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Sunday Youth Sports: Verdict still out on whether weekend travel ball leaves room for spiritual growthcomment (0)

April 10, 2014

By Carrie Brown McWhorter


Sunday Youth Sports: Verdict still out on whether weekend travel ball leaves room for spiritual growth

In many Alabama families, seasons are marked not by the first day of spring or fall but rather by the opening day of baseball or the first kickoff of football season.

In the past, “blue laws” kept stores closed on Sundays and youth athletics avoided scheduling events on Sundays and Wednesdays. Today that is not always the case.

Like many cities around the state, Gulf Shores offers youth sports programs throughout the year, managed by the city’s recreation department. 

“In our city-run programs, we generally don’t schedule anything for Sundays,” said Grant Brown, recreation and cultural affairs director for the city of Gulf Shores. “We try to reserve Sunday and Wednesday for the community.”

Like many cities around the state though, Gulf Shores’ facilities, including fields and gyms, are available for rent any day of the week, and many clients want to schedule tournaments on weekends, including Sundays. 

A report published in 2013 by the Review of Religious Research calls this trend the “secularization of Sunday.” The report cites a survey of pastors and members of 16 declining congregations in the United States and Canada in which respondents identified competing Sunday activities as the primary reason for the decline in Sunday worship attendance.

Youth sports are certainly not the only activities that compete with Sunday morning worship, but increasingly, families are prioritizing their children’s athletic pursuits over their spiritual development (see story, page 5). 

“Youth sports today are a much bigger deal than they used to be five or 10 years ago,” according to Caz McCaslin, president of Upward Sports, the world’s largest Christian sports league for youth athletics. 

In fact, a data analysis published by ESPN in 2013 suggests that by age 6, 47 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys in the United States are playing on a sports team. The report estimates that nearly 22 million kids between ages 6 and 17 in the United States are playing team sports.

In a blog posting in March titled “Youth Sports on Sundays: A Paradigm Shift,” McCaslin said the good news about the increase in youth sports is that families are spending time together. The negative byproduct of that growth, he wrote, is the increase in weekend tournaments and games, “which naturally creates a conflict for those families who have commitments to both their sports teams and their church families.”

Some churches are duplicating traditional Sunday morning services on Sunday nights to provide an alternate worship time for families, but that also requires discipline. After a long weekend of playing ball and traveling, it might not be easy to “clean up” and go to church for the evening. 

Other churches are adapting to the sports culture itself by offering alternatives, such as Upward Sports programs. 

Bethel Baptist Church, Odenville, in St. Clair Baptist Association, has sponsored Upward basketball and cheerleading teams for the past 15 years. About 275 children in fourth through eighth grade participate each year, according to Sharon Stephens, Bethel Baptist’s director of operations.

Stephens believes that leagues like Upward are family-friendly because they require less time and the emphasis is on fundamentals rather than competition. 

“The teams practice one day during the week and the games are on Saturday, so it’s a little more laid-back,” Stephens said. “The coaches also have devotions and prayer time at practice, and they really take time to teach kids the art of basketball.”

Whitesburg Baptist Church, Huntsville, in Madison Baptist Association also offers Upward Sports teams, as well as ballet and dance classes for children, which parents love because they are alternatives to the crazy business of travel teams and other competitive sports, according to Whitesburg Baptist recreation director Jane Baker.

But the concern with church-sponsored programs such as Upward Sports is the lack of competition, many parents, players and coaches point out.

While it is a good thing for the purpose of why Upward Sports exists, it doesn’t provide a true alternative for kids expecting to develop and improve in their particular sport by playing on the team, several parents explained.

The church and community league programs are not competitive, said Jeff Crane, father of two youth baseball players and member of First Baptist Church, Centre. 

“The talent level in these leagues has diminished because of travel ball,” he said. “If you have a child above average in talent in the sport, he will be playing with and against lower-level talent, so his progression rates are not going to progress like you want, or they are going to fall off.

“But with that being said, you still have to prioritize,” Crane explained. “Is life about baseball or is life about serving Christ? This is a crossroads we’ve come to. We’ve spent years and time praying about it, but we are still figuring out what the Lord wants us to do.”

The Cranes try to attend church when the game schedules are such that they can leave after church to go to the game, he said. But on the weekends the games take them out of town, they have considered holding a Bible study “to take the opportunity to share Christ with some of the guys who don’t know Christ.” 

McCaslin believes Christians can benefit by taking church on the road, such as to the hotel lobbies where the families of the players are staying. 

“Churchgoing families missing church to attend their kids’ sporting events on Sundays is a problem ... but it’s not nearly as big a problem as all of the families that don’t attend a Bible-believing church at all,” McCaslin said. “If they won’t come to church with us, then we are commanded to be the Church to them.”

Stephen Hall, father of a youth competitive soccer team player and associate pastor of NorthPark Baptist Church, Trussville, agreed believers on a sports team can make a difference for the Kingdom. But for him it is more complex than that, he said.

“In one sense, it would be a spiritual thing for me to be the presence of Christ at the soccer field,” he said. “However, for the spiritual development of my son, I cannot choose sports over church every time. Our family needs a habit of constant church attendance even when there are other fun things to do.”

(Jennifer Davis Rash contributed)

To read the other article related to the Sunday Youth Sports package, click here

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