Wednesday, December 10, 2014

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.

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