Sacrificing church for sports

by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 4/10/13, 03:05 pm

A new study blames slipping church attendance on children’s Sunday morning sports. 

The study, by researcher Stephen McMullin of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, looked at 16 declining congregations in the United States and Canada and asked the clergy and members why people weren’t showing up. Most respondents said they had competing activities on Sunday mornings, including working, shopping, and especially sports.

“[Parents] will make sure Johnny goes to sports, but when it comes to church, … the families that have children in sport will sacrifice church for the sake of their son or daughter’s sports program, so sports is another huge reason why our church is declining,” said one pastor surveyed in the study.

And the problem isn’t isolated to a particular region. A 2008 Faith Communities Today (FACT) study showed that school and sport-related activities were the greatest obstacle keeping people from attending church regularly in rural, urban, and suburb regions. More than a third of all congregations reported the competition as a problem. 

The trend has continued as blue laws, which kept stores closed on Sundays, have been mostly dismantled, resulting in “many more people working and shopping on Sundays, and children’s athletic activities are often scheduled on Sunday mornings at the very time when many churches traditionally have provided religious education,” the study concluded

At Community Christian Alliance Church (CCAC) in Northridge, Calif., Pastor David Clotfeltor sees this on a regular basis. Many parents in his largely Asian congregation try to get their children involved in as many activities as possible.

“It’s either sports or there may be other activities like academic decathlon or music recitals,” he said. “We often see parents making the decision do some sort of extra curricular instead of coming to church.”

To solve the problem, some of the congregations surveyed said they started Saturday or Sunday evening services. Others decided to offer their own sports programs, which they found often works as an entryway to the church. More than two-thirds of congregations that had sports or fitness programs reported a more than 10 percent growth in attendance from 2000 to 2010, according to a 2010 FACT survey. Only a third of churches without these programs reported such growth.

But at CCAC, Clotfeltor has found combatting the issue requires a change in the parents’ hearts.

“We do it primarily by just teaching the importance of kids getting a good grounding in the Christian faith and helping parents understand that if their kids gain everything else in life but miss opportunity to learn about Christ, that could lead to tremendous regret in the parents,” he said.

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

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