Church or Sports? Faith Leaders Fight Back

( [email protected] ) Nov 29, 2003 11:27 AM EST

SUMMIT, N.J. – For a nation with a majority belief in the Christian God, the United States has a strikingly low rate of attendance to weekly church services. Why? Some experts believe the answer lies in the case that recurs in households everywhere: Sports vs. Church.

“It all boils down to time, and the precious lack of it for families. As the growing demands of homework, weekend errands and sports compete for families' free time, church often loses,” said Rev. Church Rush, senior minister of Christ Church in Summit.

"You've got this dramatic pressure between playing sports and going to church, which isn't good,” he said.

While for many decades faith leaders silently watched as church attendance dwindled away, the clergy began to fight back, advising coaches and time-starved parents to keep the Sabbatical.

"I don't want my kids to grow up with great football memories and no Biblical knowledge," said Rev. Rush.

Rush feels the conflict between Sports and Church even in his own home; his 13 year old soccer player is sometimes forced to choose between religion and loyalty to the team.

"She was in a tournament recently and she said, `I could be the MVP, but if I don't play in this Sunday's game, I definitely won't be the MVP," he recalled.

In Andover, Mass, one church conducted a marketing survey to find out when the congregants had the most free time to attend. The most common response, was not on Sunday morning, but Saturday evening, at 5pm.

"You run around all week long, commuting to work and coming home, and run and run all weekend long and by Sunday night, you're asking, `What the heck just happened?'" Rush said. "Sabbath means there's some structured rest."

At St. Teresa of Avila R.C. Church in Summit, it's not uncommon to see youngsters in the pews dressed in soccer or football uniforms, ready to be whisked off to the field as soon as the last organ note fades.

Don Rasweiler, a father of five and a football coach, must deal with both sides of the debate. He has to be at the field an hour before the 10:30 a.m. game, which means getting at least some of the kids up early enough for 7:30 a.m. Mass. There's also a good chance one or two of his other children will have a game later in the day.

Rasweiler and his wife Kate frequently handle it by splitting up, attending different Masses with Jack, 12, Henry, 10, or Abigail, 8, depending on the week's sports schedule.

Rasweiler said his wife isn't pleased with the solution.

"We were discussing it a couple weekends ago, and she said, `I don't like the effect this is having on us. We should go to church as a family.' "

Tom Brown, a baseball coach and St. Teresa parishioner, noted his league worked with the area churches to at least avoid conflicts between team picture day and the congregations' First Holy Communion days.

"We talked to them, got their dates, and we moved picture day," he said. "They really appreciated it, and we got a big thank you from the churches and the parents."