When I was a younger youth pastor, I believed sports was the enemy of youth ministry. Sports took athletic students away from my youth meetings, outreaches, retreats, etc. Didn’t those coaches know I needed the numbers!?

It’s easy to blame our youth ministry’s sagging momentum and low numbers on sports.

Judgement usually followed,

“If these kids loved God more than sports they’d be here”

“If these parents loved God more than sports, they’d have their kids in church”

These are the thing some pastors and youth pastors say behind the scenes.

As I got older, I realized sports are not the enemy of youth ministry and a few other truths.

Not being at church because of sports is not the same as not loving God

It’s an incredible statement to equate someone’s attendance to their love of God. Is it conceivable that they don’t love the church community they belong to or the youth program or you? Yes, and it is more likely than them not loving God.

If you are trying to minister to a sports driven family, having a judgmental mindset only puts you at odds with them. If you don’t let the judgement go, seeing their sports pics on social media will only trigger you. Instead of judgement, offer the family, and student, unconditional love and support whether they are involved in the youth program or not.

Parents will always do what is in the best interest of their kids

You have zero control over what a family will do. Their students’ involvement in the youth group may be the last thing on their list. Your goal, as the youth pastor, then, should be to minster to the family, and student, no matter where they put church or youth program on their list.

Andrew Root, author of The End of Youth Ministry? says,

“Looking out over Universal City Walk, I recognized that we have our own-very different- cathedrals and revered places.”

For some parents, the cathedral’s and revered places are ballparks, courts and fields. This is why, if you confront them, or their kids, about sports or their schedule or attendance, it’s like confronting someones religious beliefs.

Sports, like anything else, can become idolatry and when you mess with someone’s idol, you get a lot of pushback. This is not only true of sports parents but dance parents, debate parents, band parents, homework parents, etc.

Parents want to make their kids to be happy, to find their thing, and the youth ministry is just another one of those tools to help make that happen. Youth Pastors who understand this, will be less offended that some parents do not put the youth ministry high on the list of “things that make my kids happy”.

That doesn’t mean that this will not change over time.

Concerning parenting and happiness Root says,

“Parenting practices today center on protection, not necessarily because children are fragile, but rather because a steady state of happiness is the aim”.

In other words, “sports makes my kid happier than your youth program.” Happiness is the end game.

Student athletes do not exist for our program, we exist for them

Your local Starbucks managers does not sit around cursing people saying, “If people wouldn’t spend so much time down at the bar drinking beer, they’d realize they need more coffee in their lives”

You can gripe about sports and their take over of your students’ time, or you can be grateful when these athletes, during their off seasons or when there is no practice come and join you. Welcome them and treat them like family. Don’t be like, “Well look who decided to show up”, can you imagine a business saying that to you if you had not been around for a while?

Be grateful when athletes make the time to join you, they’ve come looking for something sports cannot give them.

You are not competing with sports, you are competing against yourself

There will always be something competing for the time and attention of your students, and not just athletes. With year round sports, travel teams and the like, youth pastors have to take what is given to them and make the most of it.

If YOU want to reach athletes, here are some ideas to connect with that community

  • Have your church host team end of the year banquets
  • Join the Booster club
  • Sponsor events
  • Off to become a team’s chaplain
  • Volunteer in the concession stand
  • Become a referee
  • Go to the games, connect with the parents, coaches and other players.

If you want your PROGRAM to reach more athletes, try these ideas

  • Have flag football games at a nearby park invite school teams to play
  • Sponsor a 3 on 3 basketball game
  • Have multi-team competitions at youth from 4-6 weeks

Athletes are competitive but not one dimensional. Once an athlete starts coming to your group, find out what else they’re good and maybe you can help them scratch another itch they have to lead or create.

Overcoming My Own Bias

I hated school athletes. I thought they were arrogant bullies, mainly because some of them arrogantly bullied me. I was a nerd rebel and into fantasy novels, Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal music. Those became the kinds of students I was drawn to ministering to but I also knew that I had to make room for all kinds of kids to join us.

One thing that helped change my perspective on sports and youth ministry was when one of the athletes in my youth group decided not to go to a weekend sports camp in favor of the retreat we were putting on. To be honest, I was stunned. This taught me that kids who play sports, who are not driven by their parent’s ambitions, can choose when they need a break from sports and need more time with their spiritual community.

Conclusion

Student athletes are just that, students with athletic abilities. These students face their own set of trials and temptations that a good youth pastor and a good youth ministry should be aware of. Youth Ministry is a tool for discipleship. Make sure your athletes know that the youth program is here for them when they need to rest, need ministry and is available to help them reach their teammates if that’s their desire.

Remember, you minister to your athletes whenever you show up to their game, whether you like sport ball or not, and cheer your lungs out for them.

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