If he didn’t know it before, the Rev. Stephen Fichter found out that sports were a big deal in his community when a family told him they not be attending his Catholic parish from Good Friday through Easter Sunday to attend their child’s volleyball tournament. So he decided to study the phenomenon.
He surveyed 341 Catholics in one congregation who reported attending only on Easter and Christmas. He said he thought many people would cite disagreement with church teachings or negative experiences. But only 7 percent of respondents gave either of those reasons.
More than two-thirds said the reason they attend only twice a year was that they were too busy with other commitments. Sixteen percent admitted they were lazy. Fichter reported the findings at the joint annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association.
But instead of complaining about the competition and putting parents down for misplaced choices, he found that the best solutions seem to find ways to adapting to the environment we are in.
His work, along with others, is described by the Association of Religion Data Archives.
One response has been to add services at alternative times such as Saturday and Sunday evenings to provide more opportunities for parents and children to attend both sporting events and church.
What also has seemed to be helpful is for churches to offer their own sports programming.
Research has shown congregations that offer multiple opportunities for members to participate in church life are more likely to experience growth.
What if a sporting program could become a “way in” to the community life of a congregation?
Offering sports programs “is a point of entry,” said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “Often the biggest competition is for young families with kids.”
Some 36 percent of congregations in the 2010 Faith Communities Today survey, including more than four in 10 evangelical Protestant congregations, reported at least some emphasis on team sports, fitness activities and exercise classes.
“Evangelicals are much more aware that they really have a competing worldview with the secular world,” Roozen said.
And the combination seems to have its benefits. More than two-thirds of congregations who said sports and fitness programs were a specialty of the congregation reported more than a 10 percent growth in attendance from 2000 to 2010. In contrast, only a third of churches with no athletic programs reported such growth.
Survive and advance is one mantra of teams in the NCAA basketball tournament culminating in the Final Four. One idea for churches struggling in a sports-obsessed culture may be a similar strategy: Adapt and advance.