Before I get going, I feel the need to make two statements out of the gate:
- Statement 1: I love athletics. I played multiple sports in high school. I played intramural sports in college. I workout daily and compete in triathlons and adventure/endurance races. I’m not anti-athletics. I enjoy watching sports. They are a big part of my life and my family’s life.
- Statement 2: My children are involved in athletics. And while they are still young, we are headed down a path that could lead to some of the very issues I am about to raise in this post. My oldest daughter plays softball. My middle daughter is involved in gymnastics. If both continue on the path they’re on, we could potentially enter into a situation where their time commitment to their respective sports will dominate our “free” time.
Having made both of these caveats, I’m ready to ask the following questions to you:
The first question:
Is athletics hurting the program-centric youth ministry model that many if not most youth ministries operate on?
A few weeks ago, we had a youth minister drop by our office. We took a few moments to see how things were going in his ministry. He’s a competent, passionate youth worker, the kind of guy you’d love to have on your team. But I couldn't help but hear a little frustration in his voice as he talked about the main thing he’s struggling with.
He’s having a really hard time competing with sports for his teenager’s time. He has close to 50 kids on roll in his youth ministry. He’s struggling to get between 20 and 30 to Wednesday nights and the main culprit is “practice.” All sorts of practice: football, basketball, cheerleading, etc. You name it. And it’s not just Wednesdays. Sunday numbers are down, too. AAU basketball, travel cheerleading, and travel baseball and softball take up a lot of his students’ weekends.
This youth minister didn’t mention this for his own church, but I know that my church's Summer Camp numbers will be impacted by the fact that the high schools in our community have moved to required practice all summer long for football. And by “all summer long,” I mean four days a week for all but two weeks of the summer. Additionally, I know several students who didn’t attend our Winter Retreat a few weeks ago because of athletic commitments.
Are you experiencing the same thing? Would you say your students’ involvement in sports is negatively impacting their participation in your youth ministry events?
The second question:
Is being hyper-committed to athletics hurting your teenagers’ individual spiritual growth?
Last night I asked my Small Group of 9th grade guys, all of them athletes, what the number one challenge was to being a teenage Christ-follower in their cultural context. I would have been willing to put “peer pressure,” or “temptation,” first. Maybe even “influence from media,” or something similar. Know what their unanimous response was?
As a group, they stated that having no time in their schedules was the biggest challenge. I rose to the occasion and started my tried-and-true talk about “priorities” and the idea that they can make time for what’s important to them. Thankfully, we have enough of a relationship where they pushed back. And after listening to them talk about their schedules and the mental drain that school + athletics causes, I get it. They are so freaking maxed out.
6:00 AM football practice started three weeks ago for three of them. Yes, it’s February. (It will run until May, BTW. They’ll get a few weeks off and will resume morning practice all summer.) Three of them play other sports that overlap with their morning football practice (basketball, lacrosse, and baseball respectively. One of them also plays AAU basketball in addition.) They are all good students and take their grades seriously. They have two to three hours of homework on a regular night, not to mention increased loads around tests and special projects.
They are tapped out. They all say that their prayer lives are in a good place, but their time to devote to meeting God in His Word (where they are focused and not exhausted) is admittedly slim.
As I take all this in and try to come to a place of understanding, there is at least part of the issue that is based on sheer pragmatics: For so many of our teenagers, they’ll never play beyond high school. They won’t play in college. No chance of a scholarship. (Which for many makes the time sacrifice worthwhile in some ways.) And so, I have to ask, looking at it from this perspective, is it worth it? Is it worth the time investment? Is it worth the sacrifices? (FYI: I believe that participation in athletics teaches valuable life lessons. But with the level of commitment at which our students engage, is it worth the cost?)
So, let’s ask some questions:
- Is this something you deal with? Does athletics pull a significant number of your teenagers away from participating in your youth ministry?
- Do you see your teenagers spiritual growth negatively impacted by their commitment to athletics?
- If so, do you as a youth pastor or an adult volunteer have a place to question whether or not athletics has too much of a priority in a teenager’s life? Or are you seriously stepping on mom and dad’s toes on that one?
- Can you speak into the lives of parents who encourage or at least tacitly approve of their students being hyper-committed to athletics at the cost of so much else in their lives?
- What can be done to adapt your youth ministry programs to allow for greater participation?
- What can be done to adapt your individual discipleship efforts (including equipping parents) to help students struggling with over-committed lifestyles?
As a youth worker and as a parent, I’m invested in my children and my students seeking Christ first, above all else. How do we weather this cultural issue?
What is your experience? And what are your thoughts?