Even though I have never seen the Harlem Globetrotters in person, I never missed them when they were on tv when I was a kid. And who my age can forget when the Harlem Globetrotters were on Scooby Doo?
Also unforgettable are the hapless Washington Generals, the Globetrotters’ perennial punching bag. Most people love rivalries, maybe not the stress of an uncertain outcome, but they love seeing their favorite team challenged and prevail. However, that was not the case with the typical Globetrotter fan, they knew almost infallibly the result of the game before it began. That was half the fun, was watching the Generals look foolish. The last time the Generals won was in 1971. The winning percentage of the Globetrotters is about 99.96%.
As a youth pastor, one that has worked with students for over 25 years. I can tell you that when it comes to a competition between sports and church, the church’s winning percentage isn’t much better than the Generals.
DISCLAIMER ONE: I can be unbalanced or disproportionately indignant on this, because I am a student pastor and because I am a sinner. I live with a low-grade indignation about the tension between sports and church because, as a student pastor, I’m told every week, multiple times a week, that a student can’t come to a spiritual growth opportunity. As a sinner, each of these events are events that I have personally invested myself in, so I confess that in my flesh I can take it personally when I view church events as “my events”. So parents, I want you to know that I do wrestle with the source of my zeal on this, whether it is spirit or flesh. Even as I type this, I do so prayerfully.
“Sorry coach, we cannot make it. We have a church commitment,” is something that many Christian students have never heard their parents say. Kids know that the Globetrotters always beat the Generals and that if there is a choice to be made between an athletic event (open gym, practice, game) and a spiritual one (Sunday School, discipleship, retreats), the sport is going to win almost every time.
Perhaps you are already feeling defensive about what you have read. But stop for a moment and ask, “Is there more than a grain of truth to what I am saying?” Some of you maybe already have a pre-loaded response. Because I’ve been around, I’ve already heard it. “Pastor, we make it to all the practices and games because we want our child to learn commitment.”
Helping a student learn the value of commitment is one of the best things a parent can do! But it is a fallacy that being committed to one thing will naturally produce commitment in other areas. The reality is that being fully committed to one things, by necessity, means you must be less committed to other things. A man may be fully committed to success in his job, resulting in less commitment to his wife. When you commit yourself fully to something, you learn commitment to that thing. The irony of the “I’m teaching commitment” is that while teaching kids commitment to sports, many have been taught to not value commitment to Christ’s church.
DISCLAIMER TWO: My family is committed to sports and to our kids’ success. We, the Hashes, scramble to get our kids to just about any place and anywhere the coaches or dance teachers ask them to be. Sometimes we have had events for all three kids in three cities at the same time and made it work (thanks to grandpa and uncle Todd). We have spent the extra money on outside training and clinics. We have driven to other states to watch one kid run a 2-minute race and another throw a discus 3 times. We have driven an hour to watch another child lose a 15-minute tennis match. But it is not an abnormal thing at all for us to say “no” to coaches and dance instructors. We tell our kids to give 110% BECAUSE we know that they will sometimes need to miss. We’ve said to coaches, “our son will almost never be at practice on a Wednesday” and our daughter will dance with a lesser skilled group on Tuesday so she can be at church on Wednesday. We’ve said, “No we aren’t going to add that dance if it means a 6th trip to Lexington on Sunday for dance practice.”
Something has to give, and is giving.
Of course, commitment to sports is GOOD! Commitment to teammates is GOOD! But in the last 15 years, sports starts younger, seasons last longer, commitment week to week is more intense, and there are more sports than there were 15+ years ago. Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because there are only so many hours in the day and week. A generation ago a regular church attender was 3 Sundays a month and usually one or two other programs a week (Sunday night or Wednesday night). Now the average is less than 2 Sundays a month and for many, nothing else.
The Time Trap
Two statements pastors hear from time to time, from the same parents. One: “We can’t make it to mid-week discipleship opportunities because of sports.” Two: “We can’t make it as often on Sunday morning because we are so tired. Sunday is the only time during the week when we can get any rest.”
But the truth is, no matter how long the week has been, if that same parent got a text from the coach on a Saturday night at 9 pm, telling them they have an unscheduled game in another town the next day, they would be there.
Two anecdotes from the last 12 hours.
First, I got a text from my 5th grader’s coach saying there is a practice tonight at 8 pm. We’ll be there! There’s nothing dramatic about that really, but it is notable, how one text from a coach and a busy family with a very busy schedule, will make it work.
Two, I saw on social media that the high school basketball team has practice at 5 am every Friday morning. AM, not PM. I tweeted the coach and asked what percentage of the boys make it there on time. And he said, “100%” Think about it, not one parent said, “that’s ridiculous, I’m not getting out of the house at 4:50 am to get my kids to basketball practice.” Of course they got them there.
DISCLAIMER THREE: If you haven’t noticed already, student pastors have major coach envy. Student pastors are jealous of the fact that coaches get a blank check commitment. For contrast, a student minister wishing to get kids to an event typically does these things: they create a graphic design, they email, they tweet, they text, they Instagram, they Facebook, they snap, and even make postcards with stamps and labels to send to families to entice them to choose to come to an event which is designed to make them a stronger Christian.
FYI, there is NOTHING wrong with that, by the way. It is admirable. So do not hear what I am NOT saying in this article, I am not criticizing sports. I am simply drawing attention to the disparity between sports and church commitments.
Closing diagnostic questions…
Many parents are prepared to give whatever it takes for their student-athlete to succeed. But how much is needed for your student to be a fully-devoted, life-long, world-changing follower of Jesus Christ? How much is needed for your student to be so thoroughly equipped in the faith that they could pass it on to your grandchildren? How much is needed for them to withstand the pressure of living out their faith in a post-Christian culture?
I can get the attention of parents very quickly when I talk about anti-Christian, secular powers in the culture that will try to pull your child away from the church when they turn 18. But the reality is that we are RIGHT NOW living in a culture that is tearing your kids away from the faith or keeping them distracted enough so that they won’t be established in the faith.
Many kids who walk away from the faith, will not do because they were savaged by anti-Christian wolves. No, many will have been groomed to walk away from it by their busy schedules.
The church is the bride of Christ, bought with His blood. The church is not the Washington Generals.