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Soccer Sundays: How do churches compete?


1:15 P.M. EST July 2, 2010

Many families must choose between participation in youth sports leagues and attendance at church on Sundays. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
Many families must choose between participation in youth sports leagues and attendance at church on Sundays. A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.
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Any given weekend, you are more likely to find many American youngsters dressed in a soccer jersey than their Sunday best.

So years ago, the leaders of First United Methodist Church in Anderson, Ind., decided if these soccer players weren’t coming to church, they would bring the church to the soccer field.

The congregation transformed some of its land into a community soccer venue and invited the players and their families to a contemporary worship service each Saturday evening immediately following the day’s practice and games.

The field proved a huge draw. Thousands of people used the park each weekend. But only three or four ever crossed the goal line into worship.

The church was dealing with a challenge many U.S. congregations now face. Most “blue laws” restricting Sunday activities and commerce are a distant memory. On Sunday mornings, stores are open, people are at work and youth sports leagues are at play. At a time when Sunday is no longer the national Sabbath, how do churches find a place in families’ busy schedules?

Some pastors say churches need to do more to witness to the importance of Sunday. Others say churches need to make worship more passionate and more appealing to children and their families. Still others seek compromises that balance the competing interests.

The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, a former associate pastor at the Indiana church, said the church’s soccer experiment left a lasting impression.

When it comes to weekend sports, he said, “Churches need to pick the team they are playing on.”

Seeking common ground

The Rev. Ken Carter, pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., can see the debate from both sides. His daughter played volleyball throughout her youth, and now plays volleyball at Huntingdon College, a United Methodist-related school in Montgomery, Ala.

He doesn’t think churches will get very far by telling those who participate in Sunday youth sports that “they’ve gone over to the dark side.”

He knows youth for whom their Christian faith is important, but because of weekend games and tournaments, they miss significant amounts of the faith experience during their teen years.

“Churches need to pick the team they are playing on.”
--The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards

“I think naming that is important,” he said.

But so is the church accommodating people as best it can. Some years back, he said, his church designed special confirmation instruction for a boy who was going to miss almost every weekend class because of ice hockey.

Keeping the Sabbath holy

In Indiana, Burton-Edwards said church members tried every idea for evangelism they could think of associated with the soccer field.

“We put fliers in people’s hands; we were hospitable,” he said. “We did all the right stuff the church-growth people say is going to help get people into your service, and it just didn’t happen.”

Only about 75 people typically attended the Saturday services in a room that could seat 300.

After about five years, the congregation discontinued the worship service. However, the soccer field is still a vibrant church ministry.

“It’s a good gift to that community,” said Burton-Edwards, now director of worship resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn. “It helps that congregation fulfill the role all congregations have of being a vital institutional player in its community for its improvement.”

Still, he doesn’t think having worship at alternative times is likely to be fruitful.

“You can preach against Sunday morning sports … and you will lose."
--The Rev. Jorge Acevedo

“If you think you’re going to be generating disciples out of alternative worship times, it ain’t necessarily so,” he said. “What you may just be doing is generating a sense that Sunday doesn’t matter, that Sabbath doesn’t matter, that Christianity is just where you can fit it in to your schedule — not that it places any responsibility on you to make some decisions about things.”

The Bible commands the faithful to keep the Sabbath holy. Christians are supposed to keep the day separate from worldly activities.  

“We need to get clusters of congregations or districts to say: ‘We are going to witness for Sunday as the Lord’s Day,’” Burton-Edwards said. “If that means there’s a conflict with your child’s schedules, you must decide how you’re going to handle that. But we’re going to make a public witness for this.”

Bringing passion to worship

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo, lead pastor of the multi-campus Grace Church, a United Methodist congregation in western Florida, has a slightly different take.

“You can preach against Sunday morning sports … and you will lose,” he said. “I don’t think raging against the machine is the appropriate response. I do think creating the kind of Sunday morning culture where kids don’t want to miss is the issue.”

The current World Cup fever offers churches one clue on how they might reach more people, said Mary Dalton, pastor of San Pablo United Methodist Church in Selma, Calif.

She said many of the world’s professional teams — including her favorite Mexican team “The Sacred Flock” — have “hymns” that fans exuberantly sing at matches.

“It’s what the idea of worship should be in many ways,” she said. “We wonder how we can evangelize and how we can reach out to people. Well, if we’re jumping up and down in the stands, we should have worship that does the same thing.”

The passion fans have for the Sacred Flocks, she said, is the same passion churchgoers should have for the Lamb of God.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Amanda Bachus, director of Hispanic resources for United Methodist Communications, contributed to this report.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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