GARNER, N.C. — While much of the greater Raleigh area moseyed to church Sunday morning, one congregation of parents and kids chose a chillier pew: the ice rink.
Though many wore crosses around their necks, those talismans were far outnumbered by goalie pads and hockey sticks. "Guess what I'm missing right now?" says Dan Poirier, a hockey dad and coach watching a hard-checking Pee Wee game at Garner's Ice House, a rink shoehorned into the Raleigh suburbs.
Youth leagues have grown by 400 percent in the past 25 years, creating a schism between sports and the Sabbath. Increasingly, priests and pastors nationwide are lamenting that too many pews sit empty on account of sports.
"I'm afraid we're neglecting the best for the good," says Bobby Jordan, a pastor who drives by packed soccer fields on his way to work at Bethel Baptist Church in Cary, N.C.
Mr. Jordan's lament is just one example of a simmering debate over the changing nature of American weekends, and a gradual diminution of religion in suburbia.
"It's a real challenge for anyone who takes religion seriously," says Allyson Gall, a director with the American Jewish Committee in Millburn, N.J. "We all want to be good parents and good Americans, but as these sports get more serious, it gets more difficult" to heed the Sabbath.
Certainly, many coaches stress family and church over games. But the crops of mini-Maradonas and peewee Steve Yzermans are burgeoning at such a rate that simply finding a field to play on - at any time - has become a challenge.
Still, some church leaders are vying to keep Sunday holy - at least until noon. In Summit, N.J., the creation of a Sunday Pee Wee football league with games starting at 10 a.m. inspired a furious debate at a "visioning" meeting of the Summit Interfaith Council last year.
This fall, the church council formally approached the league and asked them to reconsider the move. It's waiting for an answer before unleashing a "torrent" of letters, says Rich Hendrickson, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Summit and convener of the Interfaith Council.
"The time that families to have together is shrinking and very precious," says Mr. Hendrickson. "Sunday morning is a time when families can do something together, but by scheduling sports [on Sunday], you're doing one more thing that has the potential of causing families to split, where half go here and half go there."
The complaints haven't percolated into the halls of most national church councils - at least not yet. But with every passing weekend, sociologists, say, more parents are experiencing the shift. To some, the decision to play instead of pray is emblematic of a diminishing respect for religious authority - and a growing acceptance of a secular culture. At the very least, it's a true parental conundrum. In some parishes, parents have said they'd prefer a 5 p.m. service, church surveys have shown.
"The locus of religious authority has shifted from the institution to the self," says Prof. Jerome Baggett, a sociologist at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in California. "So ... people decide themselves whether they feel like going to church on Sunday - or maybe they find some kind of spiritual fulfillment at their kids' soccer practice."
To many, though, it's not simply the cultural acceptance of sport, but also a competitive spirit that's trickling into the Little Leagues from the Big Leagues. "For some of our families, hockey is their religion," says Andrew Barron, the coach of the East Coast Eagles Pee Wee team in Raleigh.
In some suburbs, for example, youth leagues are hiring ex-pro players from England and Ireland to coach traveling teams. The result is that more and more coaches reward truancy with a cold seat on the bench.
"Most coaches think their guys and their team are No. 1, where you've got to devote yourself to the sport, and anything you do to deviate from that plan puts your position in jeopardy," says Jack Hutslar, the director of the North American Youth Sports Institute in Kernersville, N.C.
Still, some leagues are listening. In Milnius, N.Y., with its historic enclave of Jews, the recreation department set up two separate soccer leagues - one on Saturday, one on Sunday - to respect days of worship for both Judaism and Christianity.
In Raleigh, most ice rinks won't schedule "house league" games on Sunday, leaving the seventh day for more serious traveling teams. The result: Fewer church-going Christians play at the higher levels, says Mr. Barron.
But even parents of competitive players often try to find a way to pray. "We manage to get to church 90 percent of the time," says Kelly Slider, whose son Shane plays with the Eagles. "In fact, whenever we're out of town, we see it as an opportunity to visit a new church." On a trip to Washington earlier this month, the Sliders went to the National Cathedral. And in their hotel, a local hockey team held a prayer meeting.
But religious leaders' simple lament may not be enough, some critics say. Mr. Hutslar says one option is to take preaching to the playing field - like the traveling ministers who tag along behind the massive NASCAR race crowds. Others say sermons should be about the sanctity of resting the soul - and having the time to do it right.
"In a more prophetic sense, [church leaders] should not talk about going back to church, but about the meaning of time itself," says Professor Baggett at Berkeley. "Spiritual life takes reflection, takes slowness, it takes wasting time. It's hard for a hurried people to be a spiritual people."
But at least for Ms. Slider at the Ice House, mass soothes the hard-checking realities of hockey. After a controversial end to the Sunday game, she turned to a friend before going to church and said: "I need to repent the emotions I just felt."