Friday, June 22, 2012

Faith, Sports, and the Hearts of Our Children

Before I begin this post I want to say that I am not a parent, as in I do not have my own flesh and blood children that I have to make decisions, HARD decisions for every day. I have not had the personal experience myself, both growing up, nor as an adult as to what this blog entails. But what I do have is a group of high school and middle school students that I see each Sunday (often times more than that) that I care deeply for. And this blog is not just for them, it is because of them, and for their parents.

Sports. I did not grow up in Houston, or in Texas for that matter, and the role that sports played in my 40,000-person town, was NOTHING like it is now or here. I have a hard time distinguishing whether the current role sports plays in the lives of children is a product of the time or place or both. Regardless, growing up - the role sports played in my life, the lives of those around me, etc. - was nothing like it is now.

Let me first say that I think sports are great. Seriously. I know after reading this post you might think I am one of those people who would become a parent that would keep their kid on the sofa watching TV all day, but I am not.

Over the past three years in youth ministry I have seen and heard some crazy things. But recently, I heard something that ABSOLUTELY blew my mind, heart, and soul out of the water. A student, a kindhearted, funny, joyful student, who was an outstanding, all star (multi-sport) player, was held back a grade (in middle school) so that they could be the bigger, stronger, better player on the team, the next year; getting the opportunity to play another year of middle school sports, and ultimately getting another year of high school sports. 

I have known this amazing student for just over a year; however, seeing them only a few times throughout our first meeting, and this past one. Last year, after spending a week with this precious kiddo, I placed them in that 'wow, that is one amazing student' category and hoped they would become a full time part of our youth ministry. Well, time passed by, and I just only recently had the chance to catch up with this student.  This student was completely different. Not just your regular middle school changes in stature or behavior, but it was like someone had come in and switched that wonderful light in them, that I saw almost a year ago, off - and they were now misbehaving, acting out, looking saddened, and crying for attention.

I had no idea what was going on until I was told about how this student had been pulled out of their school, away from friends, away from teammates, away from the familiar, and held back, put in the same grade, at a new school, with new people, and lots of change. A lifestyle that was comfortable and familiar, perfect as it was, was then filled with a different sport each day, no time with best friends, or even dinner around the table.

I cannot even imagine.

This one instance placed a great fear inside my heart for students (both now and going forward). However, I have been privy to many of other the conflicts that arise between church time, family time, and sports time. If we just took a look at church and Sunday attendance alone, we would see that Sunday is no longer the last remaining sacred day of the week - meaning, even if every other day of the week was taken up by sports, school, extracurricular activities... Sunday, for the longest time, seemed to remain free and sacred, for family and church time. But this is just no longer the case.

Students can hardly even be free for a weeklong, in town, missions experience without having to leave at some point for something else (usually sports related). AND what makes me the most sad about that situation - is if given the choice, without pressure, or a predisposition that they would be missing out on something greater, more important, every student that I encountered during a recent missions experience, did NOT want to leave.

Hang in here with me for just a second longer....

Kids are so overwhelmed with the pressure to be in sports (by their parents, by their peers, by their coaches, by themselves) that if they miss the opportunity to be in sports, it's as if they are an oddball, left out of the crowd. It doesn't matter that a family might have to make the choice between keeping a summer lake house that has been in the family for years, or have two of their daughters play club volleyball at the price tag of $4000 per year, per kid. That price is for ONE, just one club sport. That doesn't even include all of the extras you encounter for that year (travel, new uniforms, competitions...etc.). Now take that and multiply it by 2 other sport, per kid (because one is not usually all they play), and now you are up to per kid, more than some college tuition.

I might be the only person in all of Houston who thinks this is absolutely absurd, but I think it is ABSOLUTELY ABSURD.

And here is the deal my friends (whom I love, and whose children play all kinds of sports) we put so much time and effort into our children's schedules, filling them with basketball, football, ballet, acting, violin lessons, cheer leading, etc., because we do not want our kids to be overweight, lazy, or unsuccessful. And then we also tell our children that having faith is important, and we take them to church 1.2 Sundays a month - where as a family (maybe) we connect with a community of faith (filled with others who we maybe see 1/7 Sundays, because their schedule is just as crazy as ours). Then sometimes, we even send our kids on retreats or mission trips. So then at the end of the day, our children are supposed to be well mannered, upstanding, trophy winners, who will all play division one sports, be a team player, go to college, earn a degree, and most importantly, love Jesus with all that they are.

Did you know?

1 out of every 16,000 students will play professional sports. Only 2 out of every 100 students will play ANY COLLEGE SPORTS at all.


Only 4 out of 10 students will have an active growing faith beyond high school.


At the end of the day we put more emphasis on our children's schedules than their hearts. We get so caught up in the whirlwind of being busy that we cannot see that there is something so much more important at stake. Parents, you tell me all the time how much you want your children to know and love Jesus. And I believe that you do. But I also believe that in order for that to happen we are ALL going to have to start asking some serious questions.

At the end of the day what is going to make or break your child's heart and soul? Is it sports? Is it faith? It is no longer, nor has it ever been enough to just drop your student off at church and expect that they will gain a growing faith in CHRIST (who ultimately is the most important factor in the eternity of your child). For the majority, we cannot expect that if what we want (our child to know and have a growing faith in Jesus) that it will happen because of club volleyball or one more year in pre-college sports. It has to be so much more than that. (Another blog for sure)

Tough thoughts for all of us significant voices...parents, coaches, and youth leaders alike.

In HIS love,


  1. Oh Sara, I am so with you on this one. From observing the families that I serve, both in youth ministry and in my work as a teacher, I feel like I see this all the time. It makes me so sad.

    In the community I grew up in, my dad (a pediatrician serving the same area for over 30 years) says that sports are more of an issue than drugs/alcohol in terms of how much they affect children's health and wellness-- because some start this pace at such a young age and continue it for so many years...

    I'm not a parent either, as you know :) so I don't mean to sound judgmental of anyone's choices, but I think it's an important conversation for the church to have!

  2. Well said Sarah Kinsey ! When parents come to us desperate that someone fix their child, they seldom realize that these performance priories were exactly what keeps many kids from growing their soul. Blessed to watch God use you girl!

  3. I've been involved in both the volleyball community and the church from a very young age. With 9 years of club volleyball completed and many beach volleyball tournaments during the summer it's needless to say that I wasn't present every morning in church. When I was younger my relationship with Christ was more structured and more defined by the time I spent in the church building alone. However, I learned that God was with me every Sunday morning whether I was in a pew or on the court.

    It's not that one will have a growing faith because of a sport (like club volleyball) but one can most definitely have a growing faith in spite of playing a competitive sport. Playing the sport also leads to friendships with people that aren't always part of the church community. If all the Christian parents kept their children out of these sports then there would be a greater divide in humanity and fewer opportunities to reach out to nonbelievers. Through volleyball I've seen people accept Christ and some major things happen outside the walls of the church.

    With that being said, I do agree with the fact that the heart should always take priority over athletics, or anything else for that matter. But I do believe a growing faith can coexist with a crazy athletic schedule. I may be the minority in this situation, however, I just graduated high school, will go on to play D1 volleyball, and have a faith of my own that will definitely go on past my high school years. I think it's really all about the pressure the parents put on the kids versus their own choices and how they want to live their lives.

  4. I love this blog post, and wrestled with many of these same issues when our boys were in elementary school. My husband played sports in high school and college, including Division I football, but we looked at the 'youth sports culture' surrounding our boys and decided to mostly opt-out of a system that seems to be more about the egos of parents than fun for the kids. My sons did play on a handful of seasonal teams, usually through 'church league' here in town which tends to be less intense than some of the other organizations.
    Although I agree with you wholeheartedly, there are some real benefits to playing organized sports, and some costs to the decisions our family has made. I'm going to write them as best I can, just to give you some insight into dedicated, Christian parents that come to different conclusions.
    First, a coach is often a 'significant adult' in the life of a student. A great coach will encourage and push a kid to develop talents the kid didn't even know they had. If the coach is a committed Christian, the coach will often serve as a leader and a mentor to the kids on the team, and model the Christian Life in a positive way. This is what every parent I know hopes for their kid when they sign up for a sports team. I send my kids to summer sports camp founded by a coach (Bill Lantz) who was an incredible influence on men now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who would say that he was one of the most significant contributors to their success in life. Bill required a lot from the boys that played for him, but I firmly believe that he would never have suggested missing church for sports practice.
    Of course, youth sports has its share of psycho-crazy-coaches (my oldest son's first tackle football coach was the subject of a lengthy expose in the Houston Press about these kinds of people), and it is so difficult to make a decision to pull your kid off a team in this circumstance as you don't want them to be branded as a 'quitter.' But most parents do not want that kind of crazy-coach for their kids. You simply don't know what you're getting when you sign the registration form.
    Second, there is a cost to 'opting out.' After just a few years of 'sitting out' my athletic son's skill level was far lower than his peers when he did decide (on his own) to play sports in middle school. As a result of his parents' decision to 'opt out', he ended up not being competitive in the 'big 3' of baseball, football and basketball. There is a social cost as well: the members of those teams are virtually guaranteed 'social status' at middle or high school, and since our sons do not play; they are in other social circles.
    Third, the lessons of sports translate very well into American business culture: success on the playing field requires self-discipline, hard-work, competitive drive and the ability to perform as both an individual and a team-member. Many people, including myself, want to instill those values in our children as they will help position them for success later in life, and playing sports for a good coach can provide hands-on opportunity to live out those values as a young person.
    More recently, my husband and I are proud to support Spring Spirit Baseball, which uses sports to minister to the economically disadvantaged kids in Spring Branch. So I do believe that youth sports can be used for God's glory, as well as being an idol. IMHO, It comes down to the attitudes of the parents and coaches and being intentional about providing Christian training and discipleship in the lives of the kids. Certainly, it’s easier for my kids to be at Sunday School, Youth Group and Retreats, than a kid who plays 'serious' sports year-round, but as parents, we model priorities to the kids. It's okay to have them miss a game now and then to do something that enriches their faith life -- a retreat, camp, mission trip, even church or young life. That's what parenting is about.

  5. I just re-read my post, and realize that I didn't say a couple of important things: first, my sons are playing tennis and both of them are playing very well, and for a great coach.

    Second, the link to Spring Spirit Baseball is below. Check them out and support them if you live in the greater Houston area!