Sports Programming versus Youth Ministry

By Guest Contributor March 23, 2015

By Chris Maxwell

The night is almost here. You’ve spent weeks scheduling, funding, and organizing a youth ministry event for your students. Then the phone calls start coming in—from your volunteers who have to take their kids to ballgames and from key students who are playing in those same games. The lead singer of your worship team is coaching his nephew’s soccer game. The couple in charge of meals is serving in the concession stand.

All of your efforts and money and planning seem like a waste.

These days, families build their lives around student sports. Their weekends are devoted to traveling from game to game. Instead of showing up at church on Sunday morning, they listen to sermons on iPhones just before the national anthem begins at game one of a double header.

What can you do to get students out of these athletic commitments and back to your ministry events? Wrong question.

There are times to help families evaluate priorities and learn time management. But that isn’t the best approach in this case. Why not? Because what seem like obstacles right now can actually become opportunities. High school athletics have long been the enemy of youth ministry. It’s time turn that around.

Outreach from the bleachers

I recently received a variety of notes through email, text, Twitter, and Facebook from young men I formerly coached. One note was from a baseball player who was drafted by a major league team. Another was from a young man who coaches basketball in another country. Two separate notes were from men who had gone through life-changing experiences—one just became a father, and the other told me about the death of his father. One young man connected me with his brother who is going through rehab after a series of poor decisions. And a final note just thanked me for helping a young man know he was important when no one in his own family did.

Sports_quoteSome of these young men came to our church. Some didn’t. But in each of their lives, our church came to them. I invested time and energy to love them. My wife sat with them as they laughed and cheered and traveled to games together. Our sons became family to them. By coaching a sport and encouraging their hearts, I tried to reflect Christ.

As I read those notes, I remembered one of the research projects we did as I pastored in Orlando. Our leadership team wanted to know our most successful methods of outreach. The results were clear. The highest percentage of families by far came through our involvement in community sports. That involvement resulted from several lessons I had learned during my years as a youth pastor:

  • Meet people where they are instead of expecting them to come to us.
  • View church as wider than the sanctuaries’ walls.
  • Picture Jesus going to where the people are. Follow his example.
  • Serve meals to athletic teams before or after games.
  • Attend their games. Watch them play. Talk to them and their families. Listen instead of just telling them about the upcoming church events.
  • Just as churches seek to reach people from other nations by traveling to their countries, journey into the world of band performances, ballgames, dance routines, and career study projects.

Working with sports schedules

Of course it’s frustrating when our volunteers and workers choose athletic events over helping at our ministry events. We need support. We need our students to grow spiritually—not just with muscle or speed or points in their games. Here are a few practical suggestions as you face the realities of our culture while doing kingdom work:

  • Get schedules from area schools and sports programs as early as possible.
  • Build good relationships with leaders in those areas.
  • Work with other youth pastors in the area.
  • Schedule or host events (with proper permission) in conjunction with plans from area leagues or schools. Work with them, not against
  • Serve in concession stands. Mow lawns. Clean bathrooms. Bring water. Pray before games.
  • Guard your own family from being controlled by church duties and sports events. You can’t attend every event, so don’t try. Sometimes a text to ask about the game will mean as much as your attendance. Show that you are interested in their world.

I recently traveled to speak at a church for their Sunday services. But they asked me to arrive Friday instead of Saturday. They planned to serve dinner to the local high school football team and band before that night’s game, and they wanted me to speak. So I spent 20 minutes with each group, talking to young men and women and coaches and parents I had never met before. A few attended that church regularly. More would attend that Sunday to hear me speak. Why? Because of an ad or a tweet, a phone call or a sign? No. The local church adjusted their normal Friday routine and reached out to their community.

The conversation one student had with that church’s youth pastor was worth all the chicken and chips and desert. That student learned about care, concern, and “church service.” He realized that he finally had someone to talk to, someone who would actually listen.

Don’t take it too personally when youth and their families miss your events. Face the realities of our times. Embrace the tension. Love students and their families outside the walls of your church facilities.

CC Image courtesy hharryus on Flickr.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More