I’m from Texas. It goes without saying that football is a religion there, as it is in much of the South. There are things about football that are commendable. Friday Night Lights captured well the good and the bad ways football pulls communities together and sometimes tears them apart.
I did not escape the football fanaticism of Texas by moving to the West Coast. Here in Oregon there are about as many football-crazy fans as there are in Texas. But whereas Texans go crazy for football from Pop Warner to the Cowboys, Oregonians save their devotion for one of two teams at one level of play. Being in Eugene, home of the University of Oregon Ducks, I witness weekly the trek of worshippers making there way to the Holy Place, otherwise known as Autzen Stadium, with the whole city of Eugene serving as the Temple Courts. Right now the place is abuzz as the new season of pilgrimages is upon us. I admit, I am more than a little excited. Go Ducks!
This cult-like following is not unlike church in many ways. But the game itself is not a good analogy for church. A better analogy may be found in that other football, hereupon referred to as “soccer” in order to avoid confusion among the American readers and to rankle the non-Americans a little.
I am a soccer baptist. I played only a couple of years in my youth. I was so bad with my feet the coach stuck me in the goal. I played keeper most of my soccer career, brief as it was. So it is safe to say that I was not baptized into soccer as a child. Mine was more a believer’s baptism in adulthood.
As an adult, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the game of soccer in many of the same ways I’ve come to understand and appreciate the church; although, it is fair to say I was immersed into the church at an earlier age. Comparing the church to a sport is nothing new. For instance, James Currie has done a tremendous job of comparing the kingdom of God to baseball. But I see the church like soccer for several reasons. Here are a few:
- The most obvious connection is the international nature of the two. I realize other sports are played internationally, but none are as widespread and culturally relevant, in my estimation.
- What is especially interesting here is the varied styles of soccer in different parts of the world. There is the creative, free-flowing, fast-paced style of joga bonito in Brazil, and the 11-man defense of Greece. There is the short passing, possession holding of tiki-taka in Spain, and the counter-attacking play of Germany. And yet, despite these difference, no one would argue they are playing different games, and they are able to play with each other. The World Cup is ecumenism at work?
- Many of my American friends and family complain about the slower pace and lower scoring of soccer. Mind you, these are the same people who will watch the Masters and celebrate no-hitters. I love seeing goals. They are, after all, the way teams win soccer matches. But they are not the beauty of the game. In much the same way I’ve come to appreciate the idea of slow church, I’ve come to appreciate what might be called the slowness of soccer. I like to think of them both as an appreciation for rhythms and cycles and ups and downs. It’s in these rhythms that church is found and that soccer is played. It need not (and should not!) be always about the wow factor or the numbers accumulated.
- More than any other major sport, I believe, soccer takes the constant cooperation of everyone on the field. Even basketball devolves into a one-on-one game more so than soccer. It is one of the reasons I don’t like the penalty kick shoot-outs used to decide tie games. The connection to a healthy church ought to be obvious. There may be a Messi or a Rooney or a Ronaldo in the church’s congregation or on her staff, but they cannot and should not carry the whole load.
- It is a beautiful thing to watch the well-oiled synchronization of soccer teammates. (Did you see the goal last night that gave the US its first win over Mexico on Mexican soil?) But as one might expect trying to coordinate eleven players can get a little sloppy. Church, too, can get messy. That messiness is a part of its appeal.
- Finally, soccer doesn’t take much. It is fairly simple. A ball is all that is really needed. No pads or clubs or bats or hoops. Just a ball. Church should be that simple—”where two or three are gathered in my name…”
I’m sure the analogy breaks down in several places. All analogies do. I just cannot contain my excitement though. The English Premier League starts this weekend. The USMNT ended a 75-year-old jinx last night. And, Wesley United Methodist Church is doing great things and finding its identity as the body of Christ.