Soccer vs. church? Wrong question!

This year our family begins a new chapter…travel soccer. I am officially becoming one of those parents that I used to lament as a youth minister. “These parents are more committed to soccer than the spiritual formation of their daughter.” I suspect I will be judged similarly by some in this regard, but I have some new concerns to raise after a response to this critique. As a dad, I fear many things for both of my children, a boy and a girl. Right or not, the concerns I have for my daughter out weigh those for my son. Part of this comes from his self-identity, and his comfort in his own skin. His little sister however is entering a world of hidden aggression by peers, an assault on her self worth from marketers an pressures to be liked by boys. I want her self worth to come from other things, including sports and her faith. National studies, like this one from the Women’s Sports Foundation tell me that girls involved in team sports:

  • Are more likely to get better grades in school and graduate
  • Are less likely to become unintentionally pregnant
  • Experience a reduction in the risk of breast cancer by up to 60 percent through as little as four hours of exercise a week
  • Are less likely to develop osteoporosis when they age because they can build bone mass through weight-bearing exercises
  • Have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression
  • Have a more positive body image and healthier psychological well-being
  • Learn teamwork, goal-setting and the value of achievement

There is not much to add to that except from the personal observations I have made about young ladies in my youth group over the years. They have a built in community of teammates who encourage, support and love them. That’s huge in a world where girls are judged based on their looks, what they wear and who they date. I know that is oversimplifying things, but you get the point. To have my daughter involved in the world of team sports is a priority for me. As long as she wants to play, I will support her.

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Thus comes the criticism that she needs to be involved in a youth ministry. Technically, if she is a member of your congregation, she is a member of the youth ministry. Let’s be clear to distinguish between a ministry and a program. A youth program is comprised of the planned events and meetings within a youth ministry. A teenager can be a part of the ministry, without being in the program. This is a distinction that is rarely made. Youth ministers are judged on participation and that means priority goes to the active program participant. Yet I cannot help but wonder about parents like this pastor who emailed me recently.

“Being the mother of two teenage boys – and a pastor that has let them play baseball even on Sun mornings – I have felt guilt. A couple of times, it worked out for them to come to SS then be picked up by another parent to go to the game as we obviously can’t make Sunday morning games. I always suggested that they come to church dressed for the game and save some time in not having to change. They haven’t felt comfortable to do that. I asked why – because they felt within themselves that it was wrong to miss church or because of what other people would think about them missing. It was what they thought other people would think. It was a wonderful teachable moment for them and me when I confessed that I felt the same way. Baseball has been a gift to my boys in every way imaginable. And so has the youth group. But I have definitely felt, maybe particularly from some, even sometimes other ministers – that they believe we have made the wrong choices around this. It has made me a bit prickly about it. If delaying sex and cutting down on drama and feeling good about who you are can be achieved on the diamond – I’m all in!!! It has also been a huge gift to our family life – cheering them on, brothers invested in each other’s success, being outside, traveling together, picnicking together . . . it has been a gift of time together. I have said recently that I guess Jesus is my salvation, but baseball and my teenagers has been my sanity.”

The key phrase in this for me is “what others think,” particularly the unspoken judgment of colleagues. The benefits to this family are immeasurable, as they probably are to many others. Consider this, from her book Almost Christian, author Kenda Creasy Dean writes about the results of the National Study on Youth and Religion. Among the many findings, one was the importance of parents in the faith formation of their teenagers. So why is that we ministers chide parents, making them feel guilty or indifferent, rather than preparing and equipping them to be primary spiritual guides to their children and teenagers? Is it too hard? Is it not measurable, like program numbers? Do we not trust that parents can fill this role? If any of those are true, then “the failure isn’t primarily on the part of youth or even their parents; it’s on the part of the church (Sarah Arthur as quoted by Dean).”

Here’s my point, congregational expectations need to shift so that ministers will not continue to feel the pressure to perform a job where they are evaluated by numeric participation. That model will continue to foster the “us vs them” culture, where the church is lagging behind. I propose we stop asking parents “why they choose sports over church” and instead ask “how can we equip you to be the primary influence in your child’s faith formation?” It is a different question that creates a different model. Imagine this though, when my kids and I are riding to practice or school, we have uninterrupted, focused time in the car for conversation. I use that time to check in on their day, act goofy, sing songs and talk about life’s events. We do not necessarily talk about our faith as a topic, but it certainly undergirds all of our conversations, especially when we discuss friends, news stories, dating pressures, song lyrics and cultural references. I am equipped and prepared, but many parents may not be. Youth ministry has a challenge and an opportunity here. What are your ideas for equipping parents?

Brian Foreman

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About the Author
Brian is a Youth Ministry and Social Media consultant (www.b4manconsulting.com), as well as adjunct professor at the Campbell University Divinity School. His work with churches is designed to increase youth ministry tenure through supporting and educating both congregations and ministers. He and his family currently live in Raleigh, NC.

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  • Danny Steis

    Sports do have value and I think that youth ministers should not view them (or other extracurriculars such as music, theatre, debate, etc…) as the enemy and adopt a “you either do church or sports” mentality, but my big question with this article is why travel soccer? Why pick the busiest and most time filling form of a sport? Why not school or local league soccer? Parents are the ones that need to set boundaries (this is one of the many ways that they are the number one factor in faith development).

    There are other issues of course –

    “A teenager can be a part of the ministry, without being in the program.” I know that programs are not more important than people, but they do serve a purpose. All of the team building and related things that happen on a soccer field can and do happen in a youth group that spends time together consistently with a common purpose. Worshiping, serving, praying, and fellowship happen best in community. A student that is consistently away from that community is missing out. Seeing and experiencing Christ move within a group is a powerful and life changing thing and I don’t really see that happening on a soccer team. This article seems to imply that student ministers should seek ways to disciple their students outside of structured programs and I completely agree, but if that is the only way that students can be reached (because they are too busy to attend programs) then it encourages an a la carte individualized ministry that is not healthy. Why be involved and committed to a church when the ministers will chase after you and meet with you on your schedule? What is this teaching our students as we send them off to college? If soccer becomes the primary commitment and time taker in a student’s life what will they do when they get to college and become “busy?” What have they been taught and shown about what to drop when your schedule fills up? Parents are indeed the number one factor in a student’s faith so they need to help them establish these priorities and teach them about boundaries. Youth ministers do need to do a better job of equipping parents but students need a place to express their faith, not just their competitive nature, in community. Why have youth group, and “big church” for that matter, if we’re all too busy? Should we just adopt a homeschool model for church? I don’t think the author of this article would espouse this, but as we get busier it may be our only option from his perspective.

    • http://www.b4manconsulting.com/ Brian Foreman

      Danny, thanks for your comments and the great questions you asked of this blog post. The only reason I chose travel soccer is that it is my current reality. My daughter has just entered this new world and setting boundaries and priorities has become a key focus in our family for faith, sports, school and friends. You could pick any extracurricular activity or activities that people are involved in. This is the most programmed generation we have ever seen and there seem to be no signs of it slowing down. Do I think the church needs to chase youth and their families? Certainly not. What I do think is we need to consider alternative models for defining a successful youth ministry and effective faith formation. Frankly, involving parents this way also shapes them.

      As a long time ministry programmer, I value them and their purpose greatly. Teaching a family how to be disciples is likely to come through another program. Having them in community with other believers is incredibly important. This is where I am opening a conversation about how we do it, perhaps alongside what we already do in youth ministry, but as part of a larger discipleship effort of congregation (b/c youth ministers don’t have enough to do already).

      I appreciate the passion I read in the last half of your comments and think you hit the nail on the head. Individual mentorship and a faithful youth group community are two pieces to effective Christian education of our young people. Ultimately its a both/and in student ministry and that is a big undertaking, but until we can have conversations about things like this I fear many kids will not have the guidance towards boundaries and faith formation in a community context that is so vital.

  • Alan Thompson

    I am a firm believer in the command to “not forsake the assembling of yourselves together.” Christians need community. But it is our own artificial construct to say that this community must be on Sunday morning between 10:00 and 12:00. Christian community could be provided day or night through the week, working around typical sports times. It could happen daily around the school lunch table. It could happen when parents plan a time for their child’s Christian friends to come over for a dinner together… an Acts 3 approach. If we become more flexible and creative, we might also feel less guilty.

    • http://www.b4manconsulting.com/ Brian Foreman

      Alan, Thanks for your comments. I appreciate and value the call for Christians to assemble together in worship, and your reminder of that. I agree that worship is critical for faith development and building disciples. Christians absolutely need the fellowship of other Christians in community, and we need to be prepared to be the presence of Christ in the larger community as well. An Acts 3 approach is part of the inspired creativity that I hope a conversation like this will inspire.

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  • David Benjamin

    I am a former youth minister, currently a pastor, also a high school coach, and the parent of a high school athlete and a D1 collegiate athlete. One of the assumptions I would challenge in this whole discussion has to do with the “reality” of travel sports.
    Too many parents, along with the young athletes, have bought into a mentality about travel sports that is anything but real. The sometimes implicit and often explicit statement is that travel sports will make your child a superstar and result in them earning a coveted collegiate scholarship. In my experience, this is rarely the case… and certainly not for athletes before high school. The more common result is a huge time and financial expenditure by the family, and the support of a club system that is often more focused on it’s own existence. And, instead of making superior athletes, the result is regularly emotional burnout and a higher risk of injury.
    All that said, I encourage parents to think long and hard about these commitments, to think about family time, about balance in scheduling for kids who are already over-stressed and over-committed. Then, when parents set the stage by teaching them to say “no” to some “opportunities of a lifetime” everyone may discover some critical life lessons and, shock, have more time available for faithful and meaningful participation in a Christian body.