Club sports replacing church in American society 

“At the literal hour that Christians attend service, we were cheering on a dewy soccer sideline.”

I feel the need to preface this piece with the disclaimer that I am writing this as a competitive athlete as well as well as an Easter Christian—this is not an article condemning competitive sports or ‘sinners.’ It’s merely a sociological opinion of how priorities in our country have shifted in the past several generations.   According to a 2014 survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, 53% of American kids play a team sport, requiring practice multiple times a week. In contrast, only 22% of Americans attend a weekly religious service.  

The idea that sports have replaced church first occurred to me in the literal sense when I was at a soccer game for my middle school brother on a Sunday morning. At the literal hour that Christians attend service, we were cheering on a dewy soccer sideline. But club sports have replaced more than just the square on the calendar that the church had occupied; they have replaced the role church provided for our society. 

  Two generations ago, church was the center of life for most Americans. 60% of the population attended weekly religious service in 1960. Church covered more than just spiritual needs. It provided socialization, purpose, routine and discipline. This looked like church picnics, roles for every parishioner and church every week.   Sunday service was not something to be skipped— all other activities moved around it. The church calendar and the family calendar were one and the same for many.  Social groups were also largely predetermined by the church because everyone was in youth groups, and family friends and neighbors were also likely parishioners. Everyone had a role, from being an usher to making potato salad for church events.  

On a deeper level, church was as investment in one’s future, meaning, the afterlife.  The more money or time one put into the church, the more secure their place in Heaven seemed to be.  Over and over, trust in religion and the church was emphasized. The church taught that if you trust and follow the teachings and correct your mistakes, you will be blessed forever. Belief was the key to salvation.  

In the same way, club sports have become an investment.  If parents spend enough money and time now, their kids can have more opportunities to play in the future, including at the college level.  In some cases, this investment is more literal, where college scholarships for low-income athletes are concerned.  The belief piece comes in with the politics of different clubs and trusting that this club, this coach, this team will provide the player with the development they need to secure a good sports future. Players are expected to trust blindly in their coaches if they wish to succeed.    

Sports have also taken over the church’s role of socialization, because of the large amounts of time being spent with one’s teammates. Club sports promote socialization through the formation of bonds that can only be formed through shared vulnerability. In a youth group, this meant sharing religious feelings, thoughts and questions.  On a sports team, this is the vulnerability of putting full effort into an activity and putting your body’s limit out in the open. Many youth groups also took yearly trips and retreats, similar to traveling tournaments.  

Church was the mirror one saw themselves reflected in to get an idea of how society views them. It gave them a purpose, whether as a voice in the choir, an alter server or just as a follower of “the Lord’s word.”  This identity formation has also been taken over by club sports. One’s purpose is their position on the field or court.  How they see themselves is how other clubs view their club and how much they contribute to the team.  

Developing discipline is the final role I see club sports taking on.  Previously, discipline was developed by sitting through long boring services and spending hours volunteering.   Now, it is almost synonymous with exercise, conditioning, and developing the ability to push through discomfort for a greater purpose on a regular basis.  The greater purpose has shifted from salvation to winning games.  The discomfort is more physical than mental now, but there is still growing discipline.  

Again, this is not meant to guilt trip athletes in any way. Maybe one’s tight-knit traveling volleyball team does more for you than sitting in a church pew ever could.  But the interesting part is that while the means of obtaining them have changed, our needs of socialization, routine, discipline and purpose have not.