep laymen in the pews, so that they can afford to maintain their buildings? They certainly can’t use doctrine to compel practice, when they’ve been teaching all along that doctrine and practice are completely divorced, and that “all practice is adiaphora.”

    It just so happens that I received an email from a pastor-friend of mine only yesterday, that supplies an example of the recourse such churches may have. A pastor-friend of his, with long experience in the Ministry, had become somewhat enamoured with teaching materials designed to encourage greater participation in the congregation, and wanted the opinion of his brothers in the Ministry. Those materials are entitled, 12 Reasons To Be An Active Church Member. I offered my response, as follows: Replace the word “Church” with “Free Masons,” “Boy Scouts,” “4-H” or any other club, social group or organization, and the reasons apply in the same way. These materials have nothing whatsoever to do with “church” or “being an active Christian” at all, but are merely a sales pitch to organization members encouraging them to do more for the organization. Geez… when I worked for big corporations, we got the same stuff during our semi-annual “all-hands meetings” with the CEO and VP’s, and even during the monthly Director’s meetings – “Reasons to be an ‘active’ or ‘engaged’ employee, etc…” was always a prominent part of the agenda. It was infuriating. They wanted us workers to put in more hours and be more productive, but didn’t want to offer additional compensation for the effort, so they tried to sell the “social benefits” of being “plugged-in,” to leverage the intangible benefits of being a member of a group of people working together to accomplish something. This guy better watch out. If he has middle-class members, they’ll know exactly where this stuff comes from and what it is intended to accomplish (free labor), because they have it shoveled under their nose every day at work.

    Yes, following the leadership of contemporary culture, church membership and attendance means only only thing: organizational strength. And that’s the only recourse for today’s contemporary church.

    My Opinion.

  • Jon

    We’ve also made it a point to let teams know that our boys won’t participate in Sunday games before noon, tournaments included, on account of Sunday worship. So far, no issue. Our area AYSO is pretty consistent in keeping Sunday schedules to afternoon only.

    But, as a table leader for Confirmation class (we meet during Sunday School hour), I notice the wide difference in families’ priorities, and it’s not just because of sports. I always encourage them to make the Wednesday night vespers, and it happens occasionally.

  • #4 Kitty

    Sports provides greater benefits to children and parents know this. On the one hand you have children who are engaged in an activity which fosters essential life skills such as hard work, patience, persistence, goal setting, dealing with set backs, working together as a team, etc., etc., ….and on the other hand you have children in church, drinking blood and singing religious nursery rhymes. I think the decision is obvious.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Having kids sports competing with church attendance on Sundays does tend to sort the sheep from the goats, doesn’t it.

  • ChrisB

    “Why would Christian parents let their kids be in sports when that keeps them from going to church?”

    Because “fitting in” and a slightly better chance at the 1 in a million athletic scholarships are more important than teaching their kids to prioritize their lives around Christ.

  • Joe

    When I was a kid it was Sundays and Wednesdays that were set aside for Church and confirmation instruction. No games on either and Wednesday practices were not mandatory.

    We’ve let our kids know that church comes first, but we do allow exceptions for out of town tournaments. Thankfully, we have a sister congregation that has a Monday evening Divine Service.

  • Steve Bauer

    @11
    Makes perfect sense, if the parents are not Christians and so do not know what is given in Christian worship</strong).
    Doesw not make sense at all,
    if the parents are Christians and so do know what is given in Christian worship</strong).

  • Steve Bauer

    Whoops. Sorry for the goof.

  • Jon H.

    A frequent poster here who goes by “Carl Vehse” probably spent every Sunday of his life in an LCMS church, and you can see the consequences every time he contributes. Perhaps playing sports Sunday mornings might have helped.

  • DonS

    We were in our local Little League, with our four boys, from 1993 to 2010, and saw an incredible change in attitude toward church and keeping Sunday mornings free during that generational time period. In 1993, nothing was scheduled on Sundays except for an occasional team practice on Sunday afternoon, which were always optional, but by 2010 it was a continual effort on the part of those of us who go to church to remind others that we would not be available for practices or games on Sunday morning, except for rare exceptions, such as all star tournaments. It wasn’t about being anti-Christian, it was just that many parents in their twenties and thirties do not go to church or think about it in our community anymore, or go to an alternative service on Saturday nights.

    We did manage, for the most part, without being combative or otherwise bad witnesses to our neighbors, to keep scheduled games to Sunday afternoons, and to have a league policy that Sunday morning practices were always optional. However, the league board saw the free Sunday mornings as an optimal time to schedule team pictures. One year, team pictures were scheduled for Palm Sunday morning. We brought this up to the board and they were very apologetic — “It didn’t occur to anyone at the meeting that it was Palm Sunday”. But the session was not re-scheduled, and our boys were not in the team photos that year.

    Travel ball always involves weekend tournaments, usually some distance away, and including Sundays. We never regularly participated in travel ball for that reason — it was too disruptive to both our church and family life. The two of our boys who cared about baseball the most still managed to have excellent high school careers, our oldest played college ball, and our younger one will do so next year. Travel ball is, in my opinion, vastly overrated, at least in the baseball world. It leads to early overuse injuries more than anything else.

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    School related activities are also encroaching on Sunday mornings. We have high schoolers who are missing on Sunday morning because the local high school band decided to have mandatory practices on Sunday morning.

    I think the issue is multifaceted.
    1. Parents have grown up hearing the mantra involving your kids keeps them out of trouble/gangs.
    2. Their sports heroes almost to a person started dedicated work very young.
    3. As parents filled schedules, additional activities moved to traditionally less busy days in order to survive.
    4. Parents felt powerless over the move because they want the best for the kids.
    5. We forgot the value of downtime.
    6. We are collectively a screwed up, messed up, sinful people.

  • kempin04

    “My question: Why would Christian parents let their kids be in sports when that keeps them from going to church?”

    I have no freaking idea. What part of “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is unclear? I mean, if you regularly worship on a different day of the week, then perhaps, but then if you are free for sports on Sunday, how are you not free to join the fellowship of believers instead? We communicate our priorities by our actions. I suppose if a family wants to rearrange their whole weekly schedule just so one member of the family can play a game, that is their own affair, but I don’t get it.

    I think back to my own youth, and I would have been afraid to even suggest to my parents that I participate in an activity on Sunday morning. I would have enjoyed seeing the coach or teacher who tried to tell them that it was required. My children, I hope, will have the same clarity from me.

    For the record, I do not and have not kept the commandment perfectly, nor is it my place to judge. Nevertheless . . . it is a commandment from God. It cannot be ignored without damage and consequence.

    Mikeb, #3,

    You cannot make the law into gospel.

  • mikeb

    kempin @ 20

    How did I make the law into Gospel?

  • Jon H.

    Maybe we can learn from our Jewish brethren how they’ve handled all those Saturday events and still managed to raise their children in the faith. Perhaps it helps that the Sabbath begins in the evening. Catholics recognize the Saturday evening vigil Mass as fulfilling the Sunday Mass obligation.

  • Grace

    The world doesn’t care, for the most part about the LORD, how can we as Believers expect them to deny poor little Betsey and Bobby of baseball, soccer, swim meets, and host of other sports, taking place on Sunday?

    The new parents today didn’t go to church as children, they don’t know the difference. They WANT their kids to compete, it fulfills their wishes, that never came to fruition. Lots of parents have nothing else to do, except live thru their children – sports is the perfect venue, especially if they aren’t interested, or excelling academics.

    Parents often bemoan the morals of today, their childrens lack of character – the answer can only be found in Christ –

    I can still taste my mothers Sunday dinners, hear the music in church, hear my mothers dear friend sing the solos. I thank God for my parents. We didn’t just do Sunday, our lives were wrapped in Christ.

  • kempin04

    mikeb, #21, (From the post at #3)

    “They know ‘remember the Sabbath . . .” “If they saw Sunday morning as Gospel not Law . . . it would be a higher priority.”

    The Third commandment is not “fundagelical or Roman legalism.” It’s law, as in “The Divine Law.”

    True, the law can only be kept with a renewed heart, and in keeping the law there is great blessing. Nevertheless, the law remains law.

  • RailfanNJ

    Growing up in the Midwest, Wednesday nights were also off limits to school activities because it was prayer meeting night for many churches.

    We took the music rather than sports route with our kids. Even with private lessons, competitions and advanced ensembles, there were very few Sunday conflicts and some options to use their music skills in worship. It’s an option worth considering if your children don’t have a strong drive to play sports.

  • Grace

    RailfanNJ @ 25

    “Growing up in the Midwest, Wednesday nights were also off limits to school activities because it was prayer meeting night for many churches.”

    That’s true.

    I also want to add – Sunday evenings we had church services. When we reached high school, we had youth meetings after the service, and then went out for ice cream, burgers, etc. Sunday’s were very special.

  • George A. Marquart

    John H. @17. That is an incredibly rude remark, which has no place on this blog. Issues – by all means, but please no attacks on persons.

    George A. Marquart

  • Mockingbird

    I want to echo both #5 and #18. I agree that it isn’t so much anti-Christian; but ignorance. You have parents who are not in the habit of going to church on Sunday and so they see no problem scheduling other activities then. As #5 say, all it usually takes is a polite, “We are not available then, we have church” and they are usually willing to work with you.

  • Mockingbird

    @8
    “What about chapel services at school? Most schools have weekly, but others have daily or bi-weekly. If the child is going to these services, then doesn’t that sort of count?”

    It counts in that they are hearing God’s Word, but I think it is also important that families worship together, and that they worship with other Christians. This is the mutual consolation and conversation of the brethren.

  • Grace

    Mockingbird

    Most people cannot afford private Christian schools. Public school doesn’t have “chapel services at school” -

  • mikeb

    kempin @ 24

    The same Word delivers Law and Gospel. When God said “remember the sabbath” before Christ came it was a work of man, an obligation of the Law. But now that Christ has come, He is our sabbath, He fulfills the Third Commandment. When we “remember the sabbath” now we do well to receive His grace and forgiveness, to call to mind what He has done, that we rest in Him. It’s no longer our work but His.

    I’m not arguing that this removes an obligation or need to observe the sabbath. But remembering the sabbath is now much more–it’s no longer “have to” but “get to”: I “get to” take communion, I “get to” sing praises, I “get to” receive forgiveness, again and again and again. The world sees Sunday going to church as obligation. The faithful Christian should see it as privilege.

  • Rose

    Travel soccer on Sunday is big bucks for the league organizer.
    And the fields are open on Sunday morning, so why not?
    Elitism, team jackets, out-of-town tournaments all seem to meet parents’ need to know “My child is exceptional.” Sunday soccer is a pathogenic extension of a great idea: Saturday soccer.
    Other community groups also trample the church’s time. When I retired, the Bd of Ed scheduled the annual retirement dinner on–Maundy Thursday. Because the banquet hall was not booked.

  • Bob

    We spent 10 years in the club travel soccer world. Out of town weekend tournaments and games are part of the package. My sons are now graduating from high school. I will be interested in their perspective on it all when they look back in a few years. At this point their faith is still alive and active and growing and the lessons they learned in the club athletic world were pretty valuable. The realities of youth/high school athletics are a lot different than when many of us grew up. I respect people who have made the difficult choice to opt out of the demanding athletic world but I have a problem when they still have the expectation that their son should be getting more playing time in high school over kids who have invested and made the sacrifices to develop their talent. It isn’t about the college scholarship, most people get that. Now it is an important piece in even high school participation. Thankfully we have a divine service every Monday evening. It’s not so clear cut for many people who are trying to figure it all out and attempting to maintain growing faith while supporting their kid in a highly competitive environment.

  • kempin04

    mikeb, #31,

    I don’t disagree with the point you are trying to make. I’m just clarifying.

    The commandment is law. It cannot become gospel. It can bring us TO the gospel, but must remain classified as law.

    I think, perhaps, you are referring to the law as it functions in the third use, which can only take place in a regenerate heart. In such a case, the law is a joy and a source of blessing, as you describe. But the law in its third use is still the law.

  • Tracy

    This is a serious issue and I appreciate the concerns and comments, but especially your comments Bob @33. We are struggling to maintain priorities with our last child at home, a middle schooler who has a strong athletic bent. Anyone with this type of child knows that they have a mental and physical need to participate in their sport, in the same way that a child with another bent can’t help but to draw, or to sing. Our boy’s sport is hockey; ice time is precious to come by, so you take what you can get. That said, we manage to attend Sunday School and/or worship every almost every Sunday, even if it means playing a 6:30 AM game and heading to Sunday School and worship afterwards, or going to Sunday School and leaving for a game, or going to the 8:30 AM service and heading out to a game, or missing Sunday School for a game but making it back in time for worship. The conflicts don’t happen most Sundays, but maybe 20-30% of the Sundays during the season. I feel like the Sundays my son and either my husband or I miss (only one parent goes to the game during a worship time), even due to a few tournaments, don’t make as big of a negative impression on our son as the positive example of our absolute commitment to attending Sunday School and/or church on the Sundays where it would be a lot easier for us to just skip church for the game. That said, we will on occasion skip a game if we know we will be missing church the next week or so because of traveling for the holidays, etc. That may sound like rationalizing, but I can’t see the positive benefit of being hardline on never missing church, and consequently missing out on the valuable lessons and close friendships (our son is home schooled with no siblings left at home) as well as the pleasure of developing God-given skills. I also make it a priority to have Bible/catechism study several times a week, if not daily, which frankly takes a lot more discipline for me. This and the daily spiritual/theological discussions and prayer we have, I hope, are a model of a life of faith that I hope he will desire to pursue on his own as he grows into adulthood.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Now what about Colossians 2:16? Does that have any bearing here?

    We try very hard to not have any interruptions on Sunday morning, and the nice thing about being part of a Christian school is that sports activities are specifically NOT scheduled on Sundays. But at the same time, the Lutheran church we attend ( :D ) has Saturday night services as well, which are very nice if we know there is a good reason (and I stress that it has to be a good reason!) for us missing on Sunday morning.

  • sg

    A frequent poster here who goes by “Carl Vehse” probably spent every Sunday of his life in an LCMS church, and you can see the consequences every time he contributes. Perhaps playing sports Sunday mornings might have helped.

    Okay, kids. It is time to play Name that Logical Fallacy.

  • sg

    I think C.V. has gone to church every Sunday.

    I don’t like C.V.’s statements.

    Therefore, C.V. should have skipped church some Sundays and played sports instead.

    Huh?????

    Or how about this one.

    A kid on my son’s baseball team plays with a traveling team during the off season and they play on Sundays.

    That kid is mean to my kid.

    Therefore that kid should go to church on Sundays during the off season and not play on Sundays.

    Oh, wait.

    So, both sides can play the moralism game.

  • Mockingbird

    @30

    Grace,
    I was quoting, then responding to the poster at #8.

  • helen

    Music isn’t always a solution. My daughter was in public school choir in Houston… a Baptist town with services every Wednesday night. The Christmas concert was regularly scheduled for a Wednesday in Advent, when Lutherans also had services. “No excuses; be there or take an “F” for the six weeks.” We were too thin on the ground to be listened to, but why did the Baptists put up with this, I always wondered…..

    [In the same school district, graduation was moved (permanently) because one senior, with the ACLU behind him, protested a conflict with his religious obligations.] Some are truly more “equal” than others!

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