Updated: Aug 14
Jamie’s grandmother is concerned about him. Should she be?
Jamie is fifteen, a good kid, average grades in school, middle child in the family down the street. But Jamie’s grandmother, Linda, hardly sees him anymore.
Linda hosts family lunches on Sundays. She and her husband, Greg, have three children, all of them now married with kids of their own, and all of them reside locally. So Sundays are great times for Linda’s kin, with lots of intergenerational fun and often precious moments of sharing life together.
But Linda misses Jamie.
Jamie has joined a youth group at his church, and it takes up a lot of his time. A lot.
Mondays and Wednesdays after school, Jamie goes online for a 90-minute study session hosted by his pastor that teaches him Christian doctrine and church history. Tuesday and Thursday evenings, right after supper, he goes out with older believers to engage in street evangelism.
Friday nights are sometimes free, but every second weekend Jamie is away with his parents and the youth group, serving the needy in nearby cities. And on the alternate Saturday nights when he’s in town, Jamie is at the church for a two-hour session on evangelism techniques and apologetic arguments to be used in the following fortnight’s door-to-door work.
So he’s home only two Sundays a month. And on those days, after Jamie has gone to church all morning—for both an hour-long Sunday School class and a worship service afterward, while he looks forward to another worship service that evening—Sunday afternoons now get devoted to catching up on his homework . . . and often catching up on his sleep. Not much time or energy left for family get-togethers.
Linda is a Christian herself, and she was a keen member of her youth group years ago. But Jamie’s involvement is at a level that alarms her. All he seems to do now is go to school and go to youth group, with barely any time, energy, or attention for anything or anyone else.
He’s becoming a stranger to her, and to his extended family. And his parents just smile and say, “Well, it’s what Jamie wants. And who can be against Christian activities?” And then they facilitate his interest by driving him everywhere all week and each weekend.
Does this sound excessive to you? Worrisome? Cultic, even?
Do you think that Jamie—and his parents and his youth group leaders and his church—should reconsider their priorities and rebalance Jamie’s life?
Commitment to religion—who can be against that? And yet most sensible people would be concerned, as Linda is. Are you?
Let’s look at Jamie’s situation and substitute hockey for youth group. And Jamie isn’t fifteen: he’s eight.
Hockey practice two or three times a week. Hockey games twice a week, and hockey tournaments every other weekend. Even Australians and Americans I’ve talked to recently—and they, too, love their sport(s)—are surprised at the toll hockey takes on Canadian kids nowadays.
But soccer, rugby, Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, in Oz and the States as well as in Canada: they all take up so much time.
Jamie and his parents are devoted, we might say, to hockey. And devotion is a loaded term.
Sounds like worship.
Sounds like idolatry.
I will always be grateful that my late father chose not to live out his own athletic aspirations through his offspring. Dad was a skilled and dedicated goalie. In his later teens he played for the Peterborough Petes (the highest amateur level) and, within the same month, stopped shots from both Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, both later NHL Hall of Famers. He did so by the calculated expedient of interposing his face between the puck and his net. (Cost him his top front teeth—both times.)
Dad was a serious hockey player. Played later for his university team, too, as a medical student.
When my own first hockey practice, however, was scheduled for a rink twenty miles away at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, my dad and I both knew instantly, without having to discuss it, that my hockey career was over before it began.
(No great loss to the game, that’s for sure. My finest hockey hour was as a second-line right wing on Regent College’s intramural team that went to the University of British Columbia finals. As a 40-year-old professor, I could still play with the youngsters, just not all that well….)
To be clear, I love sports also. Played football and basketball in high school and ran track. But that was at a high school run by a principal who insisted that students aim at becoming well-rounded people. He kept coaches and directors from requiring too much time of their young charges.
So, no, we weren’t nearly as skilled as our counterparts in high school basketball in Iowa or football in Texas—as I found when I later lived in those states. But I got to try lots of things and learn lots of things and enjoy lots of things. And I’m grateful for that balance—which included playing in the high school bands and competing on the math team.
I still love sports. I played squash and racquetball into my 50s, I still ski at the proverbial “advanced intermediate” level, and so on. But when we got word of that first hockey practice, my dad and I put first things first.
And hockey can’t be first. Or soccer. Or baseball. Or anything else that basically runs the family schedule from age eight until you finally can’t make the next elite team and have to “settle” for—well, for a balanced life.
I know the arguments, and you do, too. “Sports shapes character,” yes, even if only certain character traits. Sports can be good for kids in other ways, too: their social development, their mental toughness, their teamwork skills, and more.
“If they can’t push themselves to do laps around a field when they’re 10, what’s going to prepare them to study in high school to get into university? Plus at least they aren’t playing video games.”
Funny: I’ve heard similar arguments for piano lessons. And they’re all true arguments, so far as they go.
But here’s the point: they go too far. This level of involvement in sports might make sense for a budding Olympian or major-league prospect. But for the 99+% of children who don’t have a chance of playing at that level? It doesn’t make sense.
This dedication to minor-league sports is bending both family life and church life out of shape. Such families focus on minor sports at the expense of, well, everything else: art, gardening, basic construction skills, intellectual exploration, spiritual growth. There can’t be much time or energy left, week after week, for anything other than school and sport, for the kid and for his parents.
Certain kinds of Christians—and I’m one of them—enjoy reading books such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. We nod affirmatively when preachers distinguish, as Bonhoeffer did, between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” We love being inspired by Bonhoeffer’s heroics in the cause of Christ.
So what does costly discipleship look like in the Canadian middle class today? What should any of us give up, or take on, that looks in any way costly?
We’re not being asked to be martyrs in Canada—while our brothers and sisters in other countries are indeed being called to lay down their lives today. So what are we being asked to lay on the altar of devotion to Christ, his Church, and his Kingdom?
If I could wave a wand to instantly improve both church and family life in Canada, the U.S., Australia, and the like, I would make minor sports truly minor: fun, healthful, educational, and do-able as part of a properly balanced life.
Note to pastors and coaches in our churches: Maybe church leagues need to form as counterparts to the runaway trains of minor league sports. That would be a powerful statement of alternative Christian values. I wish I could wave a wand to produce that outcome as well.
You can wave that wand over your own life, however, and that of your family. Will you?
Linda is hoping you will. And she’s not the only one.