Church v. Soccer

By Jennifer McKenzie

There’s a bullet that we’ve somehow managed to dodge for lo these many years as a family. And we knew it would hit us soon enough. Well, this week it hit. We got the word from our all-star soccer team coach via email that our big tournament games had been scheduled: Game 1 would be played on Saturday at 9:15 a.m. Game 2 would be later that day at 2:15 p.m. Ah, but Game 3 would be played….yep, here it comes: Sunday morning at 8 a.m. And, on Father’s Day no less!

I really had to think hard about the email reply: send just to the coach or hit “reply to all?” I decided to broadcast. Not to be snippy, but to be a witness. As someone who has led youth groups in the church for the past 20 years and understands the value of teamwork; as someone who is a soccer mom who roots HARD for the home team; as someone who is a priest, albeit on a mini-sabbatical between calls…I am just plain sick and tired of the level to which our kids’ organized sports has risen and the unrealistic demands that these leagues and teams place on families. So I braced myself and began to type:

“Hi coach:

We will see you on Saturday. However, Sunday is a no-go for us before noon – we’re just not willing to bend to the cult of sports on this one! (I can’t believe they would schedule a Father’s day tournament so early on a Sunday morning in the first place…). If there is an afternoon game on Sunday, let us know and we’ll get the guys there.

See you at practice tonight, barring more bad weather.”

(Can’t you just hear the “Chariots of Fire” theme song playing in the background?)

Our 12-year-old twins, who have played a heck of a season both on offense and defense – their team placed 1st in the league for the regular season and 2nd in the league play-offs – were chagrined at best when we broke the news to them. “Mooooo-oooommmm!” “Yes, guys, I know it’s disappointing, but you’ll get to play in the first two games. And, besides, soccer is just a sport; Christianity is our way of life.” Well that one went over like a fart in church.

Is it just me? I don’t think it is. Soccer, hockey, lacrosse, basketball, travel tiddly-winks – you name the sport, and there are kids staying away from church in droves because of it. “It’s just for a season,” their parents will say. “We really hate that this takes them away from youth group/Sunday School/children’s choir – but we just don’t know what to do. We’ve made a commitment to the team.” Uh-huh. Hmmph. Interesting.

Recently, I read a brilliant take on something seemingly tangential, but I think really at the heart of this hostile takeover by the junior sporting industry. Someone in an article or book somewhere smartly said something like this: (if anyone recognizes this thought, please let me know so I can give proper credit) “Parents seem to take a different approach to the faith lives of their children than to any other aspect of their development. ‘I don’t think it’s healthy to make them to go to church. I think they should make up their own minds about what they believe – but I do want to expose them to it, so we encourage them to go when we can,’ they say. But what if we took this approach with other areas of their lives? ‘I was forced to attend school as a kid and thought it was pretty boring – sometimes torturous. So, I don’t want to make my kid go to school – that would be unhealthy. We’ll take him the first couple of times to expose him to it, and then let him decide.’ Or maybe, ‘I think sports and fitness is a good thing, so I’m taking my daughter to the pool. But I don’t want to force her to swim– I just want to expose her to swimming. So I won’t make her wear a suit. I’ll just have her look at the water, maybe stick her toes in, and watch some other folks swim a bit – see what she thinks.”

This notion of “exposing” kids to faith – with a fragile level of commitment and a lack of determination and diligence on the part of parents – just seems ludicrous to me. If you don’t practice your faith, you’ll never really get the hang of it, or even know if it’s something you want to get the hang of. When you’re a member of a church, you make a commitment to the team (a.k.a. ‘the Body of Christ’) to be there – not just when you feel like it – but pretty much every darned Sunday for worship and at least occasionally during the week for ministry.

Look, I love sports. I love what sports has taught my kids. Sports are good for physical fitness, emotional development, and self-discipline. And sports can provide a good analogy for a life of faith. But playing sports is not a substitute for that life of faith. When we as parents allow sports to encroach and even supersede the practice of faith – which for Christians happens primarily on Sunday mornings – then we are compromising the most important facet of their development as responsible, compassionate, beloved children of God: an inner life of faith lived out robustly in a committed community of embrace and nurture.

The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie, keeps the blog The Reverend Mother. She is the author of “Benedictine Spirituality and Congregational Life: Living Out St. Benedict’s Rule in the Parish” from the Winter 2004 issue of Congregations Magazine.

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