By John Pierce

Somehow I missed it — despite my best efforts to keep up with the various shifts in American church culture.

USA Today reports that church bowling alleys are becoming less common now. But that’s not the shock to me. Rather, I didn’t know they ever were common.

Perhaps that’s because their prevalence is beyond my most-familiar denominational traditions and geography. But for whatever reason, I missed it like a 7-10 split.

Church softball I know well. My favorite personal experience was on a modified fast-pitch team in Durham, N.C., in 1979. And I have fond youthful memories of my home-church team (Boynton Baptist) playing on the old field at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Ringgold, Ga.

Church softball leagues, for the uninformed, allow for shared prayers for safety and a positive Christian witness before the games in which players and coaches yell at each other and threatened the umpires more than in industrial leagues.

Of course, there are basketball leagues and other recreational options in most churches as well. These are positioned in church budget meetings as providing Christian fellowship and attracting prospects who will likely improve the team’s winning percentage and tithe.

Going bowling is something many church groups do as well. But I’ve never seen a bowling alley in a church basement.

Some three decades ago, I discovered the indoor and highly competitive game of Dartball. The multicolored corkboards with a baseball diamond design occupied many small-church basements I entered in rural North Carolina. Banquets were held at the end of season to recognize the best of the dart-throwing Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc., to toe the line.

But bowling alleys in churches? According to the USA Today story, it’s been going on for a long time.

St. Ann Catholic Church in Peoria, Ill., installed a four-lane alley in the basement in 1945, according to the story. And Milwaukee once had 13 church bowling alleys.

However, times are changing. Church bowling alleys — which I didn’t even know existed — now barely exist. They are disappearing fast, according to this news story.

Neil Stremmel, of the U.S. Bowling Congress, was reported as saying there are probably fewer than 200 church bowling alleys left now. Two hundred?

If someone had asked me to guess how many churches in the U.S. have bowling alleys in their basements, I might have said three — just because churches do lots of things I’ve never thought about. Bingo, yes. But basement bowling alleys?

Perhaps I have been too ethnocentric. But sometimes it’s hard to get past one’s own cultural experience where the greatest church sporting event of all took place in the basement fellowship hall when lining up for a covered-dish dinner. (The fried okra and homemade chocolate pies only last so long.)

My awareness of the larger church cuture has been broadened this morning. There is always something new to learn.

The bigger lesson, however, is that recreational activities make a major impact on American society. And they can be a balanced part of congregational life as well as a threat to it.

The passion for sports, for many Americans, can lead to an obsession with religious-like commitments. But that danger should not diminish the value of enjoying recreation in whatever form. For those activities can re-create us be more caring, giving and engaged in the most important purposes of life.

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