Sports can compete with religious activities but they can also provide elements that a church does not always provide well such as role models, passionate support, and community.
You may have heard the lament that kids’ and teens’ sports on Sundays interfere with church. While Sunday morning games (at some distance) do conflict with times for religious services, I believe that sports, both professional and amateur, can also provide some important elements for personal growth and moral development.
Professional and amateur sports teams often provide strong role models for children, teens, and adults. While many professionals make absurd amounts of money, people notice when they share their resources with others. While one’s church no doubt has good role models, they are not always evident nor are they engaged with younger people, especially in a very cool activity like sports. Do good role models have the chance to stand out in church or are they just out there in the congregation among hundreds of people?
Many young people remember their high school coaches better than their teachers. Coaches have an amazing opportunity to model qualities like fairness, growth, service, belief, and teamwork. Conversely, bad coaches can scar players if they are unhealthy and treat their players badly.
People get emotionally invested in sports teams. Their passion can reveal itself through colorful outfits, flags, noisemakers, and painted faces, in addition to the shouting and screaming they unleash during the games. (I think this applies to the actual stadium where a game is played as well as the living room or den of people’s homes.)
Faith-filled people should have a passion for God even if they do not feel that way about religious services. If people had a “sports-like passion” for church, they might be all over the church leaders, complaining about who led the singing, who did the preaching this week and why didn’t they choose someone better. An unhealthy passion for sports can translate into negative comments on social media for some who take it too far.
Religion challenges people to face difficult issues in their lives with God’s help. I believe that distractions from these issues are gifts sports provide. Two to three hours of screaming one’s lungs out is a unique experience outside.
In addition to the community of raucous games or watch parties, being a fan opens the door to small social encounters. All it takes is a hat with a team logo or a jacket for me to smile at someone I meet when away from home. My husband and I were walking in the neighborhood and a man started up a conversation with us simply because one of us had a sports team logo. The other day, I asked a pair of strangers if they were going on a walk prior to a game because of their shirts.
Parents who have children on the same sports teams often form bonds over time as the teams require just as much time from parents as kids. During practice or at games, parents get to know one another and form connections during those years and sometimes long afterward. Getting to know parents makes it easier to say yes to a request to sleep over at a teammate’s house. Sports teams are one of the first experiences children have of community. A positive sports team with a coach who is a good role model can set a child on the path to displaying good sportsmanship and a sense of proper conduct.
Churches ideally are communities. Some of them are stronger than others. If one is involved in some sort of ministry in a church, it is easier to get to know other people. But, this involvement may not be enough. It is funny that when I thought about something that might build community at my church, I thought of pick-up, co-ed volleyball.