Youth Sports Versus Church?

Noticing—and bridging—the gap between sports and faith

boy playing baseball


or most of my life growing up, the holiest place I ever set foot outside of a sanctuary was a gym. Or maybe a track. Or a baseball field. Or an ice arena. Or even—hold your nose—a sweaty locker room.

That hallowed sense that most people feel upon entering a silent place of worship, or happening upon a beautiful scene in art or nature, or listening to a haunting piece of music: I felt that same sense of awe and wonder whenever I entered the realm of sports.

Here finally, I thought, a girl growing up in the 90s who wanted my body to be appreciated for its strength as well as its beauty, was an opportunity for true meritocracy. A place where the ebbs and flows and momentum changes and moments of pain interspersed with glory and grandeur would lead to greater life meaning. A place where I could shake off the cares of the world and just focus: on the ball, on the net, on my teammates, on the court.

The child of a pastor’s daughter and a sports-obsessed father, a girl whose pastor grandfather never missed a Minnesota Gophers football game: sometimes I wasn’t sure if our allegiance was more firmly devoted to the God of the Bible or the purple Sunday god of the Gridiron. Even my childhood church pastor frequently preached about his hatred of the Green Bay Packers, and he joked that he’d get us out of worship just in time for kick-off.

Of course, professional and collegiate sports aren’t alone in competing for our devotion. For many church leaders and parents, there’s another athletic industry that hits even closer to home: youth sports.

At this point in my life, I’ve encountered youth sports from almost every possible perspective. Growing up, I played travel and AAU basketball, Junior Olympic volleyball, and traveling fast-pitch softball. (“Travel” sports is kind of a euphemism for the tryout-based sports leagues that encourage parents to part with as much of their money and time as possible, where supposed select teams from certain cities compete against teams from other cities and school districts across a state and metro area.)

In addition to experiencing youth sports as an athlete who’d later go on to play varsity sports in high school and competitive volleyball in college and post-college leagues, I also experienced youth sports as a referee, an umpire, and a sportswriter covering the Little League World Series and a variety of high school sports for national newspapers and magazines. 

Now, as a parent of two elementary-aged boys who play a variety of sports and increasingly participate in competitive basketball, I sometimes feel like I’m reliving childhood youth sports moments—except from the sidelines instead of the field of play. I watch parents jockey for position, complain under their breath about coaches and officials, and occasionally indulge in delusions of grandeur about their own child’s athletic potential (we all do it, let’s be honest).

But as an ordained Lutheran pastor since 2013 and a church volunteer and leader for years before that, I’ve also heard about youth sports from the outside. For many youth pastors and church leaders, youth sports have been responsible for everything from the downturn in church attendance to the moral problems of today’s youth. Sports are the reason that kids don’t participate in youth activities at church, the assumption goes, and the reason why so many confirmation classes have to include options for make-up work, because of no-show, over-scheduled kids.

Too often, this gap in understanding between youth sports aficionados and church leaders results in defensive postures. Pastors see youth sports as totally out of control and bemoan the ways it creates kids who think the world revolves around them. Parents, who are already overwhelmed just trying to do their best by their kids, react in frustration to the pastors’ attempts to add more responsibilities and activities to families’ lists. And churches just can’t offer the same visions of glory that youth sports can. There aren’t well-publicized scholarships or name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals for all-star Confirmation students and church volunteers.

In recent years, I’ve seen a shift in the ways that some churches are approaching youth sports. Particularly in Evangelical and non-denominational megachurch contexts, it has become popular for churches to “join forces” with local youth sports organizations. Sometimes these churches have their own branded sports teams, as I noticed in my older son’s AAU basketball tournaments. Or these churches will bring on local celebrity athletes as pastors or youth leaders, hoping to capitalize on their popularity. 

As a former sportswriter who has spent a lot of time around celebrity athletes, I mostly have good things to say. In some cases, these are individuals who have come from backgrounds of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage. They usually do a lot of good when they return to the communities where they grew up to create community spaces like gyms for kids, or to run summer camps, or to speak to large groups. It’s often local churches, especially local Black churches, that facilitate these opportunities.

Where I start to see some problematic things happening, however, is when the Gospel purveyed by these programs endorses a sports-centered ethos of strength, power, and glory.  There is danger when what is central is not the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, with its requisite understanding of suffering and conflict with what the world views as success—and instead the Gospel fills in for an anodyne American gospel of winning at all costs, particularly for men and boys.

The God preached by this marriage of sports and Christianity becomes a God who looks more like Tim Tebow or Kirk Cousins than the brown-skinned, middle-eastern historical Jesus who was arrested and killed in capital punishment because of the threat he posed to the established religious and governmental order. 

I fear that as youth sports families have moved away from traditional churches, they are susceptible to being drawn into a Christianity that embraces the worst of what youth sports culture has to offer. I’m guessing that many of you, like me, are well-aware of exactly what this looks like.

It looks like “national tournaments” that cost families hundreds and thousands of dollars to attend.

It looks like families who will hold their kids back in school for a supposed advantage in sports, regardless of the effect on academic and social relationships.

It looks like parents living vicariously through their children.

It looks like adults screaming at kids.

It looks like kids sobbing on the sidelines.

It looks like overuse injuries in kids as young as 10 and 11; torn ACLs, broken arms, etc.

It looks like kids who are so over-scheduled they’re on multiple traveling teams in one season.

It looks like kids who naturally become self-centered because their entire families spend their time and money on their youth sports teams, and they don’t have time to volunteer, travel, spend time outdoors, or learn other skills like music, art or theater.

It looks like nervous and anxious kids who are afraid to make mistakes.

It looks like kids who are lost when youth sports end, and all of their supposed value was caught up in their athletic achievement.

It looks like social media accounts of 10-year-olds talking about money, tattoos, and girls that they’re dating because of their supposed athletic prowess.

It looks like national rankings for 11-year-olds.

It looks like an entire cottage industry of tournaments, trainers, apparel, gear, and organizations.

The list goes on.

I’ve seen all of this firsthand, and it’s really hard to watch.

It’s really important for churches and church leaders to offer an alternative with understanding and love for families who are involved in youth sports. Rather than embracing the “gospel of winning” that comes with most hardcore youth sports leagues, as many Evangelical and non-denominational churches have done, I would urge church leaders to see themselves and their congregations as places of respite, renewal, and acceptance for families who are involved in youth sports. 

What might that look like?

It means taking time for communities to know and love families of school-aged kids, approaching them not from a place of guilt (“Where have you been? Why are you missing worship?”) and also not from a place of obligation (“Your student needs to be in confirmation every single week”).

It looks like creating clear and easy-to-understand expectations for church rites of passage like confirmation, and holding to those expectations with love and grace. It also requires coordination with families, coaches, and students to try and plan opportunities like service trips for times when students might be able to attend, while knowing that you can never, ever, please everyone.

Sports should be treated like any other extracurricular, no more or less important. Pastors can support the kids in their congregation who play sports, but they can also find ways to engage those kids that have nothing to do with sports: affirming the sense that the church is a place where their whole being is embraced and loved, regardless of their athletic performance.

For parents: pastors and church leaders can approach youth sports parents from a place of wise understanding, curiosity, patience, and love. Church leaders should be wise about the pitfalls and dangers of intense youth sports, and know that many parents might be carrying baggage with them about the nasty politics or parent relationships on youth sports teams, and thus might be more guarded in church communities. Churches can create safe spaces for sports parents, offering online communities or even occasional gatherings that offer tools for parents to navigate youth sports in a healthy way. 

Now that youth sports have been big business for a few generations, tools like these are becoming more prevalent. One new book coming out soon, called Raising Empowered Athletes, by Kirsten Jones, might offer a helpful book study for parents and/or church leaders. Most parents know that they don’t want to live vicariously through their kids or get caught up in youth sports politics in unhealthy ways, but these things have a way of creeping up on you. Churches and church communities can offer parents a way out, to finding relationships outside youth sports teams and offering kids alternative ways to spend time rather than the continued unchecked spread of training, practice, games, and tournaments that can be never-ending. 

My kids haven’t hit high school yet, so I personally have much more to learn from a parenting perspective when it comes to youth sports. But as a pastor and a former athlete/sportswriter, I’m hopeful. I see so many adults today carrying with them lessons of resilience and teamwork that they first learned in youth sports. Truly—in the losing and the challenges, and the cuts, and the disappointments—kids can learn lessons of the Theology of the Cross more viscerally in youth sports than church leaders might imagine. It’s up to us as the adults in the room to help kids see the winning in the losing, and to see that Jesus is with them, whether they are sitting on the losing bench or dumping Gatorade over the victor’s head.

  • Angela Denker

    The Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor, writer, speaker—and wife and mom of two little boys—based in Minneapolis. Denker is a contributor to various publications, including The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Christian Century, and Living Lutheran. Her first book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, was released August 6, 2019 by Fortress Press and is available for sale wherever books are sold. Denker blogs at A Good Christian Woman...Not that One, where she tries to share Jesus' love and refute the rumors about women, Christians, motherhood, and Jesus.

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