What is Youth Ministry to do with Sports?

I am excited to be headed to Waco, TX later this week to take part in Baylor University’s Symposium on Faith and Culture which has chosen as its theme this year, “The Spirit of Sports.”  I look forward to spending time with a friend in Dallas and exploring many facets of the relationship between sports and the Church.  On Saturday morning I will be presenting a paper entitled, “Pastoral and Theological Implications of the Youth Sports Industrial Complex.”  This has proven to be a good exercise in trying to simplify the message I want to present to churches and youth ministries regarding their relationships to the world of youth sports.

Eventually, I will upload the entire paper under the “Stuff I’ve Written” tab, but in this post I will provide a brief overview of what I’ll be presenting.  My focus is on the local church, and it is especially relevant for those who work in youth ministry.  While young people are involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, it’s no secret that youth sports is by far the most popular.  And for most youth ministers, they prove to be the most challenging to work around.  Most youth ministers I’ve talked with seem to be at a loss of language in trying to articulate what exactly is at risk in their youth’s hyper-involvement in sports.  More often than not, they dismissively shrug their shoulders and complain that sports takes their teens away from youth group activities and church services and makes them feel like they are fighting a losing battle. 

After all, sports can promote healthy lifestyles and physical activity in a generation facing an obesity epidemic, reinforce qualities like team work and self discipline that serve as important life skills, and immerse children in positive social environments where they can grown and mature their interpersonal skills.  The benefits of youth sports are well documented, so for the Church to explore any shortcomings may seem like nothing more than a needless exploration of “too much of a good thing.”  In response to this, I believe that the Church as a whole, and youth ministry in particular, is in a dire need of a more robust theology to help address the many complex realities of youth sports.

Too often, the Church has attempted to wrestle with the many practical issues that sports presents: performance-enhancing drugs, injuries, cheating, etc. without first establishing a robust theological foundation from which to build.  This has left our message anemic, at best, or completely absent, at worst.  I want to propose three theological areas from which the Church can begin to build this more robust understanding of sports and, subsequently, begin to provide a more effective pastoral voice to the families of youth athletes.

1 – The Rhythm of Life                               

Simply complaining that kids are too busy to do anything with their youth group is a shallow argument from frustrated youth ministers.  While weekend out-of-town tournaments have made it impossible for many families to maintain a healthy connection with a local church family, the busyness of youth sports is about more than “being at church.”  The schedules of sports families are low hanging fruit in what frustrates most youth ministers.  We should be cautious, however, that our frustration over sports schedules isn’t simply a hidden jealousy that they’re cheating on us with their sports team.  Something more significant must be considered.

The words of Ecclesiastes rings a little differently in today’s sports-obsessed world than it did in Old Testament times: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).   I don’t think he was talking about sports seasons!  More to the point here, the writer reinforces the beauty and need for balance in our lives.  Balance was built into the very fabric of Israel.  Work six days, then rest.  Work six years, then rest a year.  The rest was for the citizens, for the animals, and for the land.  Balance is built into the very fabric of creation itself.  That’s the problem with most youth sports today.  We talk about sacrifice, commitment, and all that.  But is that simply another way of excusing our imbalance?  More than questioning how often our sports families are attending a worship service any given Sunday, we should be asking the more dynamic question: What is dictating the rhythm of their family’s life?

2 – The Formation of Identity                          

Perhaps the crucial developmental aspect of adolescents is their identity formation.  The many environmental influences on a young man’s or young woman’s life begins to really show their impact as teenagers are answering that question, “Who am I?”  Sports has an interesting role in this whole process.  Many young people who excel in a particular sport find acceptance and popularity there that they cannot find anywhere else.  Just think about the life that the starting quarterback lives in high schools across the country.  Particularly in those situations, their sport becomes a very significant part of their identity formation.

This aspects of youth sports isn’t inherently bad, however often times the identity youth find in sports is the very identity they are intended to have in Christ.  In Galatians 3, Paul emphasizes the importance of finding our identity solely in Christ – beyond racial, sexual, and socioeconomic terms.  It seems silly to extend those core aspects of identity to sports – until you watch a college or professional sporting event.  The painted chests, dyed hair, and voracious chants are visual reminders of the identity-forming power of sports.  I believe it has become common place for many people to find their identity primarily in sports and allow that to dictate their participation in their faith.

3 – Theology of the Body

While I haven’t presented these three in any particular order, this may be the best starting point for moving forward in our ministries of sports.  Too many parachurch organizations and sports ministries have treated sports as a neutral entity and have seen it simply as an effective way to draw a crowd  so the Gospel can be shared.  Unfortunately, this reinforces a dualism that has long pervaded Christianity.  Although it may sound like metaphysical mumbo jumbo to say that the Platonic dualism has led to an unnecessarily negative view of the body, there are, in fact, significant, practical consequences.

When sports are viewed as simply a means to an end, we have a tendency to ignore the ethic and practice of the sport.  One example illustrates this well.  What is the Christian to do with competition?  Competition is at the heart of athletics (not to mention America itself) and yet serious theological reflection on competition is almost impossible to find.  As a result, we have a difficult time knowing how to teach our children to compete in a Christian fashion, because we’re not exactly sure ourselves.  By and large, I haven’t seen much difference between what Christians expect from sports than what anyone else expects.

I believe that the way forward begins with a better articulated theology of the body.  We  need to teach our children about the beauty in sports and have serious conversations about the challenges of reconciling the Sermon on the Mount and competitive arenas.

Much more needs to be said on these matters, but I believe that if we could just take as a beginning point, these three theological areas and dedicate some time we will be more prepared for the many challenges that lie ahead in the world of youth sports.  I hope to continue to refine this message and find ministers and youth ministers who have a passion for filling in this much-too-neglected area.

If you plan to be at the National Conference on Youth Ministries in Denver next January, I’ve got a ten minute talk to share some more thoughts in this area!

 

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Parents of Children in (or about to be in) Sports Should Read This!

Just a note: I’ve updated a few of the pages on my blog and uploaded a few academic papers as well as a few old sermons.  I would like to pass along anything I create that I think might be helpful – that’s why I haven’t posted much – figuring not much would be helpful 🙂  Maybe you’ll find something of use there.  I did post a series of sermons I preached back in 2010 that you may find helpful if you find yourself in a Church of Christ that is wrestling through some of the theological and hermeneutical challenges that are a bit unique to us.  See what you think.

Game on

As I’ve begun this trek through youth sports and have been searching for the role of the church in helping equip our members for how to navigate these waters, few things have opened my eyes as wide as this book by Tom Farrey, published in 2008 (and then republished in 2009).

In writing his book, Farrey follows the development of children beginning with the first chapter (age 1) through the final chapter (age 14) discussing different parents’ obsession with making their children into sports icons.  He takes the reader to a sperm bank in Southern California where he quotes a doctor there as saying, “I’d say somewhere between 40% and two-thirds of the infertile couples look to prioritize athletic traits” . . . “In fact, after ethnicity . . . attributes such as height and body shape are most frequently requested” (p. 43).  He goes to a sports arena in Concord, Massachusetts to discuss with the parents of a set of seven-year-old twin girls who already are thinking ivy league, D-1 scholarships, and who already shell out over $10,000 per twin, per year, for hockey.  He takes the reader to Europe and compares the (much more effective) approach the French have towards their youth soccer programs which begins later in childhood and are much less rote and machine-esque  in comparison to the American counterpart.  From AAU to the NCAA, from soccer to basketball to girl’s hockey .  .  . even fencing is not out of Farrey’s aim.

Such a comprehensive volume is difficult to summarize in a brief blog overview, but I’ll do my best.  Farrey essentially sees a system of youth sports in the United States that has become extremely broken as it increasingly marginalizes the poor who cannot afford to be part of the system, contributes to the lack of inactivity and obesity in the country as travel and elite leagues stymie opportunities that use to exist in local recreation leagues, creates false dreams of NCAA scholarships (reinforcing what Michael Novak said more than 30 years ago – that sports has effectively become the opiate of the masses), and is detrimental to the country’s performance in international competition (he argues that not only does the current system do great harm to our country’s children – it’s actually not the best program for promoting athletes who compete at the highest levels – he offers Australia as a better example of success – check out their medal count in recent Olympics).

youth-sports

There is a great deal in Farrey’s work that will take some time for me to digest.  I am amazed at the irony of his book being published by ESPN who he points to (carefully, but certainly) as helping contribute to these problems.

Farrey is not writing from a Christian point of view, per say, but a great deal of what he points out should resonate with Christians looking for their children to participate in sports.  If sports, indeed, is a spiritual power, we should be asking ourselves, “In what ways can my children participate and contribute to the created good, intent of sports” rather than shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Any parent who is wrestling for the best way their child might participate in youth sports would do well to read Farrey – and read it before you child is faced with the many opportunities that will come his or her way for participation in sports.  Be proactive, instead of sitting back and being marketed to.  Know what is best for your family.  Know what you are and aren’t willing to do.  Know how much travel you are willing to participate.  Know how much money you are willing to spend.  And keep your dreams realistic.  Don’t think about plans for your child to develop into a D1 athlete – think instead about how they can enjoy their childhood, and allowing sports to impact his or her life alongside other worthy endeavors.

When it comes to dreams of D-1 scholarships and opportunities at the “next level” I find it instructive to consider Farrey’s words as a reminder to stay grounded:

NCAA_Clearinghouse_Registration“I’ll keep it to one sentence.  If you’re gifted, really gifted, and lucky (right team, right coaches, right scheme, no wrecked knees) and play by the unwritten but uncompromising rules of the NCAA establishment – devote 360 days a year to your team and don’t make a habit of questioning the fairness of a system that uses your ability to perform in order to make hundreds of millions of dollars while you are on campus – then you might end up like Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, with a hunk of wood and metal in your left hand and a strirring national feature story (set to soft jazz) that memorializes your childhood descent into a Cleveland foster home and emergence as a student-athlete-celebrity, and how that Heisman Trophy you just won is going to motivate other kids to rise up from the ghetto in a similar manner, thereby helping to recycle the myth – critical to existing public policy – that big-time, commercialized college sports like D1 football and basketball are a viable route to a better life, when in fact there’s no real evidence to suggest that collectively the poor have been lifted by all that sport-centric dreaming and, besides, the Heisman isn’t what kids in the ghetto dream about anyway because chunks of metal and wood don’t put dinner on the family table and sometimes don’t even guarantee an NFL career, even if you so far have beaten the odds.”  (p. 146 – 147)

Let’s get realistic about our children’s involvement in sports – our communities will be better for it.