How NOT liking ice hockey AT ALL can teach church leaders about worship’s great attendance slump
I was new at the ministry thing. The Youth Group advisor, also new, had a lot of energy behind her idea of getting our teens to an ice hockey game at a nearby stadium. These ice hockey pros weren’t the on highest-level, but were up there.
The youth were onboard with going. Resigned, I remember thinking, “Well, God is everywhere. Let’s diversify our groups’ experience and see what we can learn from this night out.”
I should have shared my pastoral concerns. “What? Are you all crazy? Ice hockey? This is a regularly violent sport where hot-headed beer drinking fans shout, ‘Fight! Fight!’ at the slightest provocation of injustice on the ice. Pros punching each other to the cheers of fans is not quite what Jesus had in mind. Ever.”
But we went.
My seat had an obstructed view. “Hallelujah,” I thought. Less for me to watch. And buried down in my winter coat because no one else seemed to notice how cold it was in that enormous space of high, arching metal, mean florescent lights and a chill only I seemed to notice, I did fall asleep—or almost fell asleep—because I was bored. Completely, totally, unquestionably bored.
I will never like ice hockey. Ever. I share this because church groupies, and you know who you are, we need to hear again what we avoid, the present-day fact that some people will never like church.
During my first intensive week at Lancaster Theological Seminary, I opted into an afternoon elective that consisted mostly of second year DMin (Doctor of Ministry) students. I felt something from the whole class more than once: these incredibly gifted, talented cohorts (not surprisingly) LOVE church. They live church. They have the deepest desires to learn more about how church can be successful in reaching the world’s ever-changing dichotomy today. Given this profound love and professional conviction, someone should shout a second “Hallelujah!”
A question started me thinking. How well can you see something you truly love? Think about your spouse, your pet, your favorite sport (as long as it is not ice hockey). How well do you see it? How well can you objectively look at it? Where are you blind to what others who don’t hold your passion see?
That church leaders love church may not always be a good thing. This may sound odd, but consider something some of you may not know about me: I can talk with you about liturgy for an hour. Nonstop. With unbridled glee (yes, I used the word unbridled and glee in one phrase), I can engage a small group of people and talk about one worship service for an entire afternoon and find joy in every moment of that conversation. Another “Hallelujah!” This one may be mine alone, though.
Maybe we worship leaders should look at what we love through the eyes of someone who doesn’t love what we do. Think about me and the hockey game. I never want to go again. Some feel that way about church. No matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how many times God’s big hand opens the roof of the sanctuary and vast throngs of worshippers cheer as if Elvis himself were in the building during that single, incredible worship, some still aren’t going to get it.
So, do we only minister to those who do love ice hockey…I mean church? I say no. I say we look at the professional sports both generally and specifically. We add regional and socio-economics to the study. From the ‘big picture’ to the minutiae, from symbols to rituals, from first time attenders to seasoned, lifelong investors, let’s see what draws and holds faithful, diehard fans.
Ice hockey didn’t work for me, but maybe I should work toward it. Church leaders, how do we see church from the perspective of those who don’t get it or don’t like it? Let’s figure out a way to bring the base elements of God’s love and goodness to those who are saying, “Eh, I can take or leave religious mumbo jumbo.”
To make a point, let me move from ice hockey to college football for a moment. I inherited through my DNA a love for Penn State football. I can’t explain how this happened, especially when you can argue that hard hitting football is a lot like hard hitting ice hockey, but this past Saturday night, a record breaking 810,123 fans packed Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. I was not at that game, but imagine with me the energy that poured over that event. Emotionally charged fans fueled a common desire. Unity was known through common, well-known cheers. There was deep bonding among strangers who shared something in common.
Shouldn’t church be this? Is church this?
I look at full stadiums and empty pews and think sports fans can inform church leaders in ways we may not have considered. The Saturday night game can become the Sunday morning worship experience when we spend a little less time with what we love and a lot more time with what we need to learn.
Think about this. Professional baseball games have a myriad of ways to get less invested fans into the “experience.” From activities between each inning, special giveaways, roaming “kiss” cameras and other really goofy stuff, baseball marketers are diverging the experience they sell. I am not suggesting we do the same. In fact, I think we should have less distractions and more interactions. The interactions we all crave, and here I include non-churchgoers, are the crystalline moments when the divine meets humanity, particularly in its mess.
I am not suggesting we “High Five” each other after a particularly rousing hymn, although the image does makes me smile. I am saying we continue what we’ve already started, and that is look to successful models within and outside the church. Maybe it’s time to clean the slate, delete the template bulletin we’ve been using since Pentecost, and start over, really start looking, listening and learning. Even if you’re not a fan of the Big Game, go to one—especially if it is a sport you do not like, or, one better, do not understand. While there, don’t just hide in your coat like I did. Feel. Think. Imagine. What interactions do you see? What can be brought from that experience to a worshipful one?
As people like me do not want to go back to an ice hockey game (ever!), you will continue to meet people who do not want to go (or go back) to church. This is not an end; this is a means. This is information. Let’s continue to discover this new-fangled twenty-first century worship the way we should—as a transformative, bonding, necessary, and oh so incredible experience.
Do I have the answer today as what exactly this experience looks like? No, but I know where I want you to look with me. And it begins at that blasted hockey game.
This photo is courtesy of the Binghamton, New York Senators, 2016