Nearly 1 in 3 Americans told Gallup they rarely or never attended religious services in 2012. And many pastors blame the secularization of Sundays, led by a commonly perceived culprit: children's sports.
That's what Steve McMullin found after the Acadia Divinity College professor interviewed church leaders and members at shrinking congregations. His study, published in the Review of Religious Research, showed that pastors most often identified "competing Sunday activities"—led by youth athletic events—as the primary reason for declining worship attendance.
The sentiment echoes the 2008 Faith Communities Today survey. On its list of "obstacles making it difficult for people to regularly participate in [a] congregation," pastors cited driving distance, conflicts with work schedules, and fear of crime (among other reasons).
But children's school and sports activities proved to be "by far the greatest obstacle." This held true for rural, suburban, and urban churches alike.
However, McMullin said, other studies show that children's sports are likely not the main culprit. The families involved in sports programs are generally the families that still attend church, he said, so the real cause of shrinking attendance likely lies elsewhere.
Whether or not organized sports are Public Enemy No. 1 for churches, they still represent a symbolic challenge: how to engage members in a changing culture.
"Sunday has lost its sacredness for most people," McMullin said. "Churches need to ask, 'Since that's true, how do we then respond?' "
Rather than resenting organized sports, churches should learn to embrace their value, said John White, ...1