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, director of Baylor University's new sports ministry and chaplaincy program, which accepted its first incoming class last fall.
When done well, children's sports can show the value of play to a holistic Christian life, he said.
"Most adults don't know how to play," said White. "They just never learned. Oftentimes Christians are the worst at competition, and we need to educate them."
Sports can teach discipline, friendship, teamwork, and ethics if Christians approach them well, he added. White and his family miss Sunday worship for occasional games. Those events lead to conversations about how sports can build character but shouldn't take precedence over church.
Collin Sparks, executive director of camp ministries for Kanakuk Kamps, a sports-themed Christian summer camp, believes sports can help teach character formation. But he recognizes that sports can also represent misplaced cultural values, which the church should counter.
"The things that we esteem in our culture—even in the church—are success, accomplishment, being happy," he said. "We'll give thousands of dollars to play these games. But we won't give 20 minutes to sit down and read the Bible."
Many churches are making practical changes to acknowledge the draw of sports on family life, said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
According to Roozen, 4 in 10 evangelical and historically black churches have at least some program emphasis on team sports, fitness activities, or exercise classes. Compared to their peers, churches with a high emphasis on such programs tend to experience more growth, according to survey data.
Some churches have shifted schedules. "Here in New England, I know congregations that shut down youth programs during ski season," said Roozen. "Whether that's adaptive or totally capitulating, I'm not sure. They at least recognize that no one's going to show up. That's the world we've become."
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