Church Leaders’ Frustration with Sunday Sports: Five Considerations

“If our members did not let their kids play on travel leagues or Sunday sports, our attendance would increase by 25 percent.” 

A pastor in Texas said that to me just one week ago. I’ve heard that sentence or similar sentences countless times. Sunday used to be the day for church and only a few other businesses. Now Sunday is a day for almost anything and everything. And church leaders are often frustrated that some of their most committed members are among those whose children are in Sunday sports. 

Let’s look at the issue as objectively as possible. I get the angst. When I served as a pastor many years ago, we would lose one-fourth of our attendance when members and their extended families went on a weekend camping excursion twice a year. I immaturely dreaded preaching to the more vacuous room on those frustrating days.

Here are five considerations. I would love to hear your perspectives as well.

1. Many members are less committed to the church today. From the second chapter of Acts to the third chapter of Revelation, that entire part of the New Testament is either to the local church, about the local church, or written in the context of the local church. The local church is God’s plan A for His mission on earth until Jesus returns, and He did not give us a plan B. Sadly, many church members view the gathered church as just another activity from which to choose. Sometimes sports win. Sometimes sleeping in wins. And sometimes, taking a day off wins. By the way, what do you call a church member who attends only once a month? An elder (or deacon). Yes, that was my weak attempt at humor.

2. Churches expect less today than they did a few decades ago. It’s not just that members are less committed; churches have lowered the bar of biblical expectations of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. It’s analogous to a wedding ceremony where the groom tells the bride that he loves her, but that he does not plan to spend much time with her. We have dumbed down church membership in many of our churches. We don’t even expect our members to spend time with the bride of Christ.

3. Cultural norms have changed. Have you ever heard of “blue laws”? Those were real laws of cities, counties, and states that restricted most businesses from opening on Sundays. I grew up with those laws. You either went to church or hid in your home so no one would know you weren’t in church. The culture was largely pro-church and pro-Christian then. Yes, the times have changed. But we can’t blame culture for our low-commitment churches. The problem is best seen in the mirror.

4. Churches have adapted to cultural changes in the past. It is likely that Sunday morning worship times, particularly the sacrosanct (at least for a season) 11 am service, was an accommodation to an agricultural society. Get the farm chores done, then go to church. Do we leaders in churches need to reconsider our times and days? Is there anything heretical about offering a Thursday night service in addition to the Sunday morning service? Are we being too rigid with our own schedules? Should we consider accommodating the Sunday sports schedules at least part way?

5. The frustration has been exacerbated by COVID. Since the quarantine and re-opening of churches, attendance has fallen by a median of 20 percent. It feels like we lost one of five members and attendees overnight. In reality, we did lose them! Now, when those three kids are playing soccer, softball, and flag football on Sunday morning, we really get frustrated. There are even fewer people gathered for worship than before. 

I doubt we will solve this challenge with this short article. But I would really like to hear from you. Does your church have the Sunday sports challenge? Are you trying to address it positively? If so, what are you doing?

Let me hear from you.


Want to learn more about this subject? Check out these resources: The Complete Membership Class Toolkit, I Am a Christian, “The Once-a-Month Churchgoers Are Becoming More Common” by Thom S. Rainer.

Posted on October 31, 2022

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I have a couple of thoughts.

    First, this particular Sunday morning lament is particular to most of the middle/upper middle-class lens that white evangelical churches see the world through. It doesn’t pain us that people are on the truck on Sundays or working at restaurants, but if their kids are in sports, those are the families we miss. There was a great thread I read recently where it talked about the “least churched” demographic in America right now are those with high school diplomas or less. Those people aren’t missing church because their kids are playing expensive travel sports. They are missing so that they can serve churchgoers the donuts they pick up before church and the lunch they buy after. They are in factory shift work, etc. So when we talk about accommodating another worship time, it’s not just about youth sports. In fact, those are the least of our problems. Those missing to pursue youth sports (arguably at least) have priority issues. The others are unbelievers with no avenue to get involved, because even if they did come to faith apart from ever attending, they would have to change careers to get involved.

    Second, the best time for a church that can only manage one church service is still Sunday morning, despite the issues mentioned in the article. And that’s something I’m wrestling with. We can only manage one service. If we moved to (for example) Thursday night, we’d have far fewer people. I’d love to reach people who can’t worship on Sundays consistently, but I haven’t figured out the best way to do that in a smaller church yet.

  • Thank you so much for talking about this. Many great points have been made and I appreciate them all. Just trying to learn what we can do. It used to be a season where sports like baseball and softball would take up the time but now it is All seasons. Fall is soccer. Winter is Basketball and Spring and Summer are filled with Softball and Baseball. It is difficult to know how to empower our families to be the Church when gathering is now reduced to a few times in-between sports season. We certainly have a willingness to try any approach which might work, but knowing what that is hard to determine. Looking for any and all wisdom to both reach people for Christ and disciple them when their priorities are Sports, Sports, and Sports.

  • For most parents it’s more important that their kids become sports stars or singers than that they get to know God. Get the dads saved and the whole dynamic will change. That’s the 93% rule – bring a dad to church there’s a 93% chance the family will come. Bring a mum to church there’s a 17% chance the family will come. Get dads, get families. That’s why evangelism and ministry to men should be the priority or priorities! Then we can sort out what days are best to do what…

  • My question is did the church leaders talk to the parents of the youth about this? I know many churches have earlier services on Sunday than 11 AM so that people can have the rest of their day. I have even seen families at 730 AM services. Now in liturgical churches, the earliest may not have all the pomp of the later services, but nothing is left out. It just might be spoken instead of sung by cantor and choir. One member of the clergy can conduct it alone.

  • Thank you for wading into an area that might be a touch controversial. I think there are a number of things that must be recognized before a good solution can be crafted.

    1) The ‘church’ is the Body of Christ, not a 503b, government recognized organization nor the building on the corner of 1st and Main

    2) We are no longer in a ‘christian friendly’ culture and therefore, it is incumbent on us to find the best way to deal with that reality rather than lament that we can’t do it the way we grew up doing it

    3) Community is not really what most sunday morning attenders experience. We often call it that, but 10 minutes of ‘maybe’ socializing with Hi how are ya? before or after the service is not community. Looking at the back of someone’s head and singing 3 or 4 familiar songs really isn’t a compelling draw. Especially, when

    4) The rise of church on line and Christian worship music readily available 24/7 means that when we gather, we need to offer something a bit more compelling. I have great music playing in the house and get lots of good teaching via the internet–if that’s the only thing I’m looking for. Only counting butts in seats on Sunday not only devalues the on line potential but will be a losing proposition going forward.

    5) Talking about ‘commitment’ and lowering expectations is one of The. Most. Counter. Productive. guilt trips imaginable. Remember, our ‘message’ is the FREE gift of salvation to all who will receive it. Fascinating how we then immediately turn around and begin to place ‘rules’ on what it ‘should’ look like. Talk about bait and switch.

    My suggestion? Empower your people to DO what we say the ‘local church’ should do. They are to be equipped to discover and use their gifts ‘out there in the world’ at work, at play and in their homes. Then, actually ACT like that’s important to you rather than adding a few ‘yeah, buts’ about commitment, expectations, etc. The folks committed to Sunday (and other day) sports know all about commitment, they’ve made it. They ‘receive’ something from that commitment obviously or they wouldn’t do it.

    I also suspect that part of the problem is that all too many of our church people really haven’t met the Master in a way that would light their fire. Once that happens, you won’t be able to hold them back–well, unless you burden them down with some additional new rules. I think Jesus has something to say to the church leaders of His time about such things.

  • I wonder if part of the issue is that the church has allowed itself to be replaceable. We don’t have requirements to still be a member in good standing in many churches. There are no consequences for non-attendance. In contrast, these sports teams have high requirements. If the kids don’t show up for practice, they don’t get to play. If churches took discipline more seriously, would members take their membership more seriously? I know several good books have addressed this topic, but I think this is worth contributing to this conversation.

  • I always enjoy reading your thoughtful words on the church, Thom. I’m reminded of advice that I’ve given several times: “We can’t reach everyone. Sometimes you just have to let them go.” This may seem simplistic and uncaring, but it is a reality that is often missed in many conversations in the church. We rightly want to reach everyone, but we have to acknowledge at some point that we will not. Adapt, yes, be flexible, yes, but know when to let them go.

  • Drew Sweetman says on

    Nearly a decade ago, a pastor colleague came to a breakfast meeting and declared, “We’ve lost the weekend!” The problem has only gotten worse since then, so he was certainly prophetic in his words. While travel/club teams can provide community and the outside chance of scholarships, they can never provide the gospel. The most compelling thing the church offers is the gospel. We are called to faithfully and winsomely proclaim the gospel. It’s powerful enough to overcome idolatry. If our culture isn’t moved by the gospel, either we’re not really preaching the gospel or it may be time to wipe the dust off our sandals and move on.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    The church I helped to launch in the 1980s and where I was a licensed minister for 15 years originally planned a baseball field as a part of its compreensive building plan which included a multipurpose building and an educational center which was double as a pre-school/early childhood development center. Some involved in the planning thought, “We can can start a church baseball team and play other church teams on our home field.” However, it was soon discovered that the community had plenty of baseball fields and there was little interest in the church to form a baseball team. On the other hand, there was a scarcity of soccer fields in the community and a growing number of the young people in the community, boys and girls, including those who attended the church, played soccer. What was supposed to become a baseball field became a soccer field and local soccer teams used it on weekdays and Saturdays but not Sundays. Why? No parking. The church lot was filled with the cars of the people attending church.

    A second church plant in which I was involved in surveying the community discovered that there was a need for sports and other recreational activities for young people. As a part of its outreach plan the church would offer recreational activities for young people.

    Now what does this have to do with the problem of Sunday sports competing with church? It suggests to me that churches should get into the business of offering sports and other recreational activities for young people, thereby enabling it to some degree to control when these activities are offered. This might not work in some communities but it might work in others.

    Among the reason that sports and other recreational activities for young people are offered on Sundays is that the facilities used for these activities are booked throuhout the week so there may be only Sunday time slots available for some teams. It may also be the parents’ only time that they can transport their child to these recreational activities. There is also pressure from peers to participate in sports and other recreational activities as well as from parents.

    We may need to look at why parents feel it is so important for their child to take part in sports and other recreational activities and what is motivating the parents. Are they, for example, living vicariously through their child their own dream to play a sport which was frustrated when they were younger. If that is the case, offering sports and other recreational activities for young people may be a way of engaging these parents.

    It may not be that the child is so much interested in a particular sport as the parent is. A neighbor’s boy was interested in playing football but his father discouraged that interest. He wanted the boy to play basketball which is a very popular sport in my region. Guess what the boy plays wth his friends at every opportunity? Basketball. There is some interesting dynamics working here and church leaders need to understand them so they can better deal with them.

    We offer church services and other church activities on Sundays out of a longstanding tradition. But the Sabbatarianism that once characterized Sundays is a thing of the past. To some non-churchgoers Sunday may be a day off. To others it may be a work day. They are expected to work Saturdays and Sundays. They might like to attend a church but they cannot. They must work at the times most community churches hold services. These realities of the twenty-first century point to the need to be flexible in scheduling church services and other church activities and to offer them on other days than Sunday and at other times than in the morning. In planning additional services, we also need to get to know our communities better. Rather than unrealistically expecting people to attend one or two large services on Sundays, churches may need to offer smaller, multiple services on different days and at different times. We are creatures of habit and do not like to change our habits but if we are going to be faithful to the mission our Lord has given us, we may need to let certain habits go.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Robin. More churches are indeed offering smaller services on days other than Sunday. It will be fascinating to see where this trend goes.

  • Important topic and I appreciate you getting a conversation started about it.

    Point #4 would be more salient were it the case that Sunday sports were truly analogous to congregations meeting later on Sunday mornings in the past due to the agricultural-occupational situation of that era.

    The problem for many families is that recreation–particularly sports–aren’t essential to households actual surviving and thriving. They are, by definition, recreational. And in many cases, the level of commitment rises to the level of idolatry. Recently CBS reported on the rise of travel sports, which many of our families are involved in. They reported that some families are spending as much as 5-10% of their household income on these pursuits (they’re tithing to their activities). Now I definitely think some parents do live under the delusion that their child can play their sport at the next level, and perhaps get an athletic scholarship, enabling them to pay absurd tuition prices. But if many were asked about it point blank, they probably wouldn’t even give this high-minded of a rationalization. The truth is that many pastors would be happy to adjust service times if they felt it would accommodate these folks. But if they’re willing to give so much of their time and income to these pursuits, are they also the same folks who would cry out, “Pastor, we really want to have a way to participate. Just give us an alternative service time.” It’s a hard sell given what’s actually going on with most families.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jackson –

      You make a good point. Even if churches accommodate the irrational sports enthusiasts, it may not make a big difference anyway.


  • Deanna Lynn Bartlett says on

    This is truly one of the most frustrating and awkward topics to address. If we dare say anything, we are accused of legalism and if we don’t say anything then most consider it a “permission slip” to everything else a priority. Is it wrong to consider this a heart problem? To point #3, I ask, why would the church which means the “already stretched” church staff and leaders need to be the ones to accommodate the culture which has taken every evening, Saturday and Sunday for their activities.
    The church is a beautiful gift from God FOR us and unfortunately too many Christians consider it to be a “have to” and “here God, here is our token”.
    One other factor is that many are finding their community in other groups such as work family, home school family, sports family and though these are fine, in and of themselves, they do not fall under the umbrella of NT church.
    Thank you for giving words to this.

  • Daniel Haveman says on

    Thanks for bringing this up for discussion Thom. I’m not sure that there is a sure fire answer outside of consistently preaching the word and not avoiding the plain prerogatives of the Pauline Epistles. In reference to number 4, I don’t think that adjusting a church schedule for a working culture would be the same thing as adjusting it for a sports crazed culture. In my opinion the church (in large) has already conceded/adjusted too much because of culture. This has already been attempted by the Corinthian church with miserable results. Preaching, teaching, culture, apostasy, and finally paganism is the precipitous decline of the church demonstrated clearly through the scriptures and church history.
    Following Christ requires commitment. It often requires sacrifice. It compels us to prioritize our lives with him and his church as the central part. At some point, people do have a decision to make; the pillar and ground of the truth or Dad and Mom’s fantasy to have their kid in the big leagues.

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