Sports have always been an enormous part of my life. When I look back on the fond memories I had when I was a kid, my mind almost always jumps to the cool fall Saturday mornings at Four Seasons Park in Plainfield, Illinois. I played football and my sister was a cheerleader. My games usually started at 8:00am, and we’d leave home before the sun came up so I could get to the field for warmups with my team. My sister cheered for the late-morning games, so it was a given that we would be spending most of our Saturdays at the football fields week in and week out. If we had an away game, it was normal for us to leave the house at 5:00 in the morning and not be back until late afternoon or evening. Some weeks, I had games on Sunday afternoons, so my family would go to the earliest church service, and then I would immediately run to the bathroom to change into my gear. Those days were defined by hastily-consumed soggy concession stand food and plasticy water drank through the bars of my facemask before I lined up against a kid I had never met, from a town I’d never been to, tense with adrenaline and the desire to knock him flat on his back as soon as the ball was snapped. I remember running through a paper banner that the cheerleaders decorated with markers at the start of every game and feeling as unstoppable as Ray Lewis storming through the tunnel at M&T Stadium before an elated crowd. That feeling when the P.A. announcer said my name after I’d made a tackle or recovered a fumble? I pretended to coolly shrug it off, but in reality, I lived for those moments.
A few Mondays a year, my team would retreat to the equipment shed next to our practice field. Our coach would buy pizza and we would spend the next hour and a half watching the game film from over the weekend on a tiny box T.V. Film day wasn’t about criticism; there was no calling out or shaming the kids who took a play off, missed a block, or dropped a pass. It was about the camaraderie, the team bonding, the obscenely obnoxious Pepsi burps. The pats on the back for a play or a tackle well-executed. The rest of the week we would practice until well after the stadium lights came on. Our moms and dads would faithfully watch the entire practice from the sidelines. One dad, who almost never wore a shirt, and whom I never saw without a giant cigar jutting from his mouth, would sneak beers into his cooler and share them with the other parents at practice. Come to think of it, most parents stuck around to watch our practices. It was probably because of that guy. My team was never very good; we never won any championships, but that almost didn’t matter. Almost.
I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. It was in those days that I felt an incredible amount freedom to just be a kid; to learn how to be an individual; to learn how to be confident in myself; to live out my far-fetched fantasy of playing defensive end for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
My playing “career” (for lack of a better term) came to an end in high school when I sprained my neck covering a punt return, and experienced a brief but horrifying moment when I thought I had paralyzed myself. That injury ended up costing me my starting spot on the defense but I was okay with that. Frankly, that experience scared me. I finished out the season, mostly on the sidelines, and quit for good.
It was only after I quit that I was able to really get involved in my youth group and my church.
Sometimes I tell this story and that part elicits a “Wow, praise God” from whomever is listening.
I get the sentiment. Not being involved in sports absolutely freed me up to invest more time and energy in my faith. It would be easy to overspiritualize football as the “net” that I had to “cast down” á la Peter and Andrew before I could really follow Jesus, but that wouldn’t be the truth. It may have been standing between me and going to youth group, but it was never standing between me and Jesus. God didn’t need to rip away something I loved to save me. Sometimes that’s necessary, but not always.
The truth is that I did have a hunger for God. I enjoyed the people in my youth group, I liked going to church, and I was involved as much as I could be. But I also enjoyed being an athlete. It was important to me. It had been important to me for as long as I could remember. And those days when I was traveling for a game and had to miss church? I don’t regret them. And I don’t think God was up there shaking his head in disgust at me on those days, either. God was faithful. I got saved in high school. I became a youth pastor. I ended up all right.
I’m not trying to be some guru who has the secret every youth pastor needs to know for winning back their prodigal athletes and overly-committed theater kids. I don’t have data to back up my argument. I have no five-step plan. I’m just tired of youth pastors treating their students’ extracurricular involvement – be it sports, theater, band, track, or anything else under the sun that’s not youth group – as the unforgivable sin. As if they’ll surely die tomorrow having never heard about Jesus if they dare go to baseball camp instead of church camp. As if the 2am gospel message at the annual all nighter is the only chance they’ll ever have to profess saving faith in Christ (we all know that watching your friends chug and then vomit up sardine and peanut butter smoothies is what really opens hearts to the Holy Spirit).
When we treat students like that, we are communicating, “The things that are important to you, are not important to me”. Yes, being a part of Christian community is important. Developing good spiritual habits from an early age is necessary. Having good Christian mentors is vital. But so are passions and ambitions. So is discipline, teamwork, and God-given talent. So is having a youth pastor in your corner who wants more for you than from you; who is excited about the things you are excited about and values your talents and abilities; who doesn’t passively-aggressively ask, “Where have YOU been?!” every time they see you.
I understand the youth-pastor-savior-complex. I understand the pressure to maintain attendance and engagement. I understand that teenagers need to hear the gospel. I understand that certain students prioritizing extracurriculars over youth group can feel like a personal slight. But it’s not. That’s a near guarantee. Chances are they’re a kid like I was, who likes church but also likes to play football. Or act. Or sing, or dance, or play in the band. Perhaps they are overcommitted, or too busy, or under a lot of pressure, but it’s not their fault. Alienating them because they don’t have time for youth group is a guaranteed way to sever a relationship altogether. Pray for them when they’re not there, enjoy them when they are, and be their number one fan when they take the field or the stage.
When I became a youth pastor, and for the first time rolled my eyes after receiving text from a student who couldn’t come to youth group because he had a game, I told myself to remember how I felt when I was in that situation. I thought about how I would have felt if I were a teenager who had the courtesy to tell my pastor I couldn’t come that week, and was shamed for it. This student wasn’t trying to slight me; he wasn’t implying that his relationship with God was unimportant. He wasn’t walking away from the church. He was missing a week of youth group, and he would come again when he could. The self-righteous rant about parents not raising their kids right that was going on in my mind quieted down. The passive-aggressive response I had typed out was deleted. I replied, “Okay! Hope you guys win!”