I used to be heavily invested in professional football. I watched every game I could. I watched the highlight shows and read the magazines. I knew almost all the players. I ran a fantasy league with my friends. I loved football. Playoffs were always a highlight of the New Year once the Holidays had passed. The Super Bowl, while not always the best of games, was a great time for food, friends, football, new ad campaigns and a feeling that I was really participating in the wider culture. I loved it, and looked forward to it every winter.
I loved football, but once we had kids it became harder to watch all those highlight shows. I had to give up my sports magazines because they were just piling up unread. My fantasy football friends also got busy with their kids and other things, and so one year we just didn’t have a draft. My wife and I would DVR a game we wanted to see – especially if it was the Bears or Packers. We might watch it later, but if we did, we would fast-forward through much of it until watching a game longer than an hour became tedious. I still enjoyed the playoffs; but generally started missing more and more of it. Our kids will join us for the Super Bowl – but it’s become more about the snacks than the game.
Football is a very small part of my life now. It is there in the background – not entirely faded, but I couldn’t tell you ten players on the Bears, or even fifty players in the league. I used to be invested, now I’m a cultural football fan at best.
It wasn’t because of scandals in the league that caused my disinterest. I had that experience as a baseball fan. I used to love baseball. I knew the players and I followed my team. But after the greed I saw play out in the 1994 strike; it was difficult for me to go back.
Football is different for me though. My growing indifference is not about scandals or greed. I still really like football. I simply just moved on. I spend my time in other ways. I have found other interests.
After having made this discovery in myself recently I started wondering if this is not the same experience people are having with “organized” religion today. For some, their separation from religion is like my experience with baseball: the scandals, the perceived hypocrisy, the institutional self-interest has soured it for them. But for others – many others have gone through what I have experienced with football: it just doesn’t inspire them or hold their interest anymore. They may not be anti-religion; they might still come to worship at Christmas or Easter for example – but the reality is the institutional religious life is simply not a part of who they are anymore, and they are OK with that.
We wonder what it might take to bring them back to our faith communties. I’ll start by asking: What would it take to bring me back to football?
I don’t think this is a marketing question or about proper program implementation as much as it is a relational question. When I was in High School, College, and Seminary – my friends and I talked passionately about football all the time. We would comment on highlights, articles, and statistics. We would play out in a field or on our NES, Sega Genesis or N64. We recruited others openly to join us. One winter when Tammie was laid up after a surgery, she sat next to me as I watched the Vikings go 15-1. As she sat on the couch recovering, I talked about plays and formations and penalties. Now years later, it is she who talks to me about the things her Packers do with excitement in her voice.
In the end, I don’t think I will become an active participant in the NFL again by watching more ESPN, or by blocking out more Sunday afternoons. No, the only path back is to connect with others who have a real love for the game.
The same is true of our faith communities. We lament over the declining numbers, and grieve the people who have left. We fight over our likes and dislikes and often we show up on Sunday morning just to muddle through.
But is there any passion? Are we making connections with others? Do we talk about God with any excitement? Are we sharing our stories? Do we show God’s love wherever we go?
There is a difference between faith and religion. Faith is life-changing. It gives us a way to positively view and impact the world. It provides meaning and purpose in our lives. It offers real hope to those wandering into the wilderness. If we want to renew our ministries we need to focus on faith. This is a focus on people not programs; on relationships not marketing; on stories of significance, on God and not ourselves.
The NFL playoffs begin this weekend. I know my family is excited about the Packers playing the Giants. I’m sure we will watch. I’m sure there will be snacks. But most importantly the people I care about will be there. I believe that’s the way to go about re-investing in whatever it is we should hold dear but seem to slip away from so easily in this fast-paced, busy, easily-distracted world. We need to think first about relationships, and put our focus there. As we enter a New Year, especially in our houses of worship, let’s invest in people. Whatever happens after that we will take as it comes. Will life-change happen? God willing, yes.