Article by: Cameron Cole
Imagine the confusion if you were a 17-year-old girl seeking to live for Christ. Your coach brings you into her office and says, “I’m sorry, Jenny, but you will have to sit out the first game for missing a morning of summer practice.” What the coach knows and ignores is that the player missed practice because she was traveling to Third-World Latin America to work with impoverished and disabled children.’
The coach doesn’t say this, but her actions effectively suggest, “I am penalizing you for choosing to serve impoverished and disabled children over attending every practice.”
Imagining such a scenario probably isn’t difficult if you’re the parent of a teenager who participates in sports, theater, or music. Countless Christian families face stressful dilemmas regarding how to prioritize their children’s time outside of school.
Scenarios and questions related to church and family are always complicated. Is it wrong to play on Sunday? Are we offering a poor Christian witness if we miss games and practices for religious events? Is the grandparent’s anniversary party more important than the playoff soccer game? Should we just accept consequences for missing games?
Here are a few questions that may help parents navigate these difficult choices.
1. Does the sport or activity function as an organized religion?
If a team or organization functionally views itself as an organized religion, then it’s probably time to throw in the towel.
In the above story, the coach viewed the church as a competing organization and so the athlete’s participation in it warranted punishment. In this case, the coach essentially operates the team as an organized religion. Religions require exclusive commitment.
When coaches and teams punish students for fulfilling their religious convictions or for faithfully serving their families, they may be acting like jealous gods. They may be implicitly communicating that their activity is worthy of exclusive loyalty. Punishing kids may be their way of exercising “church discipline.”
Here’s an important subquestion: Is the activity life-giving or life-depleting? If it is draining life from a child or family, an idolatrous dynamic may exist.
Parents, then, should seek clarity up front regarding the expectations and values of a team. Will a child be penalized for missing practice to attend a special family occasion or expected to frequently neglect the Lord’s Day? Will he or she be punished for participating in efforts to serve the poor? If the organization says “yes” to such questions, one wonders whether the team views the child’s family and faith as competition.
2. Who spends the most time with your child and exerts the greatest influence on them?
Mentors, coaches, youth pastors, and teachers play an instrumental role in the development of children. Yet here is no more powerful voice and influence in a child’s life than his or her parents.
Who gets more time with your child: their travel baseball coach or you? I’ve seen dance, drama, and swim coaches who demand more than 20 hours per week. Your child’s spiritual and personal development is a privilege and a responsibility for which you are accountable. Protecting time with your child is important.
Parents, evaluate the quality of the influencers in your child’s life. Some coaches, pastors, and sponsors may function as fabulous role models. They promote your child’s maturation as a woman or man and as a Christian. With other coaches, though, the sport or activity is exclusively about winning and ego. I’ve had coaches—Christian and non-Christian alike—whom God used to change my life. I’ve also had coaches who demeaned me and made childhood harder than was necessary.
In some situations, it may be wise to expose your child to a role model who instructs and encourages them. In other situations, it may be counterproductive—even if the coach is successful on the field.
3. Do you help your child and family view extracurriculars as part of their calling and ministry in the world?
All of us can get caught up in the winning and losing and performance aspects of sports and the arts. Concerns swirl around playing time, success, and excellence. If we’re praying about where God is calling our kids to invest their time, however, we can trust that the places he leads are also venues of family ministry.
While I’ve cast sports and theater in rather negative terms here, we shouldn’t overlook the valuable opportunity they present. Extracurriculars are valuable places for us and our children to build relationships in the cause of service and evangelism. We should help our kids view their participation as ministry and an arena in which to glorify God.
4. Is this the life you dreamed of when you brought this child home from the hospital?
When we brought our first baby home, we dreamed of a tight family filled with love, warmth, and affection—one that spends time together. Therefore, the idea of perpetual carpooling, not seeing children for weeks because they’re slaves to a team, and siblings and parents being separated on weekends make my heart sink.
One family in our church has modeled this well.
For the entire month of July, the kids and mother leave town to spend time with extended family. The husband participates through weekend trips and takes some vacation time to meet up with the family. If any extracurricular activities encroach on this commitment, the kids don’t participate. The result is a family with tight bonds. The kids have deep friendships. They know aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The parents have significant influence and a voice in the children’s lives. At times the kids resisted during adolescence, but as two of them have entered early adulthood they are grateful for their parent’s convictions. The older two have attended solid colleges with the oldest on a competitive career track.
This practice may not be realistic for single-parent homes or families in socioeconomic situations where both parents must work full-time, but the principle of protecting the vision of a close family translates across circumstances.
The good news is that God does not leave us alone in these challenging decisions. The Lord promises that “if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
We can seek—and find—his wisdom in shepherding our children’s hearts amid extracurricular activities.
Cameron Cole is the director of children, youth, and family at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, and chairman of Rooted: Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry. He is editor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide, and host of the Good News for Teens Podcast.