Partnering with Parents through Church and Sports
by Karin Sasser

Sports have always been a part of my life, whether as a spectator or as an athlete. Both my husband and I played on a high school sports team. My husband has also been a volunteer football coach for over 20 years. Both our kids grew up playing sports as well.  I enjoy sports and believe they can add great value to a person’s life in many ways. But I also remember being incredibly frustrated by sports when I was first a youth director many years ago. I was always disappointed when a game or tournament interfered with one of my student’s ability to participate in a youth program, retreat, or even worse, a summer camp or mission trip. I valued sports, but I valued church more. On the surface, this seems like a valid point, but it begs the question: Is church versus sports a healthy mentality? Can’t the two co-exist? And here’s maybe the even better question – Is there a way sports can be used to help our students actually grow in their faith? I think if we frame the question this way, we will be better able to equip parents to navigate sports and faith.

Because here’s the thing – sports aren’t going away any time soon, so why not employ them as an opportunity for evangelism and discipleship? One way to look at it is the sports field as a mission field – for both you as a leader and your students as athletes. A high school football field was one of my favorite places to do ministry as both a paid youth leader and a volunteer small group leader. When I was a full-time youth director, I loved going to high school football games on Friday nights. It was a great place for me to see my students outside of church and an excellent opportunity for me to meet some of their unchurched friends. I also loved going to watch my students play in all their different sports. It was a great way for me to connect with parents. I remember the first time I showed up to a middle school volleyball game of one of my middle school students whose parents were peripherally involved at our church. The parent looked at me, a bit surprised, and asked what I was doing there. She had a look of delight when I told her I was there to watch her daughter play. I was fortunate enough to have a senior pastor who often told me most ministry happened outside the office, so he was totally supportive of some of my work hours being at a ball field or sports court.

I also think we will be doing our students a huge favor by equipping them to use sports as a way to grow in their own faith. One of the best ways to develop our faith is to lead, and students have an excellent opportunity to do that on a team. They may not be leading Bible studies or devotions with their teammates (although some may have the opportunity to do that), but they absolutely can be challenged to lead by example and allow Christ’s light to shine through them through their attitude, words, and actions. To lead by example can be a powerful tool. It will be a huge miss if we don’t encourage them to step up and do this.

We can also help our students navigate faith through sports when they face adversity. Participation in sports often offers occasions for trusting God when things are out of an athlete’s control. It can teach them to rely on God when things aren’t going their way. They may encounter an injury, not get the amount of playing time they want or think they deserve, or even get cut from a team. When this happens, we can partner with parents by walking alongside our students, helping them to look to God for perseverance and perspective. We can encourage parents to help their children believe that their identity isn’t tied to their ability as an athlete. If we as youth leaders, along with parents, consistently remind our student-athletes that their worth is not found in their performance, but in the fact that they are a child of God loved unconditionally by Him, we can help keep sports in proper perspective. Often, partnering with parents is something we are already doing – helping our students find their true identity in Christ.