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aaaI know pastors who are discouraged by diminishing attendance at worship services. As Thom Rainer recently pointed out, an active church member 15 years ago attended church three times a week. Now it’s three times a month.

Pastors and church leaders feel the encroachment of activities vying for church members’ time and attention. The cultural Christianity of yesteryear, which reserved Sundays for worship and rest, has disappeared. In its place are travel leagues that tie up families, sporting events that lure away men, and shopping sales that entice women. Carving out time for worship and rest takes intentionality these days, and churches are feeling the impact.

Even so, a recent study from LifeWay Research shows that a whopping 83% of churchgoers disagree with this statement:

“I would skip a weekly worship service in order to watch my favorite football team.”

Now, I can see some pastors shaking their heads, thinking, They must not have polled my church! Other pastors may wonder about the “halo effect,” that human tendency to answer a poll in the way we perceive ourselves rather than the reality. “I read my Bible every day” (when it’s really three times a week) or “I share my faith once a month” (when it’s really once a year).

But even if we allow for some margin of error, or we take into consideration the halo effect, it’s still stunning how many churchgoers say, “Nope. I won’t skip worship to watch football.” The number of those who would skip is noticeably higher in men (nearly 1 out of 4) than women (1 out of 10), but even so, most churchgoers say their commitment to worship takes precedence over a sporting event.

People have been skipping church for centuries. And though we may think we’re busier today than ever before, we should remember that in agricultural societies, harvest season sometimes interfered with attending church to the point congregations would gather for prayer in the fields.

Pastors and church leaders expect congregants to miss from time to time due to health reasons, vacation, or occasional conflicts. But skipping church for football rubs pastors the wrong way, perhaps because they sense an inherent competition with the event itself.

As human beings, we perceive our existence at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society. It’s in our nature to want to activate what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind calls “the hive switch,” that is, we shut down the self and become part of the whole, much like bees who are fulfilling their roles in a hive.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim called this phenomenon “collective effervescence.” He described it this way:

“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.”

Haidt uses college football as an example of losing yourself in the group. “It is a religious rite that does just what it is supposed to do,” he writes. “It pulls people up from Durkehim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole” (287).

The act of being in a stadium, part of a larger whole, within a grand narrative of wins and losses and individual personalities that meld together to form a team – all of these elements resemble, in one form or another, gathering with believers in Christ and re-centering our individual lives within the cosmic story of redemption and the called-out community of faith-filled saints.

So, even though pastors are probably encouraged to hear most churchgoers say church matters more than football, those same pastors probably feel the loss of churchgoers to football games more strongly than if their congregants were missing for other reasons.

What to do? I addressed the issue of “part-time churchgoing” last year, and I cautioned against guilting people into going to church, or avoiding the issue altogether. Instead, we need a renewed vision of worship and a gripping sense of the majesty of God so that all the other events competing for our attention lose their luster in light of His grace.

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14 thoughts on “Would You Skip Church for Football?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    I wish that the percentage of those who said no to skipping Church to watch a favorite sports team was higher than 83%. But also, some distinctions must be made. There is a difference between skipping Church for an event as a rule vs do so as an exception.

    I use to be a real avid sports fan until two things changed me. The first thing was the realization that being an avid sports fan was just another way of being a manic-depressive. The second thing was since becoming a Leftist-activist, sports became far less important.

    Now the question for me is this: Do I skip church in order to attend a protest? Yes, but doing so is the exception.

  2. jeremiah says:

    Years ago I was in search of a church to attend. Almost on board with one until I found out that they announced to change their date of an after church baptism because it conflicted with the Super Bowl. I wonder how many churches would make the same decision even if it was behind the scenes and only between the ‘leadership’?

    1. Kathy says:

      Unfortunately, almost every church my husband and I have attended over the years has cancelled church services or functions because of the Super Bowl. There was even one where everyone was encouraged to wear his/her favorite jersey to church on Super Bowl Sunday. It was very distracting seeing the worship team and the pastor in their jerseys. To his credit, a few minutes after starting his sermon, the pastor said he didn’t feel right wearing his jersey, and took it off (he had a dress shirt underneath).

  3. There is a pretty big difference between “missing church” for works of mercy, like making sure you, your family, and your neighbors do not die from starvation and “missing church” for sports, which are the great idolatry of our day.

    I am not sure the point of that illustration in the context of entertainment.

  4. Ben Jameson says:

    I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama so most of the people in my church would not miss church for a football game because hardly anyone here cares about pro football. It would be interesting to see how people in my part of the country would respond to the question if Alabama and Auburn played on Sunday or if we had a worship service on Saturday. I grew up in southeast Texas in the 70’s and I vividly remember seeing men get up and leave the service early if the Dallas Cowboys had a noon kickoff.

  5. Jim Swindle says:

    I’m not a sports fan, but missing church for football is about the same as missing church for your children’s sports or for your family reunion or for your dog’s competition at the dog show. If the Lord’s the highlight of our lives, we’ll want to be regular in spending time with his people. On the other hand, there are times when the best way to glorify the Lord is to be with someone away from church. (I suspect that those exceptions should usually be rare.)

  6. Jonathan McGuire says:

    Completely agree and it is the basis for the problem. When fans identify with an NFL team more than with a local church such that the fan would prefer to be in a stadium, on a regular basis, watching the game than in the worship center with fellow church members there are a number of defects present. To jump to the easy solution (brow beating the absent members) is to avoid doing a serious root cause analysis and corrective action.

    1. The fan needs to ask, “What is it about watching my NFL team that makes me so passionate and why do I not have the same or greater passion for gathering with fellow members to sing, give, and listen to a sermon?”

    2. The church leader (pastors, elders, etc…) need to ask, “How am I working to make disciples who see and savor Jesus Christ with such abandon that gathering together with fellow believers to sing, give, and listen to preaching is something that they simply cannot imagine being absent?”

    Question 2 is the most difficult and dangerous to engage because it will force leaders to focus on making disciples rather than any particular method (preaching, congregational gathering, etc…). I don’t expect many pastors or elders engage in such self-evaluation because we have elevated preaching and preachers to an unhealthy and unsustainable level in the modern era. We are also a people of ambition who crave attention and being served such that we feel personally slighted when someone chooses to do something other than listen to our sermons on Sunday morning.

    Imagine what would happen if real disciple making was made THE priority in the local church?

    1. Jonathan McGuire says:

      My first sentence above was to quote TW.:

      “we need a renewed vision of worship and a gripping sense of the majesty of God so that all the other events competing for our attention lose their luster in light of His grace.”

  7. Mark says:

    Granted I haven’t taken the time to read what you wrote about “not guilting people.” But I’m really curious what is wrong with someone feeling guilty for something. I’m thankful for the people in my life who have made me feel guilty for scheduling an airplane flight on Sunday. It was wholly appropriate. There is a sanctifying effect that church members should have on each other (temporally at least). It may not always accompany conviction as it should, but I do know that I attend a church that retains a relatively high level of young people — I can grant that not all of them have stayed because they truly know Christ. But the longer they stay to hear the gospel, the longer the spirit has to work through the established means of grace. It’s an overarching principle that we need to embrace while jetisoning the chronic individualism and faux spirituality that pervade the U.S.

  8. christopher says:

    I would not skip church for the sake of seeing the game. Although, if my family or other close friends are getting together to watch the game, I think God would understand. Unless if I am in great spiritual need. There is definitely a call to discern if it is the right thing to do. In certain situations I would and others I would not.

    By the way, I hadn’t watched a Sunday football game in months because of night church.

  9. JohnM says:

    I don’t know as it has so much to do with “losing yourself in the group”, given most of the church skippers are going to watch the game on TV, but yeah, there is such a thing as sportsolatry.

    Would I skip church to watch a football game? Don’t take it as asking what the definition of is is, but my answer depends on what you mean by skip church. Skip the Sunday assembly of which I am normally a part to watch a game? No, never have, though I have skipped, albeit rarely, for other reasons. Skip some other church goings-on to watch a game? I might, if I didn’t want to be there anyway and wasn’t particularly needed for anything. I don’t feel compelled to be in the church building every time the door is open.

  10. Scott says:

    Really interesting and relevant topic. The statement “I would skip a weekly worship service in order to watch my favorite football team” is quite vague. Once? Nearly all of us would. Every week? That’s a very different statement.

    I have skipped church for a sporting event, many years ago because I had tickets to a game. I might someday go to a Sunday sports event which would require me missing church. To be sure, this would be rare.

    Motivation for church attendance should never have been guilt. This is analogous to my motivation to have dinner with my wife. If I have dinner with my wife out of guilt, I will have a very different relationship than if I have dinner with her because I love her and I want to spend time with her.

    While the statement “I would skip…” is an interesting one to look at, this has more to do with our honesty with ourselves than it does the issue of how pastors (or other leadership or lay people) feel about or deal with this issue.

    If I am honest and can admit that I have and would “skip church” for a sporting event (even if rarely), then I won’t be approaching others from a standpoint of guilt or judgment when they skip church (and they will). Instead, I will be looking for ways to love them and challenge their walk — outside of church services — so that they grow a desire to worship God — eventually in church services.

  11. Tom W. says:

    Excellent article. I see this alot around here (Denver, CO, go Broncos!). I am the worship leader at my church and mine is the type of church that would consider rescheduling or flat out canceling for the Super Bowl. It drives me crazy. In fact, I’ve been asked to keep the hymns short on Sundays when the Broncos start early.

    I feel like the key is the 3rd to last paragraph: “The act of being in a stadium, part of a larger whole, within a grand narrative of wins and losses and individual personalities that meld together to form a team – all of these elements resemble, in one form or another, gathering with believers in Christ and re-centering our individual lives within the cosmic story of redemption and the called-out community of faith-filled saints.” Maybe the problem is that they resemble the things in church but often times do it even better. Maybe we should see it as competition. How can we make our Sunday gatherings more exhilirating? How can we make people feel like they’ve really missed something important when they miss church? How can we make people feel like they’re pumped up, rejuvenated, and excited for the week ahead? And then, three days later they’re genuinely looking forward to — longing, even — for the next time they can attend a church service?

    Can I make a scary, unpopular suggestion? Perhaps we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by making church services SHORTER?!

  12. Mark Kanzler says:

    We record them and watch them when we get home.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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