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Church sports leagues have lost glitter, but still shine

Intergenerational ministry for men often used to include athletic activity, but rarely does today

The Holy Trinity Lutheran Church basketball team often won citywide church league  tournaments in the 1950s, primarily due to the participation of seven-foot center John Pritchard (right). The local newspapers at the time regularly reported the scores of church league games,  according to John Kelly, a former president of  the Church Athletics Association. Photo provided by Carol Johnson

The Holy Trinity Lutheran Church basketball team often won citywide church league
tournaments in the 1950s, primarily due to the participation of seven-foot center John Pritchard (right). The local newspapers at the time regularly reported the scores of church league games,
according to John Kelly, a former president of
the Church Athletics Association. Photos provided by Carol Johnson

Church sports leagues once were abundant. But today, they are few and far between, and many churches have a difficult time finding enough players to form a team.

In their heyday, many church leagues were organized through local YMCAs. Sports included basketball, softball, and volleyball for both men and women. The leagues, which began and were strong in the 1940s and 1950s, had mostly declined by the 1990s, according to John Kelly, who served as president of Minneapolis’ Church Athletics Association.

Kelly, a retired pension fund manager for the American Lutheran Church, said these leagues have declined largely due to two reasons. First, the YMCA lessened its commitment to the leagues and, secondly, a rule change about student involvement in church sport’s leagues was initiated by the Minnesota State High School League, which created confusion around eligibility and thus impacted the willingness of young people to play.

The church leagues had advantages important to congregations to this day. “The gyms and sports programs brought children and young adults into the church,” Kelly said. “These people got into other church activities then, too.”

A league in search of teams

Scott Dahlquist, who has managed and organized a men’s church softball league in Richfield, knows this story of decline all too well. About three years ago, three Richfield churches combined to form a team. St. Richards Catholic, Oak Grove Lutheran, and Woodlake Lutheran combined to become the Woodgrove Saints, playing in a men’s church league. Currently, that league is struggling to maintain enough players and faces an uncertain future in 2014.

This Holy Trinity team included three sons of long-time pastor, the Rev. Carl Bartsch -- Carl, farleft of back row; Jim, second from left of middle row; and Bob, front row with ball.

This Holy Trinity team included three sons of long-time pastor, the Rev. Carl Bartsch — Carl, far left of back row; Jim, second from left of middle row; and Bob, front row with ball.

A church league allows people from a wide variety of skill levels and ages to come together and play in a more relaxed and less competitive atmosphere.

The Richfield league brought an intergenerational fellowship opportunity to its participants, with players ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s. Due to the interest of a few women, the league has expanded to allow female players, but has not become co-ed. At press time, five teams were commited to participate in the league. However, the City of Richfield, which manages the league, has not yet determined whether the league will remain in 2014 due to low participation numbers.

For Dahlquist, having a church league has been worth fighting for. It allows people from a wide variety of skill levels and ages to come together and play in a more relaxed and less competitive atmosphere than other leagues offer. Those who have played in the league have found this type of competition more appealing than other community league opportunities, which are often more competitive and aggressive in their play.

In spite of their decline, churchgoers and sports enthusiasts like Dahlquist believe involvement in church-based sports leagues is an important part of congregational life. “It’s a struggle for me,” he said. “I grew up in a typically Lutheran background. … It’s always a challenge to integrate [church] with other parts of your life, not just on Sunday. Opportunities for fellowship, to meet and socialize with others, those opportunities seem to be diminishing.”

Dahlquist finds opportunities like this to be especially important to men. “Men like to do things, not talk about things. It’s a way to get people engaged. If you’re going to play softball, you’re there to do something. Then maybe you talk, and that’s okay.”

From boys to men

While sports leagues no longer hold the prominence they once did, intergenerational activities are still important among church communities, something that Paul Hill, executive director of Vibrant Faith Ministries, notes is a challenge in American churches.

“American churches are highly age-segregated organizations, and this is not helpful,” Hill wrote in an email. “Why do we think it’s a good idea to have adults in one room drinking coffee while kids are in a classroom? That’s not how faith or religious socialization happens.”

And, Terri Elton, associate professor of children, youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary, noted in an email how important this is regarding young people in the church.

Elton wrote, “One of the themes that recent research has found regarding young people and their faith is their active participation in an intergenerational community. Their participation has to do not only with engaging in faith practices together, but also with growing friendships and sharing in their interests and passions.”

Hill refers to Jesus’ teachings to affirm the importance of intergenerational activities, “Jesus broke down all age barriers when he welcomed the children to himself. Jesus understands that faith comes when the generations mix.

“The research is clear on this point as well,” Hill wrote. “When generations mix around issues of faith, community, and life, then God blesses the relationships and all generations are enriched. We must do everything in our power to resist the American temptation to put up gated communities based on age segregation. Congregations should be countercultural intergenerational partners!”

 

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