Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Coaches vs. Pastors: Sunday is Game Day

It is no surprise to say that our culture is sports-obssessed. It is not a new trend; "national pastimes" have referred to athletic endeavors for years and years. Athletes have always been heroes, not just in America, but in all human cultures, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome and even likely before that. I do think, however, that the amount of money and attention paid to athletics and sports have reached a new level, even in the past few decades. I can't document it, but I am certain that there are more sports groups who do their stuff on Sundays than even when I was a kid.

I notice this most often in my ministry as a parish pastor. I have discovered that the single largest competitor (to borrow a sports metaphor) to church activities, especially worship, is sports. This is true whether the sports activities are drawing people as participants or as spectators. I would venture to say that athletic activity draws people away from church participation even more than Sunday work schedules, which are also increasingly common. Youth, of course, have always had to choose from time to time between youth group involvement and participation on a sports team. Now, however, I find that it is getting more common to find that even the most faithful and committed church members will think nothing of sacrificing valuable church time--week after week after week--to be involved on a team or do something else sports-related. Adults, too, get so involved in their child's sports activities or in their own favorite team's season that they think nothing of foregoing church worship. And it is also true: no college to my knowledge is offering any scholarships for faith acumen. Sports hold sway in this day and age of conspicuous consumption in a way they never have before, in my estimation.

I would be a liar if I said this didn't trouble me. Don't get me wrong; I understand the value of sports and know that participation in them can teach important things such as teamwork, a sense of community, self-confidence, and stewardship of the body. I consider athletic activity--the recreation of physical exertion--to be, like many things, a gift from God. It is good to enjoy sports.

However, I do worry about the character formation that our youth (and adults) receive through sports. In short, what is the end (telos) of sports? If we're spending more of our time submitting to the guidance and authority of coaches and teammates than we do our sisters and brothers in Christ, our pastors, and in service to others, what kind of people will we become? If we spend more of our energies involved in inherently exclusive events like sports, cutting the weaker links from our teams and banishing to the sidelines those who aren't athletically inclined, then how do we ever learn to practice compassion and love for the outsider? If we spend more of our time listening to game strategies than we do to Scripture, how will we learn true humility? Can sports alone truly make us better people, the kind of people God has created and redeemed us to be? I am worried because I think we are more and more as a society answering that last question with an unqualified "yes." I know that a Sunday liturgy may not seem to be the most exciting pastime, but I also have faith that gathering with the faithful on a regular basis teaches us to place our treasure where moths do not consume and no rust destroys. It also forms us to be Christ to one another. We eat together at a table and share our many gifts, rather than play together on a court, lifting up only a narrow definition of "talent."

Perhaps this just sounds like a complaint from a tired, discouraged pastor who is ranting and raving about a new false idol. The last thing I want to do is ruin anyone's good time. But at what point do we need to stand up and say something? Things like Souper Bowl Day of Caring are a good examples of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but still I think we slowly are losing our youth--and ourselves--to the allure of the sports gospel.

Friday, August 03, 2007

VBS 2007: Breaking the nets in deep water

Last night I completed two back-to-back weeks of Vacation Bible School, which, I've decided, is enough to wear anyone out. The first week we put on VBS ("The Great Bible Reef") for our own congregation and this week we took the show on the road, so to speak, to provide VBS for the children of Glade Run, the children's home that our synod maintains and supports just north of the city. Both experiences were wonderful, but very different. A total of 32 kids came to the VBS at Emanuel's and on our biggest night at Glade Run 52 kids showed up. I had a very dedicated corps of volunteers from the congregation to help with both sites. I think everyone would agree that both experiences were very exhausting, but also very rewarding. The kids at both sites clearly seemed to love everything we offered them. I always manage to find a few ways to critique VBS, but all in all I have to admit that it is overwhelmingly a worthwhile endeavor.

The children learn some great songs, and they love to sing them. They often make requests to sing certain songs over and over. My only regret is that we don't have the time or the energy to teach all of the songs the curriculum provides. (I do have to say, however, that while the songs are catchy, they don't seem to have quite the weight and depth of meaning that the VBS songs from my childhood had).

The curriculum usually highlights very good Bible stories that cover the breadth of Scripture. This year we had Moses in the basket, Naaman in the Jordan River, the miraculous draught of fishes, the healing of the man born blind, and Jesus' parable about the wise man building his house upon the rock. The volunteer who was in charge of Bible storytelling did a fantastic job. I was surprised that the children of Glade Run were more familiar with the stories than our own children were. They also seemed to do a better job of listening to the stories.

The crafts and games, I've decided, are mainly included to provide the kids the all-important opportunity to engage in constructive play, creative efforts, and conversation. All of the kids loved both activities, and both were very, very well-run. There was one game that stuck out. On Thursday, when the focus was on the man born blind who received his sight, one game required the kids to focus on Jesus while walking forward, navigating between two parallel lines of masking tape on the floor. The game's leader stood facing the kids on the other side of the room, holding above his head a big painting of Jesus' face. It was an interesting exercise because their temptation, obviously, was to look at their feet to see if they were stepping outside the lines. With concentration, however, they were able to look at Jesus and follow in the path safely at the same time. I thought it was a good metaphor for parish ministry.

Although I'm tired and need a break, I am very, very glad we went forward with both VBS programs this year, and hope that the volunteers will request that we do it again next year. I know the kids already have.