Football, the Church, and the Way We Worship

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).


Rev. Woodford


5 responses to “Football, the Church, and the Way We Worship

  1. You know, Rev. Woodford, this isn’t exactly to your point, but it made me reflect: my sports experience was rather dissimilar to yours. I was what people affectionately call a ‘bench warmer.’ I wonder if, by your analogy, a desire develops somewhere along the way (by pastors or people) to “get people more involved” in worship–off the benches, so to speak–seeing worship not as the work of the Redeemer but the work of the people. And maybe this desire comes about because of a misunderstanding of both the mission of the church and vocation.

    • Rev. Kennell, thanks for the thoughts! I think your observation is right on. That’s why I also think a constant dialogue about the mission of the church and vocation, particularly from our historic Lutheran perspective, is so important for our generation. Thanks brother!

  2. Not everyone is called to be a missionary.


    I disagree. To be a Christian means to bring witness of Christ to others. I think I read that in a book I’m reading for Lent… 🙂

    For a football analogy: what is the role of the QB? To throw, hand off, run the team offense.

    Is a quarterback a blocker? Well…you are saying “No; that is not his vocation.” So when a reverse is run and the end is coming around, the QB feels free to think “I’m not a blocker. I’m not paid for this. The person called to do this do it.”

    Course, the QB who thinks he is a blocker, blocks the guy.

    As to the main point of the essay: suppose someone goes to a football game, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t like it, and doesn’t return.

    Does anyone care? Is it a big deal? Skin off anyone’s nose?

    Nope. No big deal. Not everyone needs to be a football man.

    What about Church? Suppose someone goes and doesn’t get anything out of it and leaves — that is a tad bit bigger deal.

    In our current situation in our Synod, the person might leave that church, go to another church, where he hears the same Word, the same Gospel, the same Christ — but in a way that connects with Him.

    That is a good thing.

    • Brother Louderback,

      I hope it’s a good book, maybe even one recommended to you… 🙂

      I know we have been around this distinction a few times before where I’m protecting one turf and you another, but here is the difference I see. To be sure, everyone is a “witness,” but not everyone is a “missionary.” Yes, a quarterback can certainly block, but that is the exception and not the norm. And, by the way, have you ever seen a quarterback block before? Not always that pretty… but an occasional noble effort does come through.

      Nonetheless, as Normal Nagel used to teach, Christians can’t not do what they would normally do. That is, in an emergency any Christian can baptize. In an emergency (early Church Fathers’ sinking ship analogy) Christians can elect/call a pastor from among them to absolve them and then vice versa. But those are the exceptions and not the norm. This is by no means meant to take away from the “witness” that every Christian can give, rather it simply orders the life of the church–the body of believers, just like the game of football is ordered.

      And as far as worship, I think you highlight the primary differences between the respective perspectives on this issue. Choose whatever sport you like and the analogy will only go so far. But every sport is filled with distinct traditions that are always taught and learned. “Connecting” with some unbeliever through worship makes worship out to be the place of evangelism rather than the place to receive the forgiveness of sins and faith discipling. Worship as evangelism is the product of modernity and the idea that if we can attract people to it, use the right formula, we will connect to people and therefore we will get more Christians (See Strobel’s book, “Inside the Mind of unchurched Harry and Mary”). The problem is that such formulas of success aren’t working, as the Church Growth movement (followed by the Emergent Church movement and the missional movement) have demonstrated. In fact, numerically all of Christianity is on the decline in North America (not just the LCMS).

      Consider the question, who is worship for? Likewise who is any one sport/game for? If you don’t know the sport, can you play it? That doesn’t mean you can’t watch it and listen to another explain it to you, and eventually one day play it. Likewise in worship, the divine service has the point of following Christ as he worshiped His Heavenly Father and receiving Christ (body and blood) and the abundant life He gives to us. True, it’s every Christians vocation to witness to who Jesus is and with the Pastor explain, teach, come alongside, and love unbelievers as they learn the ritual and tradition of Christian worship. But that wouldn’t make them a missionary. That makes them a Christian. And further, if we say that belief in Jesus is contingent on style, do we not begin down a very slippery slope? I am not dismissing the use of clear language that communicates the Gospel. I am merely drawing attention to our belief that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, but that it is the Holy Spirit through the Gospel alone that creates faith when and where he pleases.

      I think the challenge for us in our church today is to consider what issues of worship can be relegated to “style” and what goes past style toward changing the game. True, Tim Tebow’s style of play is different than Tom Brady’s, but both play within the confines of the game. The style of college basketball is different than the NBA. And Mike Tyson’s style of boxing was different than Evander Holyfield’s. But Tyson crossed the line when he bit Holyfield’s ear, that was no longer boxing. What we have to be willing to discuss as a church is when those lines get crossed. Notable issues will be music and liturgy. I think our Lutheran theology has room for use of multiple instruments to accompany the liturgy, but our theology has never been without the liturgy. I think our church has to be willing to thoughtfully dialogue about what we really mean and desire by different “styles” of worship and the effect that it has on the church being the church, worship being worship, and our Lutheran theology being Lutheran theology.

      As always, I appreciate the dialogue.

  3. Hey Luke,
    A couple of thoughts as I read your response to Mark. First, in our setting we don’t say “everyone is called to be a missionary.” What we encourage, challenge, and teach is that everyone has a opportunity through their position and vocation in life is to be a missionary. We teach these basic principles that most missionaries typically follow. 1). Understand the culture we live in (for us it is living in Alabama where Politics, God, and Religion reign supreme). 2). Be intentional about getting to know our neighbors
    3). Look for opportunities to serve and be “salt and light” in our community
    4). Pray for opportunities and open doors to share oness faith 5). Regularly inviting others to come and meet Jesus through our worshipping community.

    Second, why do we discount the built in “evangelistic” opportunities found within our Lutheran worship? Our entire service is built upon proclaiming Law and Gospel, preaching the forgiveness of sins, and seeing lives changed. Think about what Luke writes in Acts 2:42 – 49, “they all gathered for…and the Lord added to their number daily those who were saved”. So the church got together for worship, fellowship, studying the apostlic teachings, communion, and they were all filled with great joy. And the unbelievers who are among them and seeing this are “saved by the Lord”. Is worship for evangelism. No. But is worship devoid of evangelism – I think that would be a huge mistake.

    And then finally, you make the statement…The problem is that such formulas of success aren’t working, as the Church Growth movement (followed by the Emergent Church movement and the missional movement) have demonstrated. In fact, numerically all of Christianity is on the decline in North America (not just the LCMS).

    While I agree that on a whole much of Christianity is on a decline, the approach I describe above that sees “worship not for evangelism” but as an “opportunity to evangelize” has seen incredible results. I will be happy to share some different examples, but I will give you my own. Every week we encourage folks to bring every Sunday their unchurched/dechurched friends to hear the Gospel and to meet Jesus. Our folks know that every week they are going to hear the Gospel and the grace found alone in Jesus. So just four week ago my friend Karen brings her friend Melanie who is a hard core atheist. Melanie is touched by God’s hand of grace in week 1 and has been back every week since. And what is so amazing is that our church sees this all the time.
    But it begins by teaching people to be intentional, to serve others, to live out their vocation, and to look for opportunities. It saddens me when I hear pastors (not you luke) accutally discourage their people from sharing their faith, as if that is the responsability of the Pastor and the Pastor alone.

    And finally, to the original post is this, “why does our worship have to be strange, foreign, or too sophisticated”? I mean why do we have to use words that most people have no clue what they mean? For example “Intriot and Gradual” – these aren’t bad words but for the outsider and quite frankly most insiders most don’t know what they mean. I know the typical answer most people give – well this is why we teach people. Fine (if they stay). But if I only get one shot with a person to communicate the Gospel I don’t want
    things that are neither commanded nor required (even if they have the potential to be beneficial) to get in the way. We are smart enough as a church body to craft our liturgy and worship in a way that doesn’t leave people confused or unengaged because of words or actions that lack clarity or meaning.

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