In his recent thought-provoking post, Andy Blanks raises the question, “Is Athletics Hurting Your Youth Ministry?”
In eleven years of youth ministry, I certainly have experienced the tension between not just sports and youth ministry but other extracurricular events as well. The harsh reality is that when one of my youth ministry events is competing against anything else teens are involved in, they attend the other thing. Sometimes this is because coaches and directors mandate rehearsals. Sometimes it's because of pressure to excel at a certain activity. And sometimes it's because kids would honestly rather be at the other activity than at church.
But here's the thing: Since when are we in competition with these other activities?
When we, as church communities, pit these activities against each other, we will lose and we will do so at a high cost. Pitting these activities against one another causes students to feel resentment toward us, the church, and most importantly, the God we serve. It makes students feel as though it's impossible for them to please any adult in their life. If they go to an extracurricular activity, we'll be angry. If they go to a church event, their team, coaches, directors, and sometimes even parents will be angry. This puts students in a lose-lose situation that is filled with guilt – something that in this context typically pulls them away from God rather than towards him.
Beyond this, however, as we wrestle with the question Andy raises, “Is athletics hurting your youth ministry?” I think we must also consider the following:
1) What's at the root of this question? Are we truly concerned about the answer to this question because we're worried about the health of our teens? Or is our concern more about us and the fact that we get frustrated when students' priorities diverge from ours; When we spend hours preparing a program that few people attend?
2) Since when is the goal of youth ministry self-perpetuation? This question makes it sound as though our primary objective is getting people to come to our stuff. I honestly hope that's not the case. In truth, I hope we're concerned about discipling teens as followers of Christ who love God and others in their daily lives.
3) If one of the objectives of youth ministry is developing followers of Christ who love God and others in their daily lives, then shouldn't we spend time helping teens discern what that actually looks like in their daily lives – most of which are filled with a plethora of non-church activities? How can we help students figure faith out if our primary focus is getting them to attend our stuff rather than the other things they care deeply about?
Throughout history, ours is a faith in which the people of God have always been sent – to love God and others and to spread God's word. As people of faith, we are called to be the light of the world. But how can we do that when we're constantly isolating and protecting people from the world? Perhaps in the context of students' lives, the soccer field and the auditorium stage are the very places to which they need to be sent – with our blessing, not our resentment.
To me, discipleship happens when we encourage and challenge students to integrate their faith and lives; When we help them wrestle with how the passion and abilities they cultivate on the field or stage might be used to serve and honor the God they love; And when we provide them with a place of rest amidst the high expectations that constantly threaten to overwhelm them.
In light of this, please don't ask me, “Is athletics hurting my youth ministry?”
Of course they are.
But I'm just not sure the point is whether or not this stuff is hurting my youth ministry.
I think the more pressing concern is whether or not it's hurting our teens.