soccer ball with trophy

Backward Priorities: Athletics First, Church Last*

My kids rarely ask because they know what I’ll say: “Yes, you have to go to church.” In truth, there are exceptions, but my kids know that skipping church is never a given.

OK, wait. Hear me: I know that we have been blessed to raise our children in a church with sound biblical teaching, qualified adult volunteers and a variety of interesting programs. I truly do understand that sometimes godly community eludes even the most faithful seeker. So, if you are in that agonizing place of longing, please know I get it. I’ve been there and I know it is a dark, dark space. My prayers are with you as you search for a church family.

I’m really talking more to folks who are currently connected to a congregation of believers, to those of us who regularly make choices about whether or not to attend the church we’ve chosen to call our own.

Back in the ’70s when I was a child, I went to church a lot. This was not, I confess, out of a burning desire to draw near to my Heavenly Father. No, I went to church mainly because my earthly father was my pastor, and also because church was my social activity center. Not much happened in the small towns of my childhood beyond the doors of the church. In 2015, things are different. Kids have more options today and church is just one of many places where children can spend their after-school hours.

There is one option though, that rises above all others: sports. Think about it. Let’s say you are a teen with three conflicting obligations on a given Wednesday night. You have a volleyball game; you have to study for an English test; and you have church. Which one are you going to do? There’s no discussion is there? You have to go to the game; your team depends on you! You'll study when you get home — even if you have to stay up late.

Athletic responsibilities also take priority over family obligations. If you are playing in a tournament the same day as a family reunion, you’ll most likely forgo your Aunt Nell’s homemade macaroni and cheese and suit up for your game. The family will forgive you, but you can’t let down the team!

Athletics. It’s where many of today’s Americans put their time, their money, and their unwavering focus. And I’m not sure why that’s the case. Most of us aren’t thinking our child is going to be the next Mia Hamm or Serena Williams. We might hope they’ll play in high school, maybe get a scholarship to college. But that’s rarely the case. In fact, many student athletes quit long before the recruiters scout them out because … well, because they’ve been playing that sport for a decade and a half!

Maybe it’s all the benefits of sports. Teamwork, sportsmanship, persistence, endurance, integrity: all these things are modeled and formed in athletic settings. Plus, friendships are formed across socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. All that, and kids get valuable physical exercise too. So what’s my beef? It's this: in this country, too many people make sports — more specifically their children’s sports — their top priority.

When I’ve inquired about kids who missed Bible study, the excuse, “She has a soccer game,” is offered as if there’s no escaping it. The tone could just as easily be applied to the statement, “She’s incarcerated at a maximum security facility in Outer Mongolia.” My response is expected to be something like, “Oh! A soccer game. I didn’t realize! Well, of course she can’t be here.”

Listen, I’m the first to admit that church is not perfect. There will be times you or your kids are bored at church, times you don’t think your family has gotten anything out of the experience, and times one or all of you may leave with hurt feelings. Still, church offers something that is difficult to find elsewhere. It offers connection to the Body of Christ: to the saints who’ve gone before you, those who worship with you now, and those who will come after you.

See, I just wonder sometimes if America has the whole thing upside down. What if for the last 30 years or so, we’ve been prioritizing in the exact opposite order of importance? What if we should be viewing spiritual formation as primary, then family obligations, then academics, and finally athletics? What would that be like in our culture today?

Well, at the very least, we’d have to learn to say things like, “I’m sorry, he can’t play games scheduled for Wednesdays because he has children’s choir at church that night.” Or, “Oh, I wish she could go to that swim meet, but on Sunday mornings, we are with our church family.” And even, “No, my kids won’t be at basketball camp. They have Vacation Bible School that week.” It wouldn’t be easy. But if we are talking about lifelong well-being, what is more important than spiritual formation? What will sustain our children into the adult years, as parents, employees, spouses?

I know one thing. It’s not Little League.

*This piece was first published on September 21, 2015 by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there.

About the Author Aileen Lawrimore

Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 28 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.

Leave a Comment:

Anonymous says September 25, 2015

So very well said. This has been a sore spot in our household for 13 years!!!

    Aileen Lawrimore says September 25, 2015

    Thanks for reading! It is so hard when everyone is not in agreement, isn't it?

Add Your Reply