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Thursday, December 8, 2011

How a College Football Game Changed My Understanding of Church

Last Saturday I took my 10-year-old son Jack to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to watch our favorite college football team, the Syracuse Orange, play the Pittsburgh Panthers, and I discovered some things I wasn’t looking for.

I had been looking forward to this game for months, and even the few weeks before when I bought the tickets I was still hopeful that the game would “mean something” with respect to the conference championship. So I spent the extra money for tickets in the block of seats that Pitt sold to Syracuse for resale. If this was going to be a huge game, I wanted to be able to give full-throated support to the team in a crowd of like-minded fans.

As it turned out, the game couldn’t have meant less for the conference championship, though it was still important for two 5-6 teams trying to end the season at .500 and mediocre bowl eligibility. But my decision to get seats in the Syracuse section was a great one. Jack and I got to yell and cheer and go crazy immediately in front of about four rows of SU students doing the same thing. We bellowed at the field with them when the defense forced Pitt into a 3rd down. We joined in their spontaneous cheers of “Let’s go, O-range!” We learned Syracuse’s first-down cheer. After one touchdown I even heard the words to the fight song for the first time as the students broke into it in lieu of the marching band. If I can help it, I’ll never go to a game again without sitting as close to students as possible.

The game had some great moments, but it ended in heartbreak—a fumble returned for a touchdown by the opposition on what could have been the game-winning drive with about three minutes to go, virtually sealing the Orange’s losing season. It was the next to last of a series of head-in-hands groaners that included ten penalties and six turnovers amid other less easily quantified errors. Immediately upon the backbreaker, a throng of fans in my section leapt for the exits as if their seats were suddenly electrified just as I’ve seen in the Carrier Dome on TV too many times. Jack and I waited until the bitter end before leaving our seats, forgetting to linger until the team came over to sing the alma mater with the student spectators.

The game ended stunningly early at 3:00—Syracuse had a drive in the 4th quarter that consumed an absurd amount of clock—so we decided to try to find where players might come out of the stadium and hang around until they did. We walked around the outside of the stadium to the opposite end where we found two sizable clumps of people—about two thirds Syracuse and one third Pitt—on either side of a gate in a high, chain-link privacy fence, the way kept clear for the coach buses we glimpsed on the other side by yellow-jacketed security people. This nondescript entryway under a highway on-ramp and next to a four-lane road was one of the least pedestrian-friendly spaces I’ve ever stood at, I think, but we were pretty sure we found the right place.

After a while we watched a trickle of players emerge from the gate one-by-one. It was easy to tell the teams apart, the Pitt players dressed in a uniform warmup suit and the Syracuse players dressed in coats and ties. That’s when the surprises started for me. First, I could recognize almost none of the players, despite knowing all their names and being able to give a moderately accurate account of their performance over the season. I had assumed therefore that I “knew” them, but I didn’t: I couldn’t even pick most of them out of a crowd. Second, I was surprised by how small the Orange were. Granted, no offensive linemen emerged from the gate, but I was probably one of the three tallest people in the crowd, only one of the three being a football player. And few of the players looked like their muscle-bound physiques were bursting out of their suits. This observation is a testimony to the talent level of the team at the present time; it would be different if I was waiting for players from LSU. But the third surprise is probably true of nearly all college football teams: these players are young. They look like the 20-year-olds that they are—men, but barely. We’re spending so much money and putting so much pressure on boys, I thought. What are we doing? And how much money are people making off these ordinary-looking young men, I wonder.

Each player that came through the gate quickly found his parents, often accompanied by the player’s siblings, girlfriend, friends of the family. They hugged and kissed each other. They shook hands with teammates’ parents. An occasional picture was posed and taken. Some (in my honest opinion, not enough) looked dejected and barely making it after giving away their fifth consecutive loss, squandering a 5-2 start and finishing last in the conference. But for the most part smiles abounded.

One player seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders—his successes and failures on the field were many and conspicuous, but only the latter would be remembered. He was the first player to come out of the gate that I recognized, and when I bent down to point him out to Jack my son identified him before I did. Unexpectedly, the player proceeded from the gate right towards us: his father was standing next to me. “Are you okay?” the dad quietly asked.

The pair hugged. “Yeah,” the son murmured unconvincingly. They started walking away to get a few moments of privacy when I suddenly had an idea.

“Excuse me, Mr. ________, you have a fan here,” I heard myself blurt out. I thrust Jack in front of me.

The player and his father turned around. “Oh . . . yeah,” he said, looking down at Jack, not knowing what to say. He stuck out his hand and shook Jack’s, who stood frozen, awed at the presence of greatness.

“I’m a fan, too,” I said as the player looked up. We shook hands. As his young, miserable, hangdog eyes locked with mine, I said what I could: “Hang in there. Have a good rest of your year.”

He politely thanked me and turned. His dad was about to follow but stopped. Smiling, he looked down at my son. Keep working hard, he said. Hit the weights. I thanked him in place of Jack, who was still dumbstruck. Then they disappeared behind the crowd.

We hung around a bit longer pointing out the players that we knew until the team was recalled within the fence for departure. We waved with the gathered families at the tinted windows of the three coach buses driven by men in orange hats as they pulled out of the stadium. Then we walked, chattering, across the Heinz Field parking lot to the wide walkway along the Allegheny River, the tall buildings of downtown Pittsburgh standing majestically in the late-afternoon sun.

I was moved by what we had experienced standing in the midst of these young men embraced by their fathers, especially by the player we met and his father. I thought about the games my father took me to that I’ll always remember. I thought about how my son would always remember this day, the first time we had ever done something this special as just the two of us, an island of fun and joy amid the churning waves of homework, discipline, shuttling, chores, exasperation, and fatigue.

“I love you, Jack,” I said out of the silence.

“I love you too,” he answered.

As we continued on I reflected on what I had witnessed that day among the fans. This was a road game, so nearly every Syracuse fan there was highly committed. But I observed two different kinds of commitment.

One kind of fan that I saw I would call a member of the fellowship, most obviously represented by the students behind me in the stands and the parents outside the stadium gate. The members of the fellowship are a social and emotional part of the program itself even though they don’t suit up and take the field. There are usually personal relationships that bind them to those that do. They come to the game to support the team—that is, they are there for the team, not the other way around.

The other kind of fan that I saw was the entitled spectator. Entitled spectators are highly invested in the team also, but in a different way. They spend a considerable amount of their time and money on the football program as a major source of their entertainment in place of other entertainment options. They are loyal enough not to yield the program as their first entertainment option easily, but they are also paying customers who expect bang for their buck, and bang includes winning. They are not there for the team; the team is there for them.

It was easiest to tell the difference between members of the fellowship and entitled spectators when things went wrong. Everybody suffered. But you might hear loud sarcasm, anger, and cynicism from entitled spectators that you wouldn’t hear from members of the fellowship. An entitled spectator might boo but a member of the fellowship never would, because that would be like booing oneself. When the game was clearly unwinnable, many entitled spectators hurried away like they were late for their firstborn’s birth while members of the fellowship silently remained with the players.

That’s when it clicked: I see the same thing in my church.

My church has members of the fellowship. They come to church for the church’s sake. That’s what motivates them to give and serve and hang in there when times are bad. When things go wrong they are grieved with their fellow members, not against them. When worship is over they hang around chatting and smiling, because they like being with their fellow members and don’t want to say goodbye too quickly. They are one.

My church also has entitled spectators. They come to church to receive a religious experience. They also give and may serve, but they do so to ensure a place that provides them what they like on Sunday morning. When they have gotten what they have paid their religion dollar for (which includes paying their time) they leave immediately, the cost of hanging around no longer worth the benefit.

My church also has casual spectators. These are like many of the paying customers at Syracuse’s home football games, people who enjoy coming for the entertainment value when it suits but don’t have a lot of loyalty to or interest in the organization itself.

I am confident that every church, including yours, has the same groups of “fans” that mine has. But there is a crucial aspect of a church that makes it very different from a college football program. In a church you can have people who are “members of the fellowship” and “entitled spectators” at the same time.

Some of the people at my church (and perhaps yours) are entitled spectators when it comes to the church as a whole, worshiping loyally and giving devotedly but doing so for themselves. But the same people are members of the fellowship with respect to a smaller group in the church: a program, a Bible study or Sunday School class, a ministry, a circle of friends that spends time together on their own time. In addition, there are people who are members of the fellowship of the larger church who function toward subunits as entitled spectators (or casual spectators, or nothing).

So here are come big questions for churches.

How does a person go from being nothing to being a casual spectator to being an entitled spectator to being a member of the fellowship?

Is it desirable for a person to skip over the step of “entitled spectator,” and if so, is it possible?

What is the numerical balance between these four groups in a healthy, growing church?

Is it a problem for a church when there is a fellowship subgroup inside it with members that are committed to that fellowship as members but are committed to the whole body as entitled spectators?

If it is a problem, what do you do about it?

If the desires of members of the fellowship of the whole church conflict with the desires of entitled spectators of that church—especially when those spectators are members of the fellowship of their own subgroup—how is the church to resolve that conflict?

Is it a problem when an entire church is a collection of fellowships that all function as entitled spectators toward the whole?

I can’t answer these questions yet. But I do know that both with churches and college football programs movement from one group to another is sometimes possible. At the game last Saturday I crossed the line from entitled spectator (though not the grouchy kind) to member of the fellowship. It started the preceding week when I wrote to the head coach and he actually replied. It continued sitting in front of the students. And it concluded standing with the parents. Unlike most members of the Syracuse football fellowship, no other member really knows my name, but I know that I am a member nevertheless. I went to the game last Saturday because I wanted to have a good time watching it and in hopes that it would “mean something.” In two years when the teams play in Pittsburgh I’ll go again because I have to be there. If my team is there, it automatically means something, and I’m going for them.

When you gather with your church or a portion of your church this week, consider: what kind of fan are you?

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