Football is one of my favorite sports. I played it in the backyard growing up. I played it all through high school. I majored in it at college. The combination of speed and strength, mixed in with some smash mouth strategy made it something I couldn’t resist. Nowhere else can you hit someone as hard as you can over and over and not be arrested for it. However, I did get my share of 15 yard flags. I was a defensive end with a chip on my shoulder and an ego to go with it. The number on my jersey will tell you what I thought of myself. (It’s the same number those foam fingers tend to hold up.)
I had a good collegiate career and could have explored other possibilities after college (certainly not the NFL, but I was invited to some semi pro leagues). However, my body had taken a beating. I was heading to the seminary. And my college minor—my bride to be—was tired of my sports minded ego. So aside from some seminary intramural “flag football” games here and there, (which just aren’t the same as the real thing, especially when forgetting not to run guys over gets them upset), I resigned myself to watching.
I think sports can bring some interesting perspectives to the way the church looks at her theology and worship. (I say this knowing full well that our society is obsessed with sports to the point of blatant idolatry.) Nonetheless, I think lessons can be learned.
Right now there is a battle in the North American church regarding her purpose and mission. Is the mission her purpose or her purpose the mission? How each is defined affects how the church looks. Put more poignantly, is the mission of the church the work of the redeemed? Or is it the work of the Redeemer? Does the purpose of the church center on the lost? Or does it center on the forgiveness of sins (meant for both the lost and found)? How this is understood affects the way a church will worship and the way she gives witness.
Perhaps football can give us a perspective we may not have previously considered. I was first exposed to football when I saw my dad watching it on TV. My dad loved it. He told me all about the game, how it worked—the offense, the defense, scoring, the rules of the game, the purpose of each position—he knew all of the best players and the best teams. So when he got me my first football I loved playing catch with him and trying to run by him for a touchdown. I couldn’t wait until I would be able to put on the pads and play. (My mom made me wait till I was in seventh grade.)
Finally the day came and I went to get my pads with the rest of my teammates. Trying on the helmets was a unique experience. Many of us thought our ears would be pulled off when we tried one on that was too small. Then came our first practice with pads. When I had them all on, it was a whole new experience. We had to get used to running with them on, looking through the face mask, and even how to breathe with a mouth guard in.
We had to learn how to tackle using proper form. The drill we all hated was standing there dead still while our teammate got a three yard head start to hit us and tackle us into a padded mat. Then we had to learn proper offensive and defensive formations, plays, stunts, how to carry the ball, and audibles. The list seemed endless. It took time. And if you were new to the game, it could be downright overwhelming. (One of our foreign exchange students found this out. He said he had played European “football.” But we quickly realized his “football” was what we called soccer. I give him credit for sticking around as long as he did. But after two weeks, he left and went over to the soccer team.)
Each year I played, I grew in my knowledge of the game. Likewise, with each year of play there came an increasing sophistication of plays, schemes, and coaching to learn and understand. But through it all, the game of football was always the game of football. It was recognizable. It had rules. It had regulations. It had joy. It had excitement. But its purpose was the same. The game was consistent.
Those who wanted to participate had to learn what the game was all about. If someone didn’t understand, the game wasn’t changed to accommodate their lack of understanding. Rather, a good coach knew the player either needed to be thrown into the mix of things to learn by experience, or come alongside a teammate (or coach) who could show him and help him understand.
I think the church can learn from football. The church needs to be the church even when there are those who don’t understand. The mission of the church needs to stay the same through every age and every era. Her marks need to be consistent. They need to be clear.
Lutherans have long held those marks to be the administration of the Word and sacraments, most regularly seen through the worship of the church. Said another way, they are the marks of the Redeemer at work among us rather than the marks of the redeemed at work. (Reversing it would be like the players telling the coach what to do). This isn’t meant to undermine godly living or undercut evangelism in anyway. Rather it simply orders them, and celebrates who the church is and what the church does.
In football terms, the running back can’t run the ball until he is first given the ball by the quarterback. But the running back will only get so far unless the linemen know the play and do their respective jobs. And the quarterback can’t give the ball to the running back until he’s given the play by the coach. In other words, there is a created order to the game. Not everyone can be a running back. Not everyone can be the coach. In fact, not everyone has the skills to be a running back. Not everyone has the skills to be a coach.
So it is in the church. Not everyone is called to be a pastor. Not everyone is called to be a missionary. Yet, to be sure, parents need to be active in passing on the faith to their children, like a father teaching his son the love of football. And, to be sure, when someone doesn’t have parents who pass on the faith, Christians come alongside of those who don’t understand. This is often done most easily through our daily vocations. Each has a respective station in life. (Or in football terms a “position”). My college coach used to tell us, “There are 11 men on the field. Do your job. Play your position, not everyone else’s.” The game has been ordered for a reason.
The same can be said for the church, as well as the church at worship. Because it may be strange, foreign, or too sophisticated for some does not inherently mean the church or her worship must change. For example, the rituals and traditions of the liturgy have been around longer than any traditions of college football teams, their marching bands, and their fans, yet even those college traditions are treated with great esteem, held sacred, and passed on from one generation to another. Those that want to learn them, learn them despite their unfamiliarity or sophistication.
One tradition from my college days was “Senior Hit Day.” It was a chant that started the first day of practice and built up until the last practice of the year. It was the day that every senior got to pick a freshman, stand him in any position he wanted, get a 10 yard running start, and annihilate him in front of everyone, including the dozens of fans that would come to watch. Every freshman dreaded this day and cowered in fear—one even called his lawyer father—until they found out the seniors would simply run past them at the moment of truth. Their relief is jubilant! The laughter is grand. It was a sacred tradition passed on from one class to the next. The same has been done in the church for centuries.
So has football taught us anything? I know every analogy eventually breaks down, but perhaps it has been helpful for us here. Thus, boiling it all down, could it be said that if worship is to center of the mission of the church, and the mission of the church is the forgiveness of sins—the work of the Redeemer—wouldn’t it seem appropriate for the marks of the church to be relatively consistent from congregation to congregation, even having some basic similarities on how those means are framed and delivered within the worship of the church?
Bottom line, is it fair to say that even if the church and her worship are unfamiliar and strange for some it doesn’t automatically mean that we need to change it? In short, if football is football and the church is the church aren’t there consistent things that would naturally occur in each? Don’t each have specific marks that identify what they are; how the game is played/how worship is conducted, the positions of each player/the vocations of each believer, and the purpose of each gathering? Is this a reasonable and fair expectation? I tend to think so. We have it for our sports. Why not for the church and her worship? What do you think?
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).