A View from the Pew: Losing the Game Against Sports

American footballThere are three ways you can tell what people care about: what they talk about, how they spend their time, and how they spend their money. The scoreboard in church vs. sports shows sports with a sizable lead in all three categories.

At the risk of sounding like one of those NFL pre-game shows dominating the airwaves each Sunday about the time the faithful should be rising from their seats for the opening hymn, let’s break it down one phase at a time:


From time immemorial, people have engaged in chit chat about local teams and their performance. Like the weather, it’s usually safe territory for people who don’t have much else in common. How about those Braves?

It’s particularly noticeable during football season. Listen to the conversations in the hallways and foyers of churches across America—particularly the South—on a fall Sunday and you will hear passionate descriptions of turnovers, play-calling, officiating, recruiting, and unsportsmanlike conduct.

This is even true for pastors. Trying to be relevant to the congregation naturally leads proclaimers to give in to sports talk.

Participation in fantasy sports has ratcheted up sports-related dialogue even further, though I once warned in New South Essays against this practice. It’s gotten to the point that we are much more likely to talk sports than faith when we are at church.

Think about this: when was the last time you heard two people discussing a spiritual topic at church, not including Bible study or prayer meeting? When was the last time you heard someone talking about football at church, including Bible study or prayer meeting? If church conversations had metrics like Twitter, football talk would definitely be trending. Sports 1, Church 0.


So if we remove the amount of time spent talking about sports from consideration, we still have to acknowledge that sports activities consume an inordinate amount of our time, which in our fast-paced modern lives is our most precious resource.

One litmus test for the church’s flagging influence in society is the microcosm of this entire discussion: worship service vs. ballgame. Culturally, this was an easy win for church a few decades ago. Only so-called pagans and heathens would choose to skip church to attend a sporting event, and they would be soundly denounced from the pulpit for doing so.

Today, in fact this week, faithful Christians who are otherwise committed to their church will have their attendance impacted by sports. Maybe they are going to the early service to be able to get downtown for the pro football game. Maybe they went out of town to see their college team play an out-of-state rival.

But it’s not just going to sports events that consumes church time. Now we have to contend with youth sports, a more insidious tactic in the sports vs. church competition.

Again, a generation ago, no one could have imagined it. Now, we have let ourselves slip into a mindset of participation at all costs. We tell ourselves we are doing this for our kids to help them get better at their chosen sports or possibly earn a scholarship to college. We tell ourselves that we don’t schedule the games, we have to compete when they are scheduled.

Has your church attendance been impacted by attending a sporting event in the last six months? When was the last time your children’s or grandchildren’s participation in sports impacted your church attendance? When was the last time church impacted your choice to attend a game or your children’s or grandchildren’s participation in sports? Sports 2, Church 0.


Sports is big business.

At the risk of sounding like a stewardship campaign, let me raise this question: how do you decide how much to give your church? The biblical standard of the tithe, or 10 percent, has been relegated to an unattainable ideal in today’s society.

A 2007 study revealed the average annual contribution to religious organizations by religious households to be $1,423 for households earning less than $100,000 annually. A study published in 2015 by the Aspen Institute on sports activity and children found travel-team parents spend an average of $2,266 annually on their child’s sports participation, and at the elite levels some families spend more than $20,000 per year.

It’s not hard to imagine that if you combined spending on youth sports with spending on sporting event attendance, sports easily comes out ahead of what people spend on church, either in participating in activities or giving.

When was the last time you paid $100 or more for your family to attend a sporting event? When was the last time you paid $100 or more to participate in a church activity? Sports 3, Church 0.


There is one final phase of this competition that I believe trumps the other three and can help the church pull off a dramatic, come-from-behind upset victory: life impact.

Yes, sports can teach us important life lessons about teamwork, physical fitness, and exerting to reach a goal, but at its heart, church can teach us how to be in right relationship with God and our fellow humans. At the end of a game, being a sports fan is an empty pursuit. At the end of worship, being a person of faith gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

I will admit, the impact phase is still up for debate. Some churches make no difference in people’s lives. I would argue that on the whole, church still comes out ahead, but individual exceptions are readily available.

If church loses the competition for making a difference in people’s lives then insert a sports metaphor for defeat here. I’m praying that we all come to our senses and recognize how incongruent our habits are compared to our professed convictions. This really isn’t a game.

Lance Wallace_for_webLance Wallace is a Baptist layperson who works as Director of Communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He previously served as Director of Communications with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Lance blogs at newsouthessays.com.

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