The clergyman was having a bad day on the golf course. His anger steadily increased as his shots found water instead of fairways, and on the last hole, he lost it after taking four putts. He swore, broke his putter and said, "I've got to give it up." "Give up golf?" asked the caddie. "No," the man said, "give up the ministry."
--From "the Funny Side of Golf" by Jim Reed.
Religious leaders can be forgiven the temptation to think the nation's obsession with sports is a threat to faith.
It is not just the idolization of college and pro teams and athletes that has propelled sports into a trillion-dollar business that concerns them.
It is also the secularization of holy days, and the missing spots in the pews on Sunday mornings as families take their children to soccer or baseball tournaments rather than church.
The 2008 Faith Communities Today survey looked at obstacles to regular participation in church, including driving distance, fear of crime and work schedule conflicts. School- and sports-related activities — true for urban, suburban and rural congregations – emerged as the biggest challenges.
But research offers a cautionary note for those who view the relation between sports and religion as a competition that faith is losing. When it comes to what really matters, it is still no contest.
In the end, most Americans are still more interested in saving their souls than in seeing their favorite teams win.
For example, five times as many respondents to the 2012 Measuring Morality Study said their religion was extremely important to their sense of identity as attributed the same value to their favorite sports team. Half of respondents said seeking spiritual salvation was "completely important" or "very important" in their lives.
So how can congregations keep their flocks' eyes on the prize of faith while being sensitive to the place of sports in American culture?
Rather than cursing the dark side of travel teams for 7-year-olds or inveighing against the corruption associated with big-time sports, congregations may want to offer an alternative vision that is sensitive to the scheduling demands of their followers, some analysts state.
That can include such practical steps as offering more services. Providing alternative service times such as on Saturday or Sunday evenings means fewer parents would have to choose between worship and sports programs that they also consider important to their child's development. And sports fans can keep their attention focused on the liturgy rather than rushing home for the big game.
Offering their own youth and adult sports programs also creates stronger social networks and fellowship opportunities in houses of worship.
The 2010 Faith Communities Today survey found twice as many congregations experienced significant growth in the last decade that said sports and fitness programs were one of their specialties as compared with congregations with no athletic programs.
In analyzing the relation between faith and athletics, they concluded, "The combination of sport and religion strengthens national unity, church membership, self-discipline and character molding to cope with uncertainty, to stay out of trouble, to give meaning to sport participation and Christianity, to put sport into proper perspective, to establish solidarity and cohesion among teams, and to reaffirm … the faith of Christians."
And, in a world that often prizes winning at any cost, religious communities are in a special position to lift up the virtues of sportsmanship, humility, mutual respect and the joy of play, some researchers state.
Nick Watson, a senior lecturer on sports, religion and culture at York St. John University in England, says Special Olympians and other athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities, and the religious initiatives supporting them, can be seen as "as one prophetic sign of God's kingdom in the current age."
In engaging with sports, however, religious communities also are advised to be careful that they are taking the lead, transforming the culture rather than being seduced by the power and glory associated with winning by any means.
That includes watching the language at church softball games.
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