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Written by Nathanael Vissia
Posted 09.07.2013

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In my previous post, I outlined a plan to destroy youth soccer leagues by managing them the same way that churches manage Sunday school.  It was written to provoke both both church leaders and soccer lovers.  

If you are one of those soccer lovers, don’t worry. No such decline in soccer will happen any time soon. U.S. soccer is experiencing great success, and not by accident. U.S. soccer has been investing heavily in its youth programs in the last 30 years. Coincidentally, by doing so, they have been following the very model of education and leadership that Jesus employed with his disciples.

In the last 20 to 30 years, the top officials of U.S. soccer have taken a not-very-well-known product in America and developed it into the second most-liked sport for 12-to-24 year-old Americans (pdf). During that time span, the number of youth playing soccer has doubled, and quadrupled since 1972.

And don’t think that popularity is going to plateau.  The individual who took the poll, Rich Lurker, has this to say about soccer, "We are talking generational change. A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS (Major League Soccer) as part of their reality. Give us one more cycle and that is all it will take. One more generation" ( source ).

This change in soccer fortunes started in earnest in 1977, when the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (ODP) was founded.  Its goal was to identify up-and-coming players of the highest caliber on a continuing and consistent basis, which would lead to increased success for the U.S. National Teams in the international arena.

And it’s worked.  In the Summer Olympics of 1996, 2204, 2008, and 2012, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team won gold.  In 2000, they won silver.   And the U.S. Men’s Soccer team as of 2013 is a top-20 FIFA team and has qualified for the World Cup every time since 1990.

In the world of competition, the goal of developing and identifying talent in order to improve and exceed the current status is ubiquitous.  But in the church world, the idea of developing talent in the up-and-coming generation to exceed the accomplishments of the current or past generations is mostly unheard of.

“Now hold on,” you might say. “Jesus didn’t tell us to build programs that promote theological excellence and successful achievement of spiritual disciplines in our children.  You’re way off-base, here, Nathanael.”

I agree.  Jesus didn’t say these things.  But he did live them. The Jesus model of discipleship promoted an attractive, charismatic, effective and highly-competent teacher (Jesus) who modeled his way for the younger generation to learn and follow.  This earlier obtainment of knowledge effectively positioned his students to surpass Jesus’ own achievements. Jesus says as much when he tells his disciples that they will do greater things than he (John 14:12).  

Pentecost is a prime example of Jesus’ disciples fulfilling Jesus’ prediction. Instead of one person being baptized in the Holy Spirit as we saw during Jesus’ baptism, the original disciples plus a few others were baptized with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. And instead of gaining 12 disciples, like Jesus did, they gained 3000 new students.  That’s U.S. soccer-type success!  

But instead of continuing this exciting, cutting-edge, challenging and attractive movement that Jesus lived and taught others to live, the Church, today, caters to an older demographic. It seeks to hold the attention of the adults, of those who pay the bills, of those who have voting privileges within the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, investment in adults is important.  But it should be with the understanding that their spiritual growth is also to further the progression of our children’s spiritual growth. Returning to U.S. soccer for a moment, note that they heavily invest in the adults who teach, surround and encourage the players: The coaches and officials.

Now, there are fantastic ideas, communities and innovators out there in the realm of improving Sunday school. The most impressive, in my opinion, is They are doing good work over there. One of’s co-founders, Neil MacQueen, runs a company, Sunday Software, that I also recommend that you check out, especially if you are looking for software for families to use. There’s also the Edu-Worship concept that Rich Melheim and his provocatively named “Killing Sunday school / Birthing Cross-Generation Worship” facebook page has been promoting (whose title strongly influenced my previous post of “Killing Soccer”).  There are even my own contributions of free and fully-developed Christian education resources.

But what is missing is a critical mass of unified, insistent voices among church leadership at the national level, at the denominational level, and at the local congregation level that says, “Let’s improve. Let’s improve by investing in the generations that have yet to come. Let’s improve by teaching our children about God and about Jesus better than we, ourselves, were ever taught.  Let’s improve by committing to and living the way of Jesus and then modeling that way of life to our youth.”

It’s time: Time to follow Jesus and, yes, U.S. soccer leadership, and commit to the goal of positioning our children to surpass and exceed what the Church is today. It’s time to commit, one Christian educator at a time, one congregation at a time, one denomination at a time, until we are one Church, one Body, united in the choice to follow Jesus and heavily invest in the teaching and equipping of our children in the spiritual practices of Jesus Christ.  

It’s the better way.  Let’s get started.


Soccer and Sunday School

Which one do you think is using the Jesus model of leadership?