Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Husker Football is like the Local Church Part 2

In Part 1 of "How Husker football is like the Local Church" I put forward the theory that they have much in common. They both are accustomed to large fan bases that provided the need for large facilities, but that is now in jeopardy.  They both put much esteem and scrutiny upon their leadership in the form of coaches and pastoral staff who rely on free labor/volunteers.  And they both struggle with public image sometimes because of the behavior of players/staff and church members.  While being connected to these institutions used to provide a leg up in the world they might instead have become liabilities.

I would like to further my theory with what I think is my strongest argument for this comparison. This time I will start with the church as the base of comparison. The western church for the past 1,500 years has been the great beneficiary of "Christendom" That means the church has been seen as the center of culture. When Constantine made the church the official religion of the Roman Empire it was a game changer. Whether one actually adhered to the practices of Christianity in a discipleship sort of way, its values and connection to civil citizenship were superimposed upon Europe and the places it expanded (New World, South America, India, Africa etc).  We now find ourselves at a crossroads where Christendom is coming to an end.  It has already ended in many places around the world and in Europe.  But it is dying a slow painful death in the United States.  Most churches still function theologically and socially out of a Christendom mindset and have a difficulty really comprehending what is happening around them.  Their boards, committees, and societies are still trying to reestablish the good ol days of when people just came to church and when the church was the center of culture. They are scared and wounded and still think of themselves as the big kids on the block and don't know why the world doesn't listen when the church makes a stance on an issue.

The Nebraska Huskers are in a similar place in my personal opinion. For years they were the underdogs everyone loved just because they were our fellow Nebraskans.  But something happened in the 1990s.  They won three national football titles (one of which was a co-championship). Today Husker fans still hold their football teams to the standard set twenty years ago.  They believe every Husker team is a championship caliber team and are disappointed with anything less. It is good to have high standards, but sometimes they are unfounded and unrealistic.
The reality is the same for Husker football as it is for the American Church, that time has passed and will never return. The church is beyond Christendom and the years of BCS championships without a bracket are over.
Churches and the Huskers alike have done things to compensate and reclaim old glory.  Sometimes Churches relocate to different neighborhoods in the hopes of absorbing urban sprawl and suburban exoduses and better revenues. The Huskers switched from the Big 12 to the Big 10. Sometimes churches do superficial changes with their staff, buildings, or coming up with trendy names for churches and ministries but never change their actual approach to ministry or the community.  The Huskers this year had new uniforms, put in new turf, and have changed coaches.

The results are the same. A healthy 9-4 season for the Huskers for the 6th time in 7 years.  For the church, aging congregations in buildings they cannot afford.

So what are the positives they have in common and how do we move forward?

First of all everyone in Nebraska has the common story of the Huskers to share.  They tell of great coaches, players who have gone onto the NFL, and winning seasons.  The Church has the common story of the Bible. It has not changed much in the past 2000 years.  We are connected to our ancestors because we share the same story today they did before there even was a Europe and Christendom. The narrative of Scripture is powerful but it has to be told in its entirety not shrunk down into the highlights. That is weakness Husker fans make when they compare all teams to the 90s, that is only the good moments what about the other seasons there were sub .500 records.  If we truncate scripture into an argument of salvation alone we have missed its purpose of demonstrating a God who has worked through people and places since he first breathed it into existence and has an ultimate purpose for how the story ends.

Second, Gooooo BiiiiiiiiG Reeeeeeed! GO BIG RED! is the call and response of the Husker faithful. The church too has similar phrases and images that unites us together.  Jesus is Lord is our most basic confession.  The Jesus Creed of loving God and loving others roots us in our purpose. The Lords prayer shapes and defines our interaction with God. These are things we can unite around. The communion table allows all to gather around and engage in the unique presence of Christ.

Finally, Husker fans will always hope for another championship.  And why not, they are always so close and its fun to sit with friends and watch games. So too the church has a bright future but I think its one that is rooted in community and engagement in a new way.  Gone are the days when people will just show up because there is a table set and a sermon is spoken. Just as the Husker sell out streak will end soon. Instead we are to go out and engage the world around us just as it is.  That is what Jesus did when he moved into the neighborhood in John 1:14.  The incarnation of Christ is part of our story. We can never be Christ, but we can be his hands and feet and move into our neighborhoods and engage people just as they are. 

I am becoming ever so slowly a Husker fan, it is fun, it unites people, and its not perfect, sometimes it even borders on sacrilege they way some people revere it. But more than anything I love the church. I think it is the place where the Kingdom of God is made manifest in our reality. It is not complete or perfect. But it is and will always be the place where his people gather, learn, and engage in ministry. It has existed for 2000 years and will continue to do so. But it will have to change, not superficially, but deep core changes that focus on loving God and loving others or better said loving God by loving others and being present with the world Christ came to save.

How the Local Church is like Husker football part 1

I am not a big college football fan. I don't follow teams or get excited about the BCS play-offs. However, as a graduate from Truett Seminary at Baylor and a resident in Nebraska one can't simply ignore college football. It is an ever present reality that drives the local newscast and fills my social media news feeds. I am however, a fan of the church.  I do get excited about new ways of being church in the 21st century.

I have a theory that the local American church (my context) is an awful lot like Nebraska football. It is
difficult to put into words the importance that Nebraska Husker fans place upon college football. It is a way of uniting the state under one banner in many ways. During a game day, Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest city in the state!  It holds an ongoing record for consecutive sellouts at 333. People love the Huskers. They wear red on Saturday and every other day of the week year round. It is an identity and community builder, as much as it is a simple game.

I think the church in many ways is similar to Husker football. Right now the football team is experiencing a transition in general and in coaching staff specifically.  So too is the church.  The church is transitioning and the mindset that many Husker fans have about their football team parallel the concerns many have in the church.

First, one of the big concerns for the University is the ongoing sellout streak being at risk.  For years they packed the stadium, so much so they have remodeled the facility, added seats, and even added inter squad games in the offseason.  This sounds like many churches who in years past filled their sanctuaries to bursting, so they added new seats, better fellowship halls, and added services.  But now, that is all in jeopardy.  To be sure the Huskers are not in risk of only filling half their seats, but they are concerned about a downward trend.  Many churches are experiencing the reality of half empty buildings or worse.  Gigantic buildings, are in disrepair, expensive to maintain, and in need of a good renovation to bring them up to code and modern conveniences. Buildings outside of staff are the largest part of many local church budgets. It puts a strain on their ability to do mission.  Many feel like if they could just fill the seats they can justify their existence, but is just filling seats the goal?

The highly paid Nebraska coaches and staff are held in esteem while simultaneously coming under constant scrutiny. Just google Nebraska football and you will see what I mean. The players are only college kids but are elevated to the roles of heros and are able to cash in on their connection to Husker football for the rest of their lives opening doors regular graduates for UNL won't have access to. The local church is not much different in how it treats their staff. Pastors and other church employees are not as well compensated as any collegiate coach but they are honored and put under constant scrutiny.  There was even a time years ago when being a church member was a prerequisite for public office or local community leadership. But after many scandals from the church and from former Husker players, it is becoming less of a chip to cash in on and instead possibly even a liability to be associated with such things.

When college teams have troubles, they blame the coach. I don't always think it's fair, after all the college team on the field is the free labor of 18-22 year old guys who have a primary job of earning a degree.  But in fairness when teams succeed much of the credit goes to the same coach. But when things are not just right or an image of new needs to be put into place, a coaching change takes place. This is the reality for Nebraska this 2014 season. After several successful seasons with one coach, Nebraska now has a new coach in the hopes of getting over a perceived hump into a national championship conversation. So do churches. When things aren't just right can blame a pastor, and I don't think this is always fair. And just like a collegiate football team, pastoral staff work with "free labor" in the form of volunteers on a daily basis who have other priorities than the basic survival of the church. Sometimes the community shifts and the church as a body is slow to respond. Sometimes the members become complacent and become internally focused instead of ministering to the community. Sometimes there are unknown reasons for a brief season of stagnation. But in fairness, churches also give much credit to staff when things are going well, but they can turn on a staff pretty quickly.

So in summary of part one. The church is like Husker football because it is worried about dwindling fan bases, community image, and staff issues.  In part 2 I will look at how the church lives on past experience, tries trendy fads at the expense of real discipleship, and what positive things the Huskers and the church have in common.