Part Three: Sports vs. Eternity

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In this three-part series of articles, John Perritt addresses the pervasive problem of American youth sports culture. Read the first two articles in the series here.

At the close of a back-to-school event our youth ministry hosted, a student wandered up to thank me for the work the youth staff had invested in that night. He thanked me for the fun. He thanked me for the fellowship the night fostered. He thanked me for the new relationships the event assisted in building. And, after the ‘thanks’ had been issued, he then informed me that he would see me again in November…

…It was August at the time.

The student reminded me that football season was starting back up and, as a result, he wouldn’t be around for the next several months. This was a great student. A leader. One I hoped would be an example to younger students. However, “See you in November” was a clear communication that his commitment to the team came first. In that moment, I wanted to shake him and ask about his commitment to Jesus Christ (!!!), but obviously I thought better of it.

While I know a few families involved in sports who are also equally committed to the local church, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say once again that I’m concerned the scales are tipped in favor of the sports culture.

In my twelve years of student ministry, I can testify to the fact that the spiritual discipleship of the teen often gets less attention than the “discipleship” over their athletics or academics. These are what often receive the priority in the lives of our youth.

It seems that many Christian families have lost an eye for the eternal when it comes to the culture of youth sports. I often see great investment in the lesser kingdom and less investment in the Greater One. In his book Family Ministry Field Guide, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones states, “If children were a gift for this life only, maybe it would make sense to raise them with calendars that are full but souls that are empty, captives of the deadly delusion that their value depends on what they accomplish here and now.”

I fear it is the “here and now” that often blinds the discernment of the Christian parent.  And this, to be fair, is an issue for Christianity in general.  We are tempted to focus on this life and not the life to come. This is why the Apostle Paul (and much of the New Testament for that matter) called us to focus on what is unseen.

Shifting Perspective

Picture this scenario for a minute. A father and his child walk through the woods on a three-day hike of the Appalachian Trail. As the middle-school-aged son leads the aging joints of the father around a bend in the trail, they both hear a rustling in the bushes. Just as soon as they hear this disturbance, a black bear charges towards them – with the father still several yards behind, and the bear making a direct charge at the son.

Any parent – father or mother – would, unhesitatingly fight to place themselves between their child and an angry bear. The parent would gladly place his or her life in harm’s way to give their child a chance for survival. While that is true, it seems that many parents do not see that the path their child is on – when it comes to the sports and busyness culture – is often extremely detrimental to their spiritual growth. The vast majority of youth athletes don’t have time to nourish their souls in the Word and prayer, yet there is a real devil exerting time and energy toward their destruction.

Many will protest the idea that over-involvement in sports is detrimental to their child’s spiritual life. However, it is a reality of the unseen world that there is an exceedingly wicked villain seeking to devour our children (1 Peter 5:8). You see, what is more real than the above scenario involving the bear on a hiking trip is the fact that Satan is striving with all his might to drag your child into eternal torment with him.

Since this is a strong point, let me reiterate that spiritual discipleship can and does occur through sports. Our child’s salvation is not dependent on their overall attendance at church-related activities. But this very real spiritual battle should be very sobering to any parent.

Our children are being assaulted by their fallen hearts, by the world, and by the devil. Equipping our children for the realities of this world, both physical and spiritual, should come as a serious priority. While Sunday school, small groups, and youth retreats don’t guarantee salvation, they often contain the very means (the Word of God and Spirit) that protect, equip, and strengthen our children for both the here and now, as well as the glorious life to come.

Home Sweet Home

If this weren’t enough of a sobering reality, let’s take a look inside the homes of our students. Not only do sports detract from Sunday worship and many other church-related activities, but discipleship often isn’t taking place at home either. Yes, I know many parents who take their discipleship responsibility seriously, but there are many more who do not.

Just one point of application comes from “the talk” parents are to have with their children. I cannot tell you how consistently I have heard my male students tell me that their fathers never talked to them about sex. These are great students from great families and they are testifying to the fact that their parents are not talking to them about an issue that has only increased in importance due to the prevalence of pornography and same-sex attraction. These young men are being released into the world without a biblical understanding of sex and sexuality.

Now, I understand that sex can be an uncomfortable subject to discuss with children, but I know that the lack of biblical education in this area isn’t solely based in awkwardness. Some parents have the busyness bug in their own lives. Others simply do not prioritize a time of prayer and Scripture reading in the home as a family. Throw into the mix that so many students leave before breakfast to get in early-morning workouts, and then stay at school until supper, when would they have time for anything else? These students are exactly that – students ­– therefore, homework is obviously important, which leaves little – if any – time for God’s Word in their lives.

I should be clear – I fall terribly short in the discipleship of my own children. So I do not pretend to have everything figured out in my own household. But at this stage in my children’s lives, we have decided to say ‘no’ to a lot of extracurricular activities. And yet we continue to struggle to make time for the discipleship of our children.

If that is the case for us, what are the chances of families with multiple children in multiple sports having the time or energy?

Bringing it to a Close

As I close these brief articles, let me say just a few things. I know this is a big and complex issue. There are nuances to consider that are beyond the scope of this three-part series.

As fun and as glorious as sporting events can be, there is a bigger story we must ensure our children are a part of. Our current cultural story should give parents great caution. We have a gracious Creator who is to be the Lord of our children’s lives, and this idea of Lordship might be the most offensive to an autonomous culture that’s constantly pushing back on boundaries and authority.

In light of this culture that seems to redefine everything, we need to ensure this next generation of Christians is equipped to deal with the enormous hurdles and persecution that is assuredly headed their way. For our children to stand against a culture that’s standing against biblical truths, we must prepare them today by ensuring Jesus is truly Lord of their lives.

This is a call for parents to start saying ‘no’ to the coach, ‘no’ to the commitment to a team, and ‘no’ to the utter dominance sports have over the family’s weekly schedule.

Start saying ‘yes’ to the church, ‘yes’ to family meals, and ‘yes’ to an actual Sabbath day worship. Your child has a soul that will live forever, and parents are to steward that soul unto the Lord. In order to do that faithfully, time must be given to that stewardship – time which can be spent in the pews amongst a community of other broken believers.

As a father of four, my greatest desire is for those four souls (and a fifth is on the way) to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I fail as a father daily. But while I know their salvation is ultimately in the hands of their Heavenly Father, I long to be used by God to communicate to them the truth and beauty of the gospel.

I understand that many Christians will protest these assertions and come to the defense of the sports culture (as if sports needed any more proponents). I hope to at least initiate a conversation over this topic for some, and continue the conversation for others. I hope we can ultimately agree there is a problem: sports have gotten a bit out of control in youth culture.

God’s grace goes beyond what our finite minds can grasp. He is gracious enough to give us enjoyment that can be found in sports and recreation.  But, let’s be cautious when our hearts find greater enjoyment in the pursuit and performance of the creation, and not the Creator. When we are truly enamored with the love God displayed to rebellious children through his Son, there’s no way that reality could ever come in second.

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.

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