When Sports Compete with Youth Ministry – Part 1

Recently, I have spoken to a number of friends in ministry who are frustrated by sports schedules and the negative impact on their ministries. Here’s the kind of scenario I often hear:

“We had a retreat planned, and the week before students dropped out because of a Basketball game”

“Parents asked me to change the start time of my retreat because of a volleyball tournament”

“How can parents expect their students to grow close to God if they never show up to youth group because of sports”

I am sure you have more of your own stories to share (and I have a few of my own). To be honest, in my early years here in the States, (I am from England), I was shocked by the amount of focus that sports take up for the average student. Like many of you, I have been frustrated in the past when it comes to priorities of sports schedules over church activities. However, for me, I am finding the way I view the sports and ministry determines whether I react in competition or if I partner in teamwork.

Viewing the Situation Differently:

1) Embrace, Don’t Fight: Attacking the school system, parents, and schedules does no good! Our message might be accurate, but it falls on deaf ears when we challenge commitment to the church. In my experience, parents and students will always try to “make it work” for the church when we come alongside them instead of attacking them. It is often in the “come alongside” moments that they are more willing to make it work for our programs. Remember, parents and students are not our enemy, culture is.

2) Understand Parents and Students Better: It’s hard for me to understand parents of teenagers since I am the parent of two toddlers. However, I have made it my goal to ask questions about the reality of sports for parents and their kids. I have some brilliant youth leaders who are parents themselves. I make a point of  listening to what it is like to have a student in sports and try to understand the struggles and pressures on the family. It’s not as clear cut as we might think sometimes… I have acquired much more empathy for parents as they make tough decisions with their kids schedules. Until I am in their shoes, I cannot judge how easy it is to make decisions about sports and church schedules.

3) It’s Not About Me: Part of the issue that we face is the false teaching that you and I are ultimately responsible for the faith of students. We are here to partner with parents and not replace them. Deuteronomy 6:7 is clear that parents are to disciple their kids first, not the church.We are here to continue and support what they are already doing. If a parent chooses to have their student miss an event or program in favor of sports, it’s imperative that I leave that responsibility with them and not judge their decision. Even if I have an inkling that they are not prioritizing faith over sports, it is simply not my job to judge.

4) It’s STILL Not About Me: Can I be honest? Much of my struggle in the past has centered around my insecurities and self esteem. Too many of us get bent out of shape because our security and confidence is so tied to whether we have good numbers or whether students pick sports over me and you. When students choose sports over us, we can feel deflated and hurt. Am I right? It’s a hard reality to admit, but I have found that I have to examine my heart regularly on this one. As a caution, anyone in ministry cannot be healthy if they are fueled by the acceptance and security of students. It’s a no win situation and can be disastrous.

5) Pray for Them: Our students are under huge pressure to find significance through sports. Our culture has ingrained in us that we must win to be successful and significant. We know that true significance comes from being a child of God and using our gifts to honor Him. It’s imperative that we pray for families as they navigate through this challenging and competitive time. I also find that prayer helps me to approach the whole situation with a team focus rather than competition.

6) Create Practical Steps to Be a Team: It’s imperative that we work hard to do all we can to help students attend our events and programs. Too often I have spent to much time and energy complaining rather than creating bridges for families to attend. In my next post, I will outline my team approach to make church and sports work…

Next Up: When Sports and Ministry Compete – Part 2: Practical Steps To Become a Team.

Phil <><

5 Responses to When Sports Compete with Youth Ministry – Part 1

  1. Steve Bourque April 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    I work in children’s ministry, but still have similar issues. I appreciate the thoughts, and just recently had that conversation about hockey. Being in Canada, hockey’s a big deal and a lot of our families miss church services for hockey tournaments and such. I do have to fight the judgmental side of me. I also love the goal you stated about teaming and partnering with families.

    Faith doesn’t happen at a church event. Faith is an everyday, every moment decision. The church comes alongside parents to help them do the heavy lifting.

  2. Brian M April 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    I’m in Canada too, for us hockey and volleyball take away a lot of our teens. I do struggle with keeping myself level minded about it and not becoming frustrated about it.

    Steve hit it bang on, faith doesn’t happen at a church event. For teens that I know will miss a youth night, I’ll do my best to meet with them either one-on-one or in a small group of other teens, and talk with them. Sometimes we’ll talk about whatever lesson or event it was that they missed, but mostly it’s about still keeping in contact when they aren’t able to be present at youth events.

    Thanks for the post Phil, looking forwards to part 2.

  3. Phil Bell April 5, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    @Steve, yes, it’s imperative we realize that what we do is just one part of a kids faith development! I am glad you get to partner with parents when their kids are younger. They are creating patterns and habits that will impact their kids in some powerful ways, good or bad. Keep up the parent teamwork and get alongside them as much as you can.

    @Brian, I appreciate your heart to seek after the teens when they miss and event. It could be easy to let them just make their choices and leave them to it. But, it’s so important to seek after them… I think this is a huge investment that will pay off one day soon!

  4. Brit Windel April 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Didn’t tell you this earlier… but great post. There is a hard line and balance though between #1 and when Jesus reminds people the true cost to follow in Luke 14.15-33 & Matthew 8.18-22. We have to remember that following Jesus isn’t equal to going to youth group or a youth event, but that in our current model of ministry those events and times are times to be encouraged and challenged to follow more and closer to Christ. So if people aren’t coming to those things… how are they actually ‘following’ Christ

  5. youthworktalk April 7, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Thanks Brit! It’s so important to remember that attendance does not always equal discipleship.

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