Church and the World Cup
By David Lose
Originally posted at “… in the Meantime.” Republished with the permission of the author.
Even as I watch the World Cup with 25 million other U.S. soccer enthusiasts, taking delight in what many are describing as one of the most thrilling World Cups in years, I continue to wonder why soccer has taken so long to grab a permanent place in the hearts of American sports fans. I mean, around the globe soccer – or, more accurately football – is the world’s favorite sport. But even though soccer has been played here for a century – the U.S. actually finished third in the first World Cup in 1930 – it’s struggled for decades to secure the kind of attention and viewing that it enjoys around the world.
There are any number of reasons for this, I know, but one of the more obvious is simply that in the United States soccer has a lot more competition. Football (the American kind), baseball, basketball, hockey – of the pro and collegiate varieties – each of these also competes for the time, attention and money of American spectators. It is, in other words, a crowded and competitive market.
All of which makes me think about the church. (I know, I know, not necessarily a natural connect, but this is just how my brain works!). I mean, any number of us has sat around bemoaning the decline in attendance and influence that has plagued the church in recent decades. We scratch our heads, wonder about the causes, preach sermons about commitment and the rest. But I wonder if one of the more obvious reasons the church in the U.S. is in decline is simply because of the amount of competition we face.
Think about it. Each and every Sunday morning, there are so many other things to do: catch up on work, take a walk with family, meet some friends for coffee, read the newspaper, have a leisurely breakfast out or at home, watch some of the World Cup, or simply worship prone in the cathedral of St. Serta a little longer than usual. There are so many other things we can do and each and every one of these possibilities competes for our time and attention.
This analysis, of course, isn’t all that profound and perhaps not novel. But I think what struck me this past week is that while it seems perfectly natural to see soccer in a competitive environment, we’re not used to thinking about our situation as a similarly competitive one. Or at least we don’t feel like we should have to compete with all these other things. Church is church, after all. It’s what you’re supposed to do on a Sunday morning. And so I think that secretly many of us resent the fact that we have to compete for the allegiance of an emerging generation (and, truth be told, most of their parents). They should just come to church!
But they’re not.
So here’s my question. What would we do differently if we gave up our sense of entitlement to the time and attention of our people and saw ourselves instead as operating in a competitive market? Because, quite frankly, we don’t do much different than church leaders have done for the past century or more. Maybe we have screens, but our preaching is still pretty much the same. Maybe we added a drum set, but our fundamental convictions about worship go unchallenged.
Any sport, institution, or company that was that lackadaisical about its performance in a competitive market would likely go under. But we plod along, resenting the fact that we even need to think about such things.
So back to my question: If we imagined that the emerging generation were making conscious decisions among a variety of options for how to spend their Sunday mornings (and life in general) – has to, in fact, make conscious decisions because of the manifold obligations and opportunities in front of them – what would we do differently to attract their attention and invite their engagement?
I’ll come back to this in another post or two about what I’m learning about church from the World Cup, but for now, just one note. Competitive doesn’t mean disparaging. If FIFA ran commercials trouncing the NFL and disparaging those who root for its teams, most of us would quickly switch to another channel, turned off by the highhandedness and arrogance of the critic. Which leads me to doubt the value of one strategy sometimes employed by church leaders – putting down all those other options and making their people feel guilty for engaging them.
Absent that, though, what would we do? I’m curious what you think.
David Lose was recently named the president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Find a link to his blog “... in the Meantime” at Lutheran Blogs.