“The church that plays together, stays together.” That was the mantra of an entire generation of Church Recreation Ministers. Not only was it a mantra, but it was also a reality. Back then we called it “fellowship,” later “community,” and now “connection.” Whatever you call it, church recreation provided it and today’s church doesn’t have it.
Church recreation as a ministry grew rapidly in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s when churches of all sizes had gymnasiums and larger churches built outdoor and indoor recreation facilities that rivaled any facility that the community or the for-profit world offered. These churches also hired Recreation Ministers who not only managed these facilities but planned a diverse array of recreation programing that spanned the generations. Seminaries even began developing degree programs for this career path. Then in the 1990’s and early 2000’s came a precipitous decline in recreation ministry. The Church Recreation Department of the Southern Baptist Convention, once with as many as 20 employees who shaped the calling and ministry philosophy of countless recreators like me, was gutted and then dissolved all together. Churches stopped building recreation facilities and reduced funding and staffing of the facilities they owned. Others divested themselves of recreation facilities or outsourced their leadership. Why did this happen?
A New Set Of Priorities
A generation of church leaders arose that began prioritizing evangelism, worship, discipleship and missions, which was not a bad thing. Unfortunately, they did not understand how church recreation contributed significantly to the mission and body life of the church. Some of this is on the church recreation ministers who fostered a fun and games country club culture rather than an intentional ministry and outreach focused approach to their programming and leadership. Still, the vast majority of church recreators I rubbed shoulders with had a passion for the mission of the church and established recreation ministries that were missional and discipleship oriented. Unfortunately, we did a poor job of communicating to the emerging generation of pastors just how effective church recreation was in being the front door to the church, reaching the community, and in making disciples. We were naïve and didn’t realize that we had to.
The Hidden Value Of Church Recreation
The secret sauce of church recreation was always its ability to facilitate relational connections within and across generations, gender, socio-economic groups and races. Through church recreation programs like sports, arts and crafts, drama, socials, camping, travel, and physical fitness participants made meaningful friendships through shared interests with like-minded people. Through recreation programming that spanned pre-school through senior adults, people of all ages made relational connections with those of their own generation as well as those from other generations. These relational connections were catalytic and increased participation in non-recreation ministries of the church such as worship services, small groups, and missions.
Another unrecognized benefit was the role church recreation played in providing opportunities and outlets for leadership in the church. Many of the members coaching teams, leading crafts and exercise classes and other programs were not involved in other areas of church leadership. Not only did the leadership roles within recreation ministries allow people to use their God given talent, passions and experiences in ministry, they provided valuable connections to the church and with church members. Maybe more importantly, for many their church recreation leadership roles provided for the first time a sense of belonging and the feeling that their lives had meaning and purpose, that people actually saw them and valued them.
The Loss Of Connection
Surveys show an increasing loss of relational connection in the church and across society. A trend that started pre-COVID is now a full-scale epidemic. A recent study asked Americans, ‘Do you feel like you’re no longer close to anyone?’ And 39 percent of people said that described them. ‘No longer close to anyone.’ Further, this isolation and loneliness is known to be a major contributing factor to the rapid rise in anxiety and depression.
Universally church members say that the thing they missed most during the COVID lock down was the relationships their church provided. Yet, pre-COVID in most churches the number one complaint of visitors and new members was the difficulty they experienced in making meaningful connections or finding community. So, the COVID lock down simply accelerated and exacerbated a problem that was already gathering steam. Further, the lack of people returning to church post COVID may be indicative of the fact that the relationships they had at church were not meaningful enough to prompt them to return.
The Law Of Unintended Consequences
Seemingly, there is a direct correlation to the de-emphasizing of church recreation ministry and the decline in relational connections and subsequently the decline in church engagement. In the move towards viewing worship as the front door of the church and baptisms and small group participation as the only measures of program and ministry effectiveness, we unintentionally de-emphasized the role of connections and community in the life of the church.
By seeing leadership of small groups, missions, worship and hospitality ministries as the only valid expressions of ministry leadership we denied a significant percentage of members the opportunity to use their gifts, passions and experience to serve the church through recreation ministries. This in turn denied them the relational connections recreation ministries provided. It denied them a sense of belonging and the feeling that their lives had value, meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, at a time when people increasingly desire these psychological needs the church is becoming less and less effective in providing them. That’s what we lost when we decided that church recreation ministry no longer provided enough value, or return on investment, to play a significant role in the mission, vision and ministry strategy of the church.
The return to significance of recreation ministry is no silver bullet for reversing the downward trend in church engagement. This downturn is a complex and complicated issue. But my personal experience and those of hundreds of former church recreators and recreation ministry participants strongly suggests that restoring church recreation ministry to a role of greater prominence is at least a part of the solution. I wish I was more optimistic that others shared this view in significant enough numbers and influence to make it a reality.
Posted on April 11, 2023