Part One: A Loving Rebuke of the Youth Sports Culture

If youth ministry has revealed anything to me about the current state of our students and families, it is the fact that the soul of a student often comes in second to their swing…or pitch…or shot…or performance. I know that will strike many as heavy-handed, graceless, and just plain wrong. But the longer I’ve been in student ministry, the more I am convinced of the contrary.

Please hear me say upfront that I do think sports are a good thing – a God-given gift to his children. I have so many fond memories of playing sports myself, and I know they can even be used as a tool to disciple students.

Sports, at the end of the day, are not the problem, we are.

Whenever good things get in the hands of sinners, bad things so commonly result. While I would encourage Christians to remain in the sphere of sports, I think we need to push back a bit on the current cultural climate.

In this three-part series of articles, I will address this pervasive problem of American youth sports culture. Please keep in mind that, although this series focuses on sports culture, other extracurricular activities – like theater or academic clubs, for example – can compete with the spiritual lives of our students in equal measure.

Two Concerns

I write these articles with two concerns on my mind. First, I am sincerely concerned for the souls of my teenagers. I have, or have had, students who struggle with sexual orientation, sexual sin, depression, stress, cutting, drug abuse and drinking, but there’s no time in their schedules to address any of these things.

I have students who battle with some of life’s weightiest issues – not least of which is the state of their spirituality – but I can’t minister to them, because their days are filled with so much activity. As far as I can tell, these aren’t isolated incidents either. I have been in student ministry long enough to hear lack of “time availability” as a continuous lament from many a student pastor.

Secondly, the last thing I want is to offend parents or students to such a degree that I damage future ministry opportunities. I don’t want to damage student or parental relationships. So let me be clear up front: I don’t have all the answers, I am just as much wrought with sin as anyone else.

For Instance…

If I’m really honest, there are times when I care more about my students attending my study so my ministry will look better. I am well-enough aware of my sin to know I have used students and will continue to struggle with using them to simply feed my ego.

Nonetheless, I’ve still been called by God to disciple students – and faithful discipleship involves rebuke.

So hear me out.

What Comes First?

Just last week a parent spoke with me matter-of-factly about attending their child’s sporting event during the time of worship at our church. This church member obviously knows what I do for a living, but – judging by the mannerisms and intonation of this conversation – placing church second didn’t seem to be all that significant. Church was just another club or option for their child’s involvement.

The consistency of parents rushing their children to the field, while begrudgingly bringing them to church (if they bring them at all) seems to display a certain blindness; blindness that needs to be addressed. So, while these words might come across as harsh, unloving, or graceless, the consequences of staying mute seem to be too great. In fact, I would argue that the more youth workers and pastors stay silent on this issue, the more the label of harsh, unloving, or graceless could be lobbed towards pastors themselves. To say it another way, if pastors are truly loving, they will be willing to step on toes over this issue.

Guarding from the Guilt-Trip

Speaking as a parent of four, I understand that guilt comes easy. I seem to perpetually feel guilty for not doing this or for doing too much of that. It isn’t difficult to make parents feel guilty for their decisions, and I pray that my words don’t add to the parade of parental self-accusation. Let’s all give ourselves some grace.

Today I hoped to ease us into this potentially controversial and guilt-inducing conversation (simply critiquing sports to some is seen as blasphemous).

In the two articles that follow, I will challenge parents to think a bit about why they make some of these decisions, and to help them see their priorities before God. We serve a faithful Father whose grace exceeds the comprehension of our fallen minds. So, grace must be the motivating factor for our families. No doubt, some of what has been asserted and will be asserted will sting, but I pray that the intention behind these possible stings will be interpreted as loving.

I pray for soft hearts, willing to hear from one broken sinner to another – someone who deeply cares for the hearts of teenagers – about a shift in the way we view sports.

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever. 

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.