Below is a guest post I wrote for Near Emmaus‘ latest series, NFL and Christian Theology. I attempted to tackle (pun intended) the issue of being a fan of various teams and sports and still being a genuine follower of God. Any questions for discussion can be asked here or on their site. Hope you enjoy!
Ever since the day I first laid eyes on the green & yellow jerseys of the Green Bay Packers, I’ve been a fan of football. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for me to think of fall without thinking of football (especially since a tradition of mine every year on the day fall officially begins is to watch Remember the Titans). What I think I love the most about football is watching a great game with close friends. It allows you to be distracted from the mundane parts of life, even if only for a few hours.
In my ten years of going to church, football has always seemed to be a part of the experience as well. Here in Eugene, it’s mostly about college football – congregants talking about Saturday’s big game, injuries, favorite players, etc. But after a bit the focus shifts to the NFL because the pastors formed a fantasy league through the church’s men’s group(s)… and church is usually on the same day as most NFL games. And on the days where I managed to avoid the football discussions, I somehow have noticed (or have been) that guy wearing a jersey. I’ve sometimes wondered if God secretly wears a Manning jersey.
All throughout these experiences of NFL and church mixed together, I’ve been able to notice a few things that are a little odd. For instance, most NFL fans are relaxed in their attire and demeanor – dressing up in their team’s colors and cheering when they score or make a big stop on defense. Church-goers, on the other hand, tend to be dressed nicely and are emotionally reserved – only raising their hands during worship and only if their neighbors are doing it, too.
Another one is many NFL fans will sit in one chair/position for countless hours despite whatever the conditions may be whereas church-goers start eyeing the clock twenty minutes into a sermon. And when it’s all over, NFL fans tend to remember many of their favorite plays and moments from the game (even if it had nothing to do with the game itself) while many church-goers remember vague topics or maybe a couple of the pastor’s jokes. It seems fans are care-free while church-goers are care-ful.
I have often wondered what this might mean. Should pastors and their leadership teams find new and innovative ways to spice up their Sunday mornings? Maybe start with an upbeat worship song and then have a very interactive sermon? Or what if we simply gave Jesus a jersey number? Would things change then? Or perhaps church-goers – those dedicated to the movement of Christ – should call into question the various areas and ways in which societal influence has had an affect on the church-going experience?
We live in an entertainment-based society. If we aren’t dazzled within the first few seconds of a TV show, movie, or even a book, we tend not to be very engaged throughout the rest. I discovered my own entertainment-seeking tendencies when I first read Faulkner for an English class in college. But think of all the games people tend to have on their cell phones. I just received an iPhone 4 for a birthday present and already I’ve been hooked to only a couple games. I don’t even want to imagine what’ll happen when I discover newer games. Maybe by then I’ll be better at Words With Friends… Okay, no. Probably not.
Is football or the NFL to blame for all these attention-span problems? No, I don’t think so. But there are certain influences that I think tend to mar or blur or dilute one’s Sunday experience with God and His people. On my own blog, I’ve written a recent post about how things like watching NFL games might be a way to draw a fellowship a little closer together. I think every time I’ve watched the Super Bowl I’ve done so with friends from church.
But should such an event be the center of focus when the church is gathering to worship, seek, and learn from God? I think most of us would say not at all. And what about the rest of the week? Should things like the NFL take precedence over our own spiritual formation as individuals or as a church body on days when we don’t meet together? Again, I think we’d all say no. But I think there’s a way in which we’re influenced on a daily basis that causes us to form various habits – habits that seem to result in us finding ways to “pass the time.”
Christ’s call to His disciples is so very different from one’s favorite NFL team’s call to their fans. Christ tells us flat out that we must be sold out: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Matt. 10:39, ESV). What would an NFL team ask of their fans? Buy all the gear, watch all the games, spend some money on their ridiculously-priced tickets, spend more money at the food concessions, etc., etc. It sounds similar in a sense: One’s spending all of one’s money on the team. But what’s given in return? Freedom? Eternal salvation? Peace? Hope? Or just a few hours of distraction every Sunday morning or afternoon?
What I hope not to imply is that we need to be more superficially-enthralled into every gathering of our church or that the NFL is evil. It solves nothing to remove one extreme and replace it with another. It’d be the same problem, but with a different color. And frankly I also hope no one’s expecting me to come up with a three-point solution to the problem. I don’t think such a thing exists. What I do hope for, though, is that as we gather with the church or read our Bibles on our own or meet up with fellow believers to talk about spiritual stuff that we are truly being genuine with ourselves and with each other. Even if one person is wearing a Packers jersey while the other is wearing a Bears jersey, my hope is that we’d be aware of John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (ESV).
My home church, Emmaus Life (brand new seven weeks ago), was founded with the main objective of bringing Jesus’ abundant life – His real, genuine life – to a hurting world. If on Sundays (or Monday or Thursday nights) we act how the fandom culture of the NFL tells us we’re supposed to act, we can’t really deliver this real life. Would anyone really sense anything different about us if we’re cussing out the refs on a terrible call or shirking responsibility to family and friends because the game is on? I highly doubt it. And I certainly don’t think God wants us taking that risk.
Wear your colors, cheer for your team, but do so in such a way that God is reflected. And maybe, just maybe, we’d find a way to wade through this world with its entertainment-based ways.