When Church Is Like Football

I’ve lived in just about every part of the country east of the Rocky Mountains. But I’ve spent the majority of my life in “Southern” states like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. Even though I still say y’all, there are a few things that make me distinctly not southern in most peoples eyes. I can’t stand gravy (I will literally scrape the gravy off of chicken fried steak if I’m too embarrassed to order it without gravy), I’ve never been a fan of grits, and I no longer live off of sweet tea. But despite my weird food choices, perhaps the greatest thing that makes me stand out is my indifference to college football, or really any college sport. 

I learned early on that I will get asked who my favorite team is several times and that if I claimed one of the actual good teams I would either make an enemy or a friend in less than a second. However, if I said Arkansas State (which is where I spent a year as an engineering major) people are so confused that they don’t know whether to make fun of me, feel sad for me, or ask me in disbelief “Why?”. 

While I was a youth pastor in Oklahoma, I ended up going to an OU game with a handful of students who had season tickets. We get to the campus, which is much bigger than I was expecting, and they directed me towards where we needed to park. As we were walking into the stadium they were giving away bobble heads of Adrian Peterson and they had a large poster as well that diagramed the perfect sooner (arm of Sam Bradford, speed of Roy Williams, etc.). My students were going crazy talking about each of the people listed on the poster and were excited about getting it hung up in their rooms, and even asked if we could hang one of them up in the youth room. 

As we made our way to the seats the crowd was already fired up. One of my guys turned to me and yelled here comes the schooner! The wagon pulled by two horses comes racing out of the tunnel. There were a whole bunch of other traditions that went on during the game that my students just ate up. They knew all the chants, they could even point to other season ticket holders, and they knew that one rather large fellow would take off his shirt and dance anytime OU scored (the game was something like 57-2, so there was lots of dancing). Once the game was done, they were so excited and they asked me what I though of the game. I did my best to be as positive about it as I could, but in reality it was one of the worst sporting experiences I’ve even been to. 

  • When we got to the OU campus, there were signs directing you towards the stadium, but that wasn’t where you parked. Parking was scattered throughout fraternities and education lots. My teens knew right where to go, but I was completely lost. 

  • The bobble head was cool. Even though I knew next to nothing about who Adrian Peterson was at the time, bobbleheads are always fun. They gave away something that appealed to a large spectrum of people. 

  • I gave the poster away. I knew maybe two names of the 15 or so people on the poster, and instead of getting me more interested or excited about the game, it was a harsh reminder that I was an outside.

  • All of the traditions that my students loved just felt weird to me. Besides constantly being reminded that I had no clue what was going on, it was hard for me to get excited about a couple of horses, songs I’d never heard before and couldn’t understand the words anyway, and many of the other traditions that had been slowly acquired over the years but hit me all at once. 

  • Sports chants are just dumb to begin with. I think the players know that they need to play defense or that they just got a first down. Yelling at them doesn’t somehow snap them out of a dream and remind them “Why yes, I think defense right now would be the wisest choice”.  (I understand that there are some psychological effects of chants and the energy and how it can help encourage players, but if you think about just the words, “let’s go Sooners, let’s go” is just redundant and void of any real meaning). 

  • I hate blow out games. The second best team in the nation was playing Chattanooga, so I knew going into it that it was going to be a win, but 57-2 is the type of game that does nothing for me. I would rather have a close, even sided game anytime. There was no suspense, and after watching a 400 pound Sasquatch of a man dance 7 or 8 times I dreaded another touchdown. 

But the best thing that came out of this experience is that I will never look at church the same again. I realize that’s not exactly what most people would take away from a football game, but it’s a memory that is seared in my brain. 

  • Churches usually don’t have confusing parking lots (or do they?) but anytime there is more than one building or entrance to a building there is confusion to a first time guest. Are our buildings clearly marked? Do the words that we use to label them have any actual meaning to the people coming onto our campus. Are there people who can help guide you to where you need to go so that you don’t feel completely lost from the beginning?

  • Do we give away something that people will actually enjoy? Does it make any kind of connection even if it’s just a bit of plastic on a spring?

  • How many times do we talk about people and expect everyone to know who they are? If we say “we all know the story of Moses” we instantly make people who aren’t aware of that story feel disconnected and inadequate. If we just say “go see George”, they have no context to figure out if we are taking about George Clooney, Curious George, or King George. Names matter, but even more important than the name is the ability to make connections between names and why we are saying them. 

  • What traditions do churches have that look strange to people outside the community? Early church critics thought Christians were cannibals because they ate Jesus’ body and blood. Baptism, kneeling at the altar,  acolytes, and so many other things have very little correlation to secular world culture, and so while we might be a huge fan of them and love the symbolism, do we explain to people why we do it?

  • God is good… If you screamed out “all the time” right afterwards, you already know about church chants. We don’t usually call them chants, we typically call them call and response. I won’t name specifics, but anytime someone says one thing and expects a response from other people based on that, you are drawing a line between those who are “insiders” and those who are not. 

  • We all look for different things in church. Some people like highly experiential worship with high energy, others prefer more meditative worship with heavy liturgy, and there are so many other methods of worship.  

One last thing that doesn’t correlate nicely with any of the previous bullet points. You have to define the win. Any football team knows what a win is. It’s where at the end of the game you have more points than the other team. But what is a win in church? Is it when they sing your favorite song or when you get out five minutes early? No, although sometimes those things are nice. A win for us is when someone comes to know Jesus for the first time or when someone grasps a deeper understanding and love for him.