A few weeks ago, our son's baseball team played its last inning, and his coach walked to the bleachers. He wanted to nominate our son for the all-star team. It's a thrill for any boy who loves the game like ours does: a chance for a summer's worth of at-bats, dugout chatter, travel to other towns, and improved skills.
With games on Sundays.
This was the first time our family had to confront the issue of Sunday sports, but, with three athletic children, it won't be the last. Pastors say children's sports have become the biggest challenge to church attendance for American families.
The idea that Chariots of Fire runner Eric Liddell made it all the way to the 1924 Olympic Games before being asked to compete on a Sunday seems almost quaint. Today, the littlest T-ball player is routinely expected to show up on Sunday, and the demands only escalate as children get older.
The Association of Religion Data Archives recently reported that some churches have responded to the loss of families by adding alternative service times on Saturday, so church members can attend both sports and worship. Additionally, many churches have increased their offerings of sports-related activities, hoping to appeal to families who prioritize athletic involvement.
While churches and parents who endorse Sunday sports may think they've found a solution for their families, postponing worship-focused Sundays until after the season is finished forces children miss out the spiritual life lessons they need to learn right now. "For while bodily training is of some value," says 1 Timothy 4:8, "godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also the life to come."
Sports are good. It's good for children to use their bodies, to cooperate with others, to compete under authority, and to discipline themselves to perfect a skill. But the triumphs of the playing field are a dim shadow of the true blessings of Sunday.
Our sports-centric Sundays take our children out of the place where they can find their closest and most edifying relationships. The fellowship of the church is cross-generational, diverse, and unusual to a world that sees five guys with a basketball as the ultimate expression of teamwork. Christian parents, however, need to consistently allow their children to experience the richness of being knit together (Col. 2:2) with Christ's Body.
Our weekly detour to the ball field, instead of showing our children how much we love them, actually promotes a lie: children are not important in worship. Nothing could be further from the heart of our Lord who said "let the little children come to me . . . for of such is the kingdom" (Matt. 19:14). The worship of children is not expendable; their halting notes are just as precious as trained adult voices. When children are not present on Sundays, the whole team of God's people suffers. Our children need to know that the worship they offer is vital.
Only by saying "no" to Sunday sports can we allow our children the privilege of using that day to train their souls for eternity. Sunday worship is the pinnacle of the Christian life because, in it, God's people meet with God himself, but it takes practice. It takes years of learning the songs of Zion before they come readily to mind and tongue. It takes patient training of heart and ears to listen to the Scripture preached and to gain benefit from it. It takes diligence, week after week, to truly enter into the public prayers.
Worship will be the unceasing work of eternity (Rev. 4:8). When we shuttle the family minivan from one Sunday game to another, we are actually depriving our children of vital practice time. Practice for heaven.
Turning down Sunday sports also teaches our children about God's authority. "The coach doesn't go to church," said one Christian parent, "so he schedules all the practices for Sunday morning, and the kids have to be there." Ultimately, though, the God who created time, who made the world in six days and rested on one, and who commanded that one whole day be set aside for worship, is the authority over our time. And the question is not merely how to squeeze a worship service into our busy weekend, but how to obey the God who requires a Sabbath. Parents do well to teach their children from their first youth soccer game that only the Lord can tell us how to use our time.
Sunday sports do not pose a unique challenge; the issue does not go away as our children enter into adulthood. Throughout life, they will confront the temptation to allow others to dictate their use of Sundays. Inevitably, their employers will schedule occasional meetings for Sunday, their relatives will plan a Sunday reunion, and Sunday will, of course, be the day their neighbors choose for the annual block party. Our children need to learn early that no coach—or anyone else—has greater authority over their time than the Lord.
Refusing to participate in Sunday sports is not easy. It's not easy for parents, and it's certainly not easy for children whose friends celebrate victories without them. But the truth is that Christianity is not an easy life. Following Christ is a path of self-denying cross-taking and Jesus himself urged potential followers to count the cost of commitment (Luke 9:23-27, 57-62; 14:25-33). We give our children an unrealistic picture of Christianity—and set them up for disillusionment—when we smooth the path of faith ahead of them.
Christ's grace, though, is more than sufficient for what we give up, and well-meaning parents can obscure this, too. "And he [Jesus] said to them, 'Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life'"(Luke 18:29-30). If we never allow our children to make sacrifices for Christ, they will never experience his rich repayment.
If you happen to be at the ballpark this summer, our son will not be playing Sunday games with the all-star team. Yet, on Sundays I trust that he will not be missing out. Instead, he will be learning lessons of infinitely greater worth. Sitting at the feet of Jesus is the good portion, which will not be taken away (Luke 10:42).