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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Liturgy of Sport and Lessons for the Church, Part 2

Published Monday, March 8, 2021 By Joshua Pauling

In Part 1, I explored how sports function as what James K.A. Smith calls a cultural liturgy. While sports send strong cultural messages of consumerism, competition, and entertainment, they also offer a window into how human beings form lasting habits of devotion and commitment—how it is we come to adore something. The rituals and practices associated with sports that instantiate them into one’s pattern of living offer lessons for the Church. Part 1 unpacked two examples: the rhythm of sports seasons and the ritual power of liturgy. Here I’d like to take up two more points of analysis: first, how sports require a rigorous initiation, and second, how sports have a history that is received gratefully. Both have applications for the Church.

The Rigorous Attraction of Initiation

The greenhorn sports fan quickly realizes there is a significant body of knowledge to master for initiation into full-fledged fanhood. The history and rules of the game, the players on the teams, the proper actions and words at the proper times. Sports in general don’t change to accommodate such novice fans; instead the beginner digs deeper to fully participate. If a child just learning the game of baseball is struggling to understand the rules and rituals, the parent doesn’t petition Major League Baseball to accommodate the beginner by changing the rules. Instead, the parent spends time teaching and explaining each play and rule as questions arise in the course of the game. The new fan understands the rules incrementally, absorbs the norms, and comes to enjoy the sport fully. There is something attractive about this organic and lengthy initiation process. There is a barrier to entry that creates a sense of intrigue and value around the sport that draws people into its fold and holds them there.

The Church should also consider these principles when dealing with newcomers. The early church certainly did. Within the 1st century, a lengthy process of catechesis for converts was developed that culminated in baptism on Easter, the day of the Resurrection. There is something fitting and beautiful in this practice that is worth reflecting upon. I’m not suggesting some legalistic requirement for church membership, or revisiting the rigorist-laxist controversies of St. Cyprian’s or St. Augustine’s era. But what I am saying is that in the contemporary concern to bring people in, many church bodies have “changed the rules” and modified the process of Christian initiation to be quick, painless, and void of meaningful content. In the long-run this proves counter-productive as it fosters a consumerist mindset in the church; a cafeteria-style Christianity of picking and choosing what is palatable.

The Church must not lose its true identity in attempts to accommodate to the culture. Just like the sports fan who instructs and enables the uninitiated to fully embrace the sport, the Church must be proud of who she is, and explain her theology, rites and rituals—not get rid of them. If the sports world is willing to maintain their rules, rites, and rituals, why should it be any different in the Church where the greater gifts of eternal glory are dispensed, that will outlast any short-lived sporting glory?

The Reception of the Past as Inheritance

Another central aspect of the culture of sport is tradition and heritage. Records are tediously kept and followed for every statistical category imaginable, and each team has its mythic heroes and legendary tales. These stories function much like ancient myths and folktales in forging group identity and providing an origin myth for the team and its fans. Strong bonds are formed around such shared history, providing a narrative for those in search of meaning. Sports teams and leagues celebrate anniversaries and build shrines to star athletes. Sports fans don’t distance themselves from their past by arguing that times have changed; they receive their past as a gift that gives meaning to the present.

The Church has the ultimate story; the narrative of redemptive history. It comes complete with records tediously kept in the Scriptures, an origin story in Genesis, and the universal group identity found in Christ—the true hero, the God-Man. This is The Myth Made Fact; a real, historical story of unsurpassed artistry and truth, that speaks to humanity’s universal experience of fallenness and of our common desire for restoration and forgiveness. Even more, it presents a living person, Jesus Christ, the God who has taken on flesh, overcome death, and reversed our Fall by the indestructible power of his life. This Story of stories comes with a great inheritance of heroes, hymns, liturgical rites, theological masterpieces, and literary treasures—all to be received gratefully. If sports fans embrace their history and traditions with joy and gratitude, why should it be any different in the Church that actually has an inheritance of lasting meaning for the life of the world that transcends all time and place?

Conclusion: Recovering The Route to Adoration

The cult of sport reveals several things about humanity. Humans long for something greater than themselves to adore, and the religious dimensions of the sporting experience reveal this loud and clear. John Calvin was right; the human heart remains “a perpetual factory of idols,” and sports provide countless opportunities for the creation of new idols. But at a deeper level, the extreme commitment and devotion that so many people put into sports reveal not just that humans adore something, but more importantly, how it is that humans come to adore something. And this is where the Church can learn from the sports world. What brings people to such adoration and devotion is the rhythm and repetition found in a yearly sequence of events, the ritual and routine of liturgical order, the rigor of initiation into what is meaningful, and the reception of the full historical inheritance with gratitude. If this works to create long-term commitments to sports teams, perhaps it is due to the inherent power of such things in the human psyche.

If we are, as Smith suggests, “fundamentally erotic creatures,” then we need such practices and rituals in the religious realm to rightly order our eros. Not rituals directed towards the good of sports, consumerism, competition, individualism, or entertainment; but rather, rituals that integrate head and heart, thinking and feeling, towards the highest good of Christ and his kingdom. This integration helps us overcome the “reductionistic picture we’ve unwittingly absorbed in the modern era that treats us as if we’re only and fundamentally thinking things” or on the other hand, that we’re only fundamentally feeling things. Instead, Smith contends, “we need to embrace a more holistic, biblical model of human persons that situates our thinking and knowing in relation to other, more fundamental aspects of the human person” (6).

It is vital that Christianity be more than just an intellectual worldview, or simply an emotional feeling. The best chance for Christian perseverance is when Christianity is implanted into the deepest parts of our being and constitutes the central rhythm of our experience. There must be a resonance between the doctrines we intellectually assent to, the practices we daily participate in, and the stories we place ourselves in. The Church’s ancient maxim captured the importance of this unity of practice and doctrine perfectly: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of what is prayed [is] the law of what is believed). With Smith’s insights in mind, it might pack more of a contemporary punch to put it this way: how you worship is how you end up believing. Or to turn an old phrase around, it’s not “practice what you preach,” it’s that “your practice preaches.” Perhaps our practices preach more than we realize; perhaps they preach even more than our preachers.

The Church used to know these things and harness them. But in more recent years many churches have jettisoned the inheritance of rhythms, rites, rituals, and routines that are so pregnant with rich theological meaning. In their place came spontaneity, contemporary relevance, and novelty, which unintentionally undercut the very process by which commitment, devotion, and adoration are formed in humans. While done with good intentions, this departure from historic liturgical forms left a gaping hole for the creation of new forms, infused with less symbolic and theological meaning—or worse, the importation of forms pirated from popular culture that communicate misleading things about Christianity.

Out went the sermon proclamation, in came the TED Talk. Out went the anchoring presence of Christ’s altar, in came the pulsating drum set. Out went the logocentric pulpit, in came the ephemeral plexi-glass podium. Out went the preacher covering his own sinfulness with vestments, in came the stylish pop-star wannabe. Out went the communal permanent pew, in came the individualistic stadium seating. The list could go on. Out went the sensual tangibility of candles and incense, in came the fantastical spotlights and fog machine. Out went the pipe organ designed to accompany theologically rich congregational singing, in came the color-coded mic stands for the performers. Out went the memory-facilitating physical hymnal, in came the transience of words projected on the screen. Out went the pastor presiding over the Lord’s Supper, in came the worship leader directing the Spirit’s Moving.

All of these changes are much more than just a style-swap. Just like sporting events, each act, word, gesture, and action done in a church service has a meaning behind it, a meaning that says something about the nature of who it is being adored. Each change communicates theologically, but in the wrong direction as such changes tend to undercut historic orthodox doctrine about God, man and salvation. In the midst of the confusing messages sent by these practical changes, Christianity’s core content easily gets lost, until one is left to wonder what church-goers are being catechized into in the long run. This effort at relevance actually seems to weaken the Christian message, perhaps even binding Christianity to a single time and place. The Church’s historic liturgical traditions can transcend time and place revealing that worship is not about style at all, but about the unchanging delivery of God’s grace to human beings.

The historic liturgy of the Church clearly communicates that God comes and meets with his people through the Word and the Sacraments to deliver to them real, tangible forgiveness and reconciliation through the work of Jesus Christ. Christians are brought through the whole drama of their own redemption each Sunday as they confess their sins, and are objectively assured of forgiveness through the word of Christ’s absolution and the sermon proclamation. The Word of God is sung, spoken and preached in anticipation of the Lord’s Supper where the God of life meets the needy human creature.

God gives this all freely in the liturgical inheritance of the historic Church. It is not bound by style, time, culture, language or space, but is given as a gift in order to hear, feel, touch, taste and see the life of the world to come each time the Church gathers together. The Church Year and lectionary provide a yearly rhythm to life that keeps Christians connected to their ultimate identity and destiny. The Liturgy provides ritual structures and routines that help form habits of piety and devotion that sustain in life’s darkest moments, and deepen union with Christ through God’s performative speech (Word) and deeds (Sacraments). The process of Christian initiation provides an attractive rigor and depth anchored to the truth amid a fragmenting society.

The Biblical story of redemption and the history of the Church provide a narrative of eternal significance with accompanying liturgy, creeds, confessions, martyrs and saints all to be received with gratitude and recounted with vigor. These principles of rhythm, ritual, rigor, and reception are the tools that plant Christianity deep into the blood, and provide a framework for the Christian habitus. Modern sports culture makes clear this route to adoration. The irony is that the Church knew this long before the sports world. It’s past time for the Church to take back the playbook and reclaim its inheritance.

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo MagazineFront Porch RepublicMere OrthodoxyPublic DiscourseQuillette MagazineSalvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Joshua Pauling

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