When Sports Becomes God

“… and then we have a tournament Thanksgiving weekend. We expect everyone to be there.”

I turned to my wife. “Did he really just say ‘Thanksgiving Weekend’?”

My daughter Ashley played ‘select soccer’ for a few years. We had heard the commitment was a little crazy at times… but had no idea the extent. Every girl on the team had accepted soccer as Lord and Savior at 5 years old… except Ashley. So when it came to the first few tournaments where we were expected to miss a Sunday, we were met with a little resistance when we said, “We’ll bring Ashley after church.”

I’m glad that Ashley loves her church and was a huge advocate of not missing (she loves her youth group and doesn’t want to ever miss), because she received a little flak from her teammates at times. Once she showed up late on a Sunday, having come straight from church, and one of the girls jested, “How was churrrrrrrch?” (as sarcastic as one could possibly say it).

Ashley quickly retorted. “It was great. How was… (she made a sarcastic “yippee” gesture) …warming up for the game?”

I tried to not laugh audibly.

The commitment only grew as the team won more games and became more successful. The following year the coach added tournaments, numerous Sundays, including a few holiday weekends. This forced us to stop and think. My extended family has come together on Thanksgiving weekend for the last 20 years. Was this weekend history now? Not to mention our church’s Labor Day weekend campout, a time our kids always loved hanging out with other Christian kids from the church. (and isn’t that what we want our kids doing?) Labor Day weekend was on the cutting blocks as well with the new soccer schedule.

Our family had to come to a decision. Was this really the direction Ashley was heading? Does she really have a shot at becoming Christiano freaking Ronaldo, and even if she does, at what expense?

This year both of my girls are in sports. Ashley runs cross country (does that give you a clue what we did with soccer?), and Alyssa plays water polo. This week alone Alyssa has two games and a water polo tournament this weekend. Both the girls’ sports have had games and practices that interfere with church regularly.

Forget church for a moment and let’s just talk about our kids overall well-being. Pretty much every report we read says that teenagers need about 9 hours and 15 minutes of sleep per night. And most of you have heard me share research about the importance of eating 3 to 5 family dinners together per week—hard to do when water polo practice brings you home at 7:20 and games bring you home after that.

What are we to tell our kids? I know we need to teach them to keep their commitments. Perhaps we need to read the fine print before agreeing in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying sports are from the devil and you need to “choose this day who you will follow,” as if there is only one or the other. But maybe parents need to think ahead when it comes to signing up for sports and decide exactly how committed to a team or activity they are really ready to be.

Here are three lessons I learned that have helped me navigate sports and activities as a parent. These have helped me; you might find some benefit from these as well:

Keeping Sports in Balance:

1.    Lay out clear boundaries… and then keep your commitment.

What happened to the good ol’ days when soccer practice was just 60 to 90 minutes, right after school?

Alyssa’s water polo is anywhere from 2 to 5 hours on any given day. Last year (this is her second year), I remember her coming home at 8 at night, showering, grabbing a quick dinner, then starting her homework. On these nights, not only were we all robbed of our family dinner with Alyssa, but she often was doing homework until 11, and then getting less than 7 hours of sleep (over 2 hours short of what’s recommended).

Is this all okay in the name of sports?

Tonight, as I type this, Alyssa had decided on her own that she was going to leave practice early for church. Her coach told her, “No,” flat out. I sense a confrontation coming between the two of them… and frankly, I’m struggling with exactly what to advise Alyssa.

Here’s what I do know. As believers and followers of Christ, we need to keep our commitments. If we commit to a team, we need to truly commit to a team. This means finding out exactly what the commitment entails before making the commitment.

We did this Ashley’s last year of select soccer. We met with the coach beforehand and asked, “How many Sundays do the girls play?” “How many holiday weekends?” “When are practices—and will they interfere with youth group on Wednesday night?”

The coach laid out exactly what the commitment would entail and we agreed.

Interestingly enough, the coach tried to spring a few more tournaments on us during the year, one on a holiday weekend where we were going to be gone visiting family. We simply told the coach, “Sorry, we’re not available that weekend.”

Decide how far is too far, make your commitment, and keep your commitment. (Which is basically what I need to advise, with grace, to Alyssa.)

2.    It’s okay to say “Enough.”

Parents might consider asking themselves, “In 10 years, what’s really more important: that Michael was a really good baseball player, or that he grew closer to his family, his church and Jesus during his teenage years?”

If Michael can balance all of that… then more power to him.

If Michael can’t… then… well? Do I need to spell it out?

That’s too convicting. Let’s move on.

 3.    As you are running, swimming, tackling and scoring… make disciples.

Our kids have an opportunity to let the hope of Christ shine through their lives.

Today Ashley had a cross-country meet. She and the other freshman girls had a little huddle before their race where they pumped each other up. Then I heard Ashley ask, “Do you guys mind if I pray for our race?”

One of the other girls said, “Yeah, cool! We need it!” Another girl said, “Okay…what do we do?”

It was a really fun moment to be a fly on the wall.

Ashley said, “I’ll just pray.” Then she prayed for their race. I was so proud of her. (I clicked a little pic.)

I’m not saying that praying is always the magical thing to do. It really depends on the moment. Sometimes representing Christ is much more about having a good attitude and being an encourager. It’s a shame when the kid who misses practice for church is the same kid who is also gossiping, making fun of others and telling raunchy jokes. That’s what the media always portrays. Our kids have an opportunity to show what the love of Christ really looks like.

Times have really changed in the last few decades, especially in the United States. Sunday morning used to be reserved for church, now it’s for either sports or sleeping off Saturday night. America used to sing “How Great Thou Art,” now they sing, “How Great Thou Throws that Football!” (We really could make a whole modern sports worship CD, couldn’t we? I Could Sing of Your Dunk Forever, Shout to the Ref, Here I am to Handoff, Better is One Game…)

We need more Christian role models. We need more Tim Tebows.

When our kids participate in sports they have an awesome chance to represent Christ. As parents, let’s bring our kids up making Christ first… and sports somewhere down the list.

In 1981, the world flocked to movie theatres to see the true story of Eric Liddell, an amazing runner who refused to run on Sundays (he did a “Chick Fil-A”). Chariots of Fire won Best Picture that year. I leave you with Eric Liddell’s words:

“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you’re dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way… If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”

READ MORE FROM JONATHAN’S HEART ABOUT SHAPING OUR KIDS VALUES IN HIS NEW BOOK, CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPERFECT PARENT

About Jonathan McKee

president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over a dozen books including the new Get Your Teenager Talking, The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenager, and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the 10-Minute Talks series. Jonathan speaks and trains at conferences, churches and events across North America, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan and his wife Lori, and their three teenagers Alec, Alyssa and Ashley live in California.
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25 Responses to When Sports Becomes God

  1. Paul Phillips says:

    We have seen this issue in youth ministry for the last few years. I think you are on the right track in your encouragement. I had a family with a teenage, who was the star running back. He went to the coach on his own about leaving early on Wednesday nights to make youth. He was allowed to leave the hour early but had to run a mile every Thursday for leaving. Every player on that team watched him run every week without complaint and he ended up leading several to Christ thru this example!

    Keep bringing the truth…

    Pastor Paul

  2. That’s an awesome story.

  3. Brent Lacy says:

    Jonathan,

    I love this article. I have dealt with this from many angles in Youth Ministry, and still struggle “to get a good handle” on the situation. However, I am getting a little different perspective as my kids are growing up and the ones playing sports…

    Church still wins in our house…

    • It’s funny how that happens… I find that my perspective is always tweaked a little when I deal with it with my OWN kids. :)

      • jan jones says:

        Jonathan, I got this posted from one of your parishioners. I’m not a part of your church and my children are grown. But I wanted to tell you that we went through something very similar with our kids. We belonged to a Baptist Church in New Mexico that had 8 choirs and 400 kids in the youth group alone. Our struggle wasn’t just prioritizing secular versus church activities, it was also church vs family time. Our rule was 1 church and 1 secular or 2 church and 1 secular activity per year. And, we set one 24 hour period per week where NO ONE went out (since we lived 5 minutes from the church and were in a town in revival that had either a speaker or Christrian concert every night of the week…we were as involved as the kids). It worked well. I guess my point is to not forget that the family bond is as important and the church…at least it was in our family. They are in their forties…we are as close as ever. We have the Lord to praise for that. Keep the faith…you’re doing a good job. Blessings~ Jan Jones

  4. Jeff Looper says:

    My daughter was a three sport athlete so when youth group was moved to Wednesday from Sunday there was a conflict so she talked a local pastor (also a friends father) into having a after school bible study at a local restaurant. So there were a group that attended bible study instead of youth group. I wouldn’t say it was a better alternative, just a different one. Now my wife and I are youth leaders at our church and we have a few (most don’t) that attend youth group after practice. Christian students and parents certainly have some choices to make, I see parents putting sports ahead of church and youth group and I after the fact would do thing alittle different. If the Christian parent does not think youth group is important neither will the Christian student.

    Jeff

  5. Karen Bennett says:

    I enjoyed this article in the sense that I’ve been there done that as a highly competitive Christian athlete myself, and now as a Christian parent with children involved in sports as well. What I can say is the answer lies in having a great coach, and I’m happy to say that I enjoy being a Christian coach with the love, heart, and understanding for our most important commitment in life. We need more great coaches whose own role model is the Great Coach!

    God Bless,
    Karen Bennett
    Ridley Park Presbyterian Church, PA

  6. Matt DeMateo says:

    Great article Jonathan…was just having this discussion with some parents who have their kids in Sunday sports leagues…think you hit it right on.

    Thanks for the continued encouragement. Your blogs are refreshing and encouraging as we work with gang involved youth in Chicago. When you’re in town sometime, would love to hang out…Giordanos is on me!

  7. Chris says:

    Jonathan – i am going to forward this to our teen’s parents. I hesiate to preach ot them because my own kids are only 1 and 3, with my youngest starting preshool (which comes with its own parental commitments through the shool year). But I have seen the effect of sports being god in our small town in the central valley in CA. I even have a leader who can only help out 1/2 the year becasue of travel volleyball. One story of a win: I have a freshmen guy who is a phenom when it comes to running. He is AMAZINGLY FAST! Last summer, he signed up for camp and then found out he was invited to qualify for junior olympics, but the race was during camp. He was on the verge of bailing on camp (which bummed me out because he hadn’t come to youth group all summer because of… track). His parents wanted him to go to the race becasue they are struggling for money and they see this as a way for him to go to a good college on a scholarship. I was in a tough place becasue I want him to succeed but he was never at church and I saw this affecting his life in not so good ways. I ended up challenging him to go to camp – not becasue I wanted him to lose o0ut on a good opportunity – but because I thought there was a sever imbalance in his life. He stopped making time for God (even on Sundays). I really belived God would honor his abilites and opportunities more if he coulf find a better balance in his life to make time for God and also for running. He made the choice to go to camp and at the end of the week, he gave His life to God completely. He has kept up his commitment since and he is still super fast (almost cheetah fast!). I’m gonna share Eric’s story with Him – thanks for including that in your blog. I’m hoping to see him be an Eric Lidell for his generation.

  8. Bill Britton says:

    LOVED this post Jonathan. If more parents took a stand then this would not be an issue and we could reclaim our families. Going through something similar with my son right now but with a part-time job. Again, having him realize that he needs to make his priorities known in order to be scheduled right has been part of the growing up process.

    Loved the ‘visual’ of you daughter praying with her team and the girl willing to pray and asking “Great. How do we do it?” Awesome that your daughter can be that role model for her peers.

    I think this sports problem is cultural as well. A lot of things cease to happen when there is an important game coming up. We have given too much power to professional sports and the idolizing of the personalities that go with it. These people play a game for a living–they’re going to fail at some point as all humans do. We can’t keep expecting them not to. While I think that it’s important for our kids to have positive role models I think it’s just as important for our kids to understand that nobody is without fault and the only one who is never going to fail us is Christ.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Josh Nelson says:

    Great thoughts! I struggle with this because I am a youth minister and a basketball coach at the local high school. Sometimes I wonder if I’m talking out both sides of my mouth. If students want to be competitive they have to work hard (on & off season). But I also see kids that REALLY need and regularly miss time for fellowship & spiritual growth because they’re involved in sports. Tough balance!

  10. Joshua Josef says:

    I think this is a great article, but it seems like the article starts off stating that sports should not take precedence over church. Then transitions to, if you are a Christian Athlete you should use teachable moments to share your faith. However, returns back to sports should not take precedence over church.
    I believe sports teams are one of the largest mission fields in America. We as Americans put so much emphasis on sports that we do lose our perspective on what truly matters. Americans sit in the hot sun to see a game for hours, but the second the A/C goes out in church we complain we have to be in there for 1 hour. They jump, yell, and shout for a team, but hardly ever speak up for Christ in a situation they know should be corrected. Now, I’m not saying that being a fan is bad. What I am saying is God should be evident in every aspect of our lives and we should be more passionate about the lives of others and ourselves then a sports team.
    I believe that if God has given the gift of athletics to a Christian that they should use that gift to share His love and light with their teammates, to be the light in the darkness. So many Christians put themselves in bubbles of other Christians and think “we need to surround ourselves with Christians so I can stay focused.” How did Jesus relate to people? He spent time with tax collectors, Pharisees and other sinners. The problem I see today is Christians want unbelievers to get out of their comfort-zone not the Christian getting out of their comfort-zone to go to the unbeliever. We want to stay in our bubble where we feel safe, not challenged by the dark forces. In teenagers, I believe this tends to stem from parents trying to put the spiritual teaching responsibilities all on the church leaders and take NO responsibility for their family’s spiritual lives.
    In short, if an athletes relationship is right with God and their sports take them from a “church service” not from God, why give them grief. We should encourage them to stand out on their team. Christ should not be our top priority in life, He should be our priority in all aspects of our lives. He should be a part of all things we do, not just church. Jesus went to the people and He gave us the perfect example on how we should live. Please send comments. God bless!

    • you’re right… the article did address both issues… both are important. I think you’re right that athlete’s whose relationship with God is right have a great opportunity to be a light in this dark world. My fear is that many athletes from the church are struggling in their relationship with God, lack fellowship and sports becomes an idol to them. (not in all cases, obviously) My purpose for this particular blog was to challenge parents to think about this and talk about this with their kids. I know these talks have been really beneficial in my home.

      • Joshua says:

        I completely agree, that is why I added the part about things stemming from the parents. I had a friend who forwarded this to me because their child’s youth pastor would always give students a hard time for missing church. It has really pushed this family away since they have the only sports player, but nothing is mentioned to other things that pull people away. It is sad a pastor would do this instead of asking how things are going personally and making to the games the student does have. Being a youth pastor I see it to many times where parents say here and expect you to teach them everything, it should be taught in the home and encouraged and cultivated at church. Great information though. God bless!

        • Paul Phillips says:

          Joshua, I liked a lot of what you had to say, with one small exception. You stated, “if the sport takes them from a church service, not from God, then why give them grief?” I personally think this is a mistake. I have been a youth minister for 15 years with what I pray is a good relationship with God, and when i miss one service, I feel it. I am sure that some, very few, can maintain a healthy relationship with God and not attend church. (Heb 10:25) Even the most solid Christian needs church. Most teens absorb situations and make them baisis for life decisions. We are setting them up to fail if we say, sure miss church, if you are passionate about something. What’s next? College, a career, etc…? If its not sports it will be something else. I know Jesus went to the sinners, but he also was in the synagogue preaching and studying, and often went away to pray. I think the point here is watch what you encourage… it will remain with them for their entire life.

          • Joshua says:

            Yes I agree. To clarify, I do not mean missing church regularly. I mean we should not beat ourselves up for missing one service. Just like we do not need to beat ourselves up over not reading our Bible one morning out of 7. I believe this gets us into a legalistic mind set that we are suppose to do this and if I don’t I’m wrong. We should not do things because we feel a need to, but because we want to. I do agree that after missing, if you do not miss the corporate worship or fellowship with other believers you need to reevaluate your relationship, but not feel as we’ve done something wrong. I hope this clarify a little, because I do miss my students when they are not there and I hope they miss it as well.

  11. Wes says:

    Do we believe scripture and follow God, or do we just do what the culture is telling us? My folks watched in dismay as I gave my life to basketball. I did play in college, but @ the end of my first year I nearly went into a depression as I realized that I only had 3 years left, after which it was city league. Who was I w/o basketball?

    16 years & 5 kids later my wife & I are feeling the pressure to get our kids going if they are going to be able to compete in high school. My thoughts are…if you can’t compete after starting in 6 or 7 grade, you weren’t good enough anyway.

    There are vastly more important things in life than a couple years of HS sports.

    1 Timothy 4:8 “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

    The challenge to is help our kids develop the long view, not the short one.

    Wes

    • Great word Wes! (And thanks for bringing the “Word” into it)

    • Michelle says:

      Check out the documentary Race to Nowhere to find out how communities are addressing some of the stress issues.

      In the end it is Christ who we need to rely on and find our identity in. Everyone is right on track the most important thing to do is to find a balance and be the example to others. It is hard… I know.

  12. Julie says:

    One of the biggest complaints in youth groups, especially in high school is “cliques”. For the most part, these are groups of kids that are at the church every time the doors are open. They go to camp and to weekend events. They are there on Wednesday nights, Sunday nights and every Sunday morning. The kids that are always there form close friendships with each other. When sports start taking over some of those times, it is inevitable that those students will start to feel left out at church. Parents get defensive because “just because their child plays a sport, they aren’t included”. the hardest part is that it is so very subtle. satan enjoys doing things that way. To be involved and to be a part, you must be present.
    I did not grow up in a church with an active youth group so this was never a problem for me but my children have had to chose where they want to spend their time, and then be “all in”

  13. Rick Nier says:

    Man, this is exactly what scares me about my children growing up. Because it’s not just one person making a commitment, it’s the whole family. I hope I can approach it with as much patience.

    I’m seeing it early and often with the teens in my youth group as well. It’s crazy to see how much time sports take. But I’m trying to make the most of it and have other teens go to games with me. It makes a win out of a possible frustration.

  14. Awesome post, Jonathan, and I love some of the stories in the comments. One resource I sometimes point parents or even youth workers to is a book from ESPN publishing, written by Tom Farrey: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. It’s a great read about how even from a purely athletic standpoint, spending way too much time “specializing” in a sport as a kid doesn’t even offer a competitive advantage when it comes playing athletics in college or even as a pro. It’s helped me have some great conversations with parents who think they are sacrificing time and money so their kid can have a chance at being a great athlete.