This year our family begins a new chapter…travel soccer. I am officially becoming one of those parents that I used to lament as a youth minister. “These parents are more committed to soccer than the spiritual formation of their daughter.” I suspect I will be judged similarly by some in this regard, but I have some new concerns to raise after a response to this critique. As a dad, I fear many things for both of my children, a boy and a girl. Right or not, the concerns I have for my daughter out weigh those for my son. Part of this comes from his self-identity, and his comfort in his own skin. His little sister however is entering a world of hidden aggression by peers, an assault on her self worth from marketers an pressures to be liked by boys. I want her self worth to come from other things, including sports and her faith. National studies, like this one from the Women’s Sports Foundation tell me that girls involved in team sports:
- Are more likely to get better grades in school and graduate
- Are less likely to become unintentionally pregnant
- Experience a reduction in the risk of breast cancer by up to 60 percent through as little as four hours of exercise a week
- Are less likely to develop osteoporosis when they age because they can build bone mass through weight-bearing exercises
- Have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression
- Have a more positive body image and healthier psychological well-being
- Learn teamwork, goal-setting and the value of achievement
There is not much to add to that except from the personal observations I have made about young ladies in my youth group over the years. They have a built in community of teammates who encourage, support and love them. That’s huge in a world where girls are judged based on their looks, what they wear and who they date. I know that is oversimplifying things, but you get the point. To have my daughter involved in the world of team sports is a priority for me. As long as she wants to play, I will support her.
Thus comes the criticism that she needs to be involved in a youth ministry. Technically, if she is a member of your congregation, she is a member of the youth ministry. Let’s be clear to distinguish between a ministry and a program. A youth program is comprised of the planned events and meetings within a youth ministry. A teenager can be a part of the ministry, without being in the program. This is a distinction that is rarely made. Youth ministers are judged on participation and that means priority goes to the active program participant. Yet I cannot help but wonder about parents like this pastor who emailed me recently.
“Being the mother of two teenage boys – and a pastor that has let them play baseball even on Sun mornings – I have felt guilt. A couple of times, it worked out for them to come to SS then be picked up by another parent to go to the game as we obviously can’t make Sunday morning games. I always suggested that they come to church dressed for the game and save some time in not having to change. They haven’t felt comfortable to do that. I asked why – because they felt within themselves that it was wrong to miss church or because of what other people would think about them missing. It was what they thought other people would think. It was a wonderful teachable moment for them and me when I confessed that I felt the same way. Baseball has been a gift to my boys in every way imaginable. And so has the youth group. But I have definitely felt, maybe particularly from some, even sometimes other ministers – that they believe we have made the wrong choices around this. It has made me a bit prickly about it. If delaying sex and cutting down on drama and feeling good about who you are can be achieved on the diamond – I’m all in!!! It has also been a huge gift to our family life – cheering them on, brothers invested in each other’s success, being outside, traveling together, picnicking together . . . it has been a gift of time together. I have said recently that I guess Jesus is my salvation, but baseball and my teenagers has been my sanity.”
The key phrase in this for me is “what others think,” particularly the unspoken judgment of colleagues. The benefits to this family are immeasurable, as they probably are to many others. Consider this, from her book Almost Christian, author Kenda Creasy Dean writes about the results of the National Study on Youth and Religion. Among the many findings, one was the importance of parents in the faith formation of their teenagers. So why is that we ministers chide parents, making them feel guilty or indifferent, rather than preparing and equipping them to be primary spiritual guides to their children and teenagers? Is it too hard? Is it not measurable, like program numbers? Do we not trust that parents can fill this role? If any of those are true, then “the failure isn’t primarily on the part of youth or even their parents; it’s on the part of the church (Sarah Arthur as quoted by Dean).”
Here’s my point, congregational expectations need to shift so that ministers will not continue to feel the pressure to perform a job where they are evaluated by numeric participation. That model will continue to foster the “us vs them” culture, where the church is lagging behind. I propose we stop asking parents “why they choose sports over church” and instead ask “how can we equip you to be the primary influence in your child’s faith formation?” It is a different question that creates a different model. Imagine this though, when my kids and I are riding to practice or school, we have uninterrupted, focused time in the car for conversation. I use that time to check in on their day, act goofy, sing songs and talk about life’s events. We do not necessarily talk about our faith as a topic, but it certainly undergirds all of our conversations, especially when we discuss friends, news stories, dating pressures, song lyrics and cultural references. I am equipped and prepared, but many parents may not be. Youth ministry has a challenge and an opportunity here. What are your ideas for equipping parents?