The Secularization of Sunday: Should Churches Change to Accommodate Sports?

Sports activities, including those played by children on Sundays, along with consumerism are the primary reasons people seem to run out of time to attend church in North America, according to a recent survey titled, "The Secularization of Sunday." However, a professor who conducted the survey believes churches are to blame for lower attendance.

Steve McMullin, an associate professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, surveyed pastors and members of 16 declining churches throughout the U.S. and Canada and found that many cited sport activities as the reason for a drop in numbers among congregations.

"What I found was that competing Sunday activities, especially children's sports activities, was the primary reason that those leaders and church members cited as an explanation for the congregations' decline," McMullin said.

His study, 'The Secularization of Sunday: Real or Perceived Competition for Churches,' published in the Review of Religious Research, revealed that 8 out of the 14 pastors interviewed identified sports as the main culprit for low Sunday service attendance. However, McMullin disagrees and says there is an underlying issue to this problem.

"Based on the data I collected, I believe that they are incorrect.  My sociological analysis of the data from the congregations in the study indicates that it is not external factors, such as Sunday sports, but instead it is internal factors, including an unwillingness [on behalf of churches] to change, that has had the biggest effect," McMuillin said.

The change churches are not willing to embrace, according to McMullin, are additional worship times outside of Sunday mornings because church leaders consider Sundays to be "sacred." But according to Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the notion of embracing Sunday as a day to worship has become obsolete and says pastors should offer an alternative to attending church just one day out of the week.

"Clearly, Sunday morning is no longer 'sacred time,' set apart for the exclusive use of churches as it once was. The astute pastor will think creatively with innovative responses that take the changing reality of American society into account as they do ministry," Thumma said. "Whether that is by offering worship services at multiple times throughout the week, emphasizing alternative small group activities in homes or on the sidelines at sporting events, or even offering Christian-based sports camps, the faithful response to the situation should not be complaints but adaptation."

McMullin shared the same sentiment and said the pastors whom he interviewed during his research were encouraged to think beyond just Sunday gatherings.

"Sundays are just no longer 'meant for church,' that means [churches] are now free to offer activities all week long, including worship services at alternative times so families can be involved in sports and be faithful in attendance," McMullin said.

While the findings of his study coincide with a 2008 Faith Communities Today study, which found that more than a third of all congregations surveyed reported school and sports-related activities as obstacles in keeping people away from church, MuMullin's study found that sports is just one of a myriad of impediments.

"Other reasons cited by pastors for declining church attendance are the end of Sunday 'blue laws,' the general busyness of life, and a lack of interest in religion," McMullin said.

Thumma also said the lessening and in some cases, the end of blue laws, which ban Sunday retail sales throughout some parts of the country, have contributed to this downward shift.

"There are many more options for entertainment and recreation than just church on a Sunday morning.  It is also clear, from an article in the Review of Religious Research Journal, that the authority of churches and clergy has decreased over time," Thumma said.

According to McMullin, churches can reduce the trend of missing church for sports by having other members as well as the pastor engaged in community sporting activities and ensuring that worship services are relevant and interesting for young families, among other suggested solutions.

Thumma, also found similar solutions while doing research with his co-author, Warren Bird, for their recently released book, The Other 80 Percent: Turning your Church's Spectators into Active Participants.

"What makes the difference [in attending church] isn't sports or blue laws but whether someone is growing in the faith, feeling spiritually fed and whether their involvement in church is personally meaningful to them and their family," said Thumma. "If that is the case, then whether the children have practice or whether Starbucks in the Mall is open won't matter; they will find a way to be involved in church."

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