Every week this year we are exploring our theme of “The People.” Today we are talking about….

The People whose children play sports

abby prat

While a Missouri-native, Abby Pratt currently lives in Richmond, VA where she serves as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Mission at Central Baptist Church. Abby graduated from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in 2014 and was ordained by Peace Haven Baptist Church (also in Winston-Salem, NC). With roots in Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia, Abby is a fan of KU Basketball, the Kansas City Royals, CookOut Milkshakes, and tacky Christmas lights.

An interesting phenomenon has been taking place over the past decade or so. Where families once gathered together on Sunday mornings in churches, now more often than not, community is happening on soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and performance halls. Travel sports draw in young, talented teenagers and then send them all across the state, country, and in some cases, the world. Students have come to learn discipline from balancing practices, competitions, and travel alongside school, family, and social lives. Parents faithfully sign-up for carpools, book hotel rooms, fundraise huge amounts of money, and sit together week after week as they cheer on their children. The rhythm of their lives revolves around travel sports. Teams become families and these families offer each other love, care, and support. Teammates grow up together, become champions together, and overcome big losses together. Research shows that when children are involved in these types of sports they have higher self-esteem and are less likely to get into trouble. Within this shift it seems worthwhile to ask, how then does church fit into the travel-sports-family’s life? Is youth group or the church even needed when one has a travel sports team?
A common response by the church is to critique travel sports and those who participate in them. The programs that once made our churches vibrant and “successful” are shrinking and dying because the majority of children and teenagers are at practice or games for their sports teams. Several articles have already been published by ministers and religious groups sending this very message and creating quite a stir on Facebook and other social media platforms. I must admit that more than once I have sat down to write a scathing letter when a director plans a rehearsal on the Sunday the youth are scheduled to sing in worship or a coach holds practice every Sunday morning. But, instead of drawing a line in the sand and declaring that individuals must choose between church and travel sports, why don’t we try and work together? It is my assumption that when churches, families, and teams have a healthy relationship the student will benefit the most. Isn’t that what we all want most?
In addition to basketball courts, swimming pools, and show choir stages, students need spiritual nurturing. A faith that can offer guidance as they discern the next steps in their lives will also keep them out of trouble and direct them down a path that might just change the world. Knowing that there is a God who will never leave their side presents for them a safety-net and way to process personal struggles and grief. Hearing sermons and bible studies about how Jesus sat down and ate with the poor and rejected invites them to explore a counter-cultural awareness of community that challenges them to see more than “winners” and “losers.” And learning to pray for those who are sick, poor, and oppressed teaches them to have a sensitivity to suffering beyond themselves. When students gather with me at church, this is what I seek to share with them.
In my current youth group I have many high school students who are excelling as young athletes. In order to still create space during the week in which we are together, weekly small groups have been transformed into group outings to watch one another compete in sporting events. In addition to this, I personally try to attend each of my students’ games at least once a year. Within the larger church family we celebrate with our students in their accomplishments and pray for them through their travels, injuries, and struggles. I am willing to be creative with our ministry for youth in order that they can succeed in various areas of their life. While believing this whole-heartedly, I also strongly believe that students must learn that they are more than the sport they play.
As families, my hope is that grandparents and parents will continue to teach and engage their students in conversations about the Bible, faith, and service whether they attend church once a week, month, or year. Teach them that the church loves and cares for them and guide them to be involved in the ministries of the church. In addition to this, it is my sincere hope that directors, coaches, and individuals who organize travel leagues will take into consideration the need for balance within the lives of these young people (and honestly, themselves). Just as the church is willing to create space for travel sports, travel sports need to respect and allow time for families and religious groups to be together. Life cannot be all about competition. As a youth minister I am not going to try and compete with the love for and value of travel sports. I will continue to reach out, nurture, and ask my students and their families to love and value their individual faith development and their faith community.