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Fall 1998 newsletter

Bowling for souls

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In 1931 readers of Church Management were subjected to an advertising blitz from the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company on behalf of its bowling alleys and pool tables. Once upon a time—and in some churches, to this day—bowling and pool would be seen as immoral for a Christian, especially inside the church.

In this ad, however, a Lutheran pastor from San Antonio reports on his church's experience with bowling, arguing that the alleys serve an important evangelical purpose. Such recreation attracts people—especially men and young people—to the church, which can furnish "better influences" than a commercial bowling alley or pool hall. (Pastor Neumeister hastens to point out that the alleys are closed on Sunday.)

In an open religious economy, where people have a broad variety of options for spending their time and resources, churches have used a variety of means to distinguish themselves from competitors and to attract possible members. The two toughest audiences to reach have been men and youth. Spirituality and education, many have assumed, are fine for women and the elderly, but these difficult groups require something more. To reach men and the young American Protestant churches have used entertainment and sports simply as a means of getting people in the door. As the title of the bowling company’s suggests, such means have often focused on "Interesting Young People in the Church, and the Way to Do It." Since the days of Jonathan Edwards, pastors and churches have tried to catch the attention of the thrill-seeking adolescent, even to the point of adopting ideas from secular commercial society.

But this adoption requires putting a spiritual spin on the secular activity, reclaiming recreation for the church. Advising pastors and church recreation directors Albert Ben Wegener argued in 1924 that "a church with high ideals cannot undertake or countenance certain kind of recreation, play, and amusement as these are carried on elsewhere." The YMCA, he suggested, "redeemed gymnastics, athletics, bowling, and pool." (Albert Ben Wegener, Church and Community Recreation (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924), 104.]

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