Faith and Travel Ball: 10 Survival Tips for Families and Churches

“Appearing insecure and angry because of a drop in attendance will only cause us to sound manipulative rather than extending the voice of a loving shepherd to the flock.”

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It is that time of year again, already! I know. The Falcons are gearing up for the Super Bowl, and you aren’t quite ready to talk baseball yet. But I love baseball. It is the sport I grew up playing. I love the smell of an old ball glove, hearing the leather pop and the bat crack, and watching games at every level. I enjoyed coaching youth baseball and teaching kids the fundamentals of the game.

One of my all time favorite movie lines comes from a scene in The Rookie. Dennis Quaid, playing the role of Jimmy Morris, approaches a fellow (much younger) minor league teammate and says, “You know what we get to do today, Brooks? We get to play baseball!

Passion for baseball is still strong here in Georgia. While fewer young people may play the game, those who do play take it more seriously than ever. At least compared to my little league days when our teams wore jeans, a t-shirt with a number, sponsor, and Little League patch, and shared four batting helmets and five bats among all 12 boys.

Greater passion among fewer players has also brought about the nation-wide phenomenon known as travel ball. I realize that travel ball is a term that applies to other sports today. But baseball, along with girls softball, seems to be experiencing the greatest participation among the kids and parents that I know personally. However, you can apply these tips to any sport or activity.

As a pastor, I expect to stimulate a little thought among two camps with different feelings. I have friends, especially ministry colleagues, that will not appreciate me writing about the possibility of surviving travel ball. To be fair, they have seen many of their members create habits during the travel ball seasons that have been detrimental to the respective families in their walks with God. They have seen spiritual momentum squelched in their churches as families disappear for months, sometimes never to return. Gone are the days of perfect attendance pins and guarding the sacredness of Lord’s Day worship. There is some merit to these feelings.

These pastors, church leaders, and friends will likely find very little redeeming value in what I am about to share as tips for survival. They will see it as unrealistic or caving. They have a perspective that should be heard, for they can point out concerns and blind spots that must be addressed.

The other camp of believers will be those who are already applying some of these tips. They are so tired of what they perceive to be legalistic criticism of what has become a wholesome family activity as far as they are concerned. They’re not at church on those low attendance Sundays and are unlikely to feel or understand the frustration the first group experiences. And, they might reason, why should travel ball get picked on when others are going camping, leaving early for lunch at grandma’s, going to work, or sometimes not attending worship because they were simply too lazy to get out of bed.

The following tips are not meant to endorse one group or the other. But I do believe they provide biblical wisdom that could bring about balanced and informed decision making. I hope they will be a help to both churches and parents. Ultimately all involved in this growing passion are either believers who need the tips to be better equipped or are lost people who need our church members to reach them.

With that said, let me know which ones you find to be most helpful.

  1. Keep the Glory of God your primary purpose in all of life’s pursuits. For some, sports will be an outlet for bringing God glory. For others, sports robs them of and replaces their passion for Christ. So ask, “Are my kids learning from me and for themselves that our primary goal in life is to make sure we exalt Jesus Christ?” (Mt. 6:33)
  2. Don’t overlook the significance of Lord’s Day Worship. A sports mom recently argued in Christianity Today that corporate worship is the greatest need young Christian athletes have. The biblical principle of corporate worship (originally a Sabbath practice in the OT) becomes a prescriptive pattern in the New Testament as the church gathers on the first day of the week for prayers, preaching, teaching, fellowship, and celebration. This can’t be accomplished with a 10 minute devotion, and we are warned not to forsake this time together as the body of Christ. (Heb. 10:25) Jake Westbrook, former major league pitcher with the Cardinals and Indians and active member of our church, recently shared with me the importance of chapels and hotel room Bible studies with other believers. There are evangelistic chapel services in the ultimate of travel leagues. No reason it can’t be happening at every level, which leads to the third tip…
  3. Be Missional. If we combine the first two tips, the next step for some could be to offer an evangelistic chapel service when you are away for travel ball. After all, we do not give the itinerant evangelist or short term mission trip folks a hard time when they aren’t with us on Sunday. Why not? Because they are on mission and experiencing corporate worship elsewhere. We are called to make disciples while we are going. (Mt. 28:19-20) This also communicates the importance of corporate Lord’s Day worship. From my observation, the ones who are most genuine in applying this tip also go out of their way to not miss Sundays at their home church except for a brief season of travel. And they are usually bringing more kids with them to worship! Being “missional” isn’t merely an excuse to be away when and if they demonstrate a heart for souls throughout the year. Obviously this doesn’t apply to the majority. But some have embraced this tip.
  4. Be Careful of Burnout. The world is throwing more opportunities at us than ever before. The spiritual discipline called simplicity is almost completely neglected. There is another Sabbath principle not completely fulfilled in Lord’s Day worship. That is the principle of rest. Many parents are running themselves ragged and wearing their kids out through over involvement. Both of my children have lettered in two sports in high school, something I didn’t accomplish. So I am all for sports for fun, exercise, and teaching leadership and team skills. For some of us who sit behind the desk, a steering wheel, or in a cubicle, the ball field is a refreshing haven of rest and recovery. But for others it becomes an altar of idolatry where they sacrifice their kids. Many have written on reasons they had to pull away from travel ball because of the stress it placed on their family.
  5. Conquer a little territory. Many will play on Sundays because this has become a major money-making opportunity for hosts all over the country. Seems like every state in the south has a number of champions crowned for several weekends in a row. You could become the host with Christ-centered motives. Christians have begun to host Friday-Saturday only leagues while communicating the importance of protecting Lord’s Day worship and rest. In his book The Matheney Manifesto (Crown Publishing, 2015), Cardinals coach Mike Matheney discusses how he made faith and family a priority when he reluctantly coached travel ball by keeping tournaments close to home without having to sacrifice the level of competition. By the way, this book is a great read for all parents and youth league coaches.
  6. Cover your bases! We are all called to be an active member of a local church, not just a pew warmer. We are called as members to use our spiritual gifts to help the church fulfill its mission. (Romans 12:4-7) Just as the second baseman and short stop must communicate and make sure they know who will cover the bag, church members should make sure that someone is covering the base when they are out… for any reason. Whether you are a teacher, a greeter, an instrumentalist, or a nursery worker, make sure you know who is covering your base when you are not there. Be sure and pass that name along to a ministry team leader. Obviously this principle has much broader application than the current subject. Of course it may be difficult to get someone to tithe for you, but there are creative ways of handling that now too.
  7. Take advantage of Mid-week ministries. In rural and some suburban areas you can still find vibrant mid-week services. Our mid-week opportunities at Trinity are extremely vital to our mission. Children and students are in the Word of God, enjoying fellowship, and learning how to serve, worship, and grow as believers. Men and women are getting the same opportunities in a small group setting. If your church offers these services or something similar, take full advantage! While mid-week services are intended to supplement Lord’s Day worship rather than replace it, I know of many who work on Sundays that are extremely grateful for this mid-week ministry.
  8. Consider the costs. For some families, money is no object. They are able to meet their obligations, invest in the Kingdom of God, and pay extravagant amounts for recreation. Others will neglect their personal obligations and biblical stewardship to pay tournament fees and hotel bills. Obviously travel ball is only one of many passions where people can live beyond their means. But many parents have invested three and four times the amount of the average college tuition rate in order to hopefully help their child earn an athletic scholarship. While I know several youngsters that will play at the next level, the majority will either not make the cut or lose interest along the way. While I enjoy collegiate and professional sports, many parents have lost the ability to allow their kids to play for the exercise and for the love of the game. They become obsessed with living out their dreams through their kids.
  9. Teach Humility. With so many leagues referred to with words like “elite” and “premier” one wonders if the words will lose their meaning. I know I am biased, but we have some remarkably talented kids in our church. A handful of our kids will actually play on the next level. The majority will not. Local Little League organizations are struggling with numbers while travel teams surge. In other words, “elite” and “premier” are no longer words used to describe the top three to five percent. As with all sports, kids should learn skill and confidence. But they should learn to play and interact with kids at school and church who may not share their talent and resources. Confidence and security is expressed in humility and the extension of grace, a hard lesson for even grown-ups to learn. Several college athletes attend our services regularly, but because of their humility few in the seats around them know that they are competing in collegiate sports.
  10. Be careful of building an unhealthy tolerance of mediocre commitment to Christ. This builds on the first three tips, but is probably of greatest concern to me. Here is a principle I discovered as a student minister years ago: What parents and leaders tolerate in moderation, children will usually grow to tolerate in excess. Social drinking by parents justifies allowing the beer to flow freely in the mind of a teen. An ever so slightly revealing outfit by mom provides a daughter with a rationalization for complete immodesty. In the same way, missing 30% of Lord’s Day worship opportunities (especially if tips 1-3 aren’t embraced) usually signals to the next generation that active membership and service in the local church is not really all that important. And while I know there are some solid adults in my church who are capable of heeding all of the previous tips, they must keep a spiritual eye on their child while asking, “Does he or she also get it?” The dad may sincerely tell me, “I really miss it when I’m not here, but I cover my bases, reach out missionally, and later listen to your sermon online.” But does dad notice when that child they’re called to bring up to love Jesus, his church, and his mission isn’t missing corporate worship so much anymore? If they’re losing their passion for Christ and His church it is probably time to pull back and refocus on the most important things in life for believers.

There you have it. If these tips better equip and encourage you to make wise decisions in the days ahead, wonderful! If you are one of the two groups I mentioned to begin with and you feel a little irritated, keep a couple things in mind.

For those who say there is zero redeeming value in families being involved in Sunday sports, remember that we too are on mission. This means we have to meet people where they are. And this is where many are. Appearing insecure and angry because of a drop in attendance will only cause us to sound manipulative rather than extending the voice of a loving shepherd of the flock.

For those who are all in to the travel ball movement, remember each of these tips also serve as reminders of the difficulty of finding balance. In Paul’s admonitions concerning “meats sacrificed to idols” some could eat and be okay with God and the church, while others clearly could not. The determining factor boiled down to asking, “Will this activity cause someone to stumble spiritually?” I can’t answer that for your family. But its a serious question when you consider that Jesus gave us the strongest warning about causing a child to stumble spiritually by not giving them easy access to Him! (Mt. 18:6 & 19:14)

5 thoughts on “Faith and Travel Ball: 10 Survival Tips for Families and Churches”

  1. Very good read. I appreciate being encouraged to live for Christ while still living and making memories with your family.

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  2. Really good advice. Your first tip immediately made me think of Pastor Ben. I assisted Ben with coaching a soccer team last year and saw first hand his commitment to show kids (including my son) how you can glorify God through sports. “Give Christ your best in everything you do because He gave his best for you on the cross”. I heard him say that at each practice before dismissing with prayer and while I’d like to think each kid took something away from that, I can say for sure it made a significant and positive impression on me.

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