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Sports Arenas and Houses of Worship

So I’m having a less-than-the-norm day in terms of productivity.  I have nothing to hide, there are plenty of crazy days (yesterday I was checking off items on the to-do list like a madman) so I tend to think you need to balance those out.  So I’m sitting at my desk and I’m reading this article ( that is making note that the NHL has more teams selling out the stadium right now than the NBA.  The author is realistic.  This is not a sign that the hockey is eclipsing basketball in popularity.  What he does argue is that the NHL offers a better live fan experience.  The sport, he argues is actually easier to watch from up high in a live stadium than down low or on TV.  And the fans get into the experience.  They are offering a reason to spend the time and money to go to a game rather than watch on TV.  (I could say a lot about this from the perspective a Blackhawks fan but that would be to digress.)  The money quote?  “There’s a bigger incentive to leave the house when it actually feels like you will be part of something collaborative and special.”

This is that point at which I realized this wasn’t just some diversion from productivity.  That really was a great quote.  It’s the question I believe we, the Church, need to ask ourselves: are we offering an experience to people where they “feels like [they] will be part of something collaborative and special?”

Let’s face it: a good sermon is a good sermon, mostly regardless of whether it’s on a TV, in a pulpit, or from a podcast.  We live in a world where we have easy access to great music whenever we want.  You can buy excellent and engaging books and video series that challenge you and help you grow.  And we can put our money towards special interests that are near and dear to our heart with the click of a button.  None of these are unique to the church, and none of these require attendance on Sunday (or any) morning.  Pastors will downplay online religious experiences and TV worship services with the claim that they lack authentic community… but how often are our churches actually doing that – is Sunday morning worship really that much more authentic?  Do we actually offer something collaborative and special?

I am not convinced that this is often the case.  Let me borrow from the sports article one more time.  “There are certainly great fans at individual NBA arenas — Memphis comes immediately to mind— but my observation is that the average NHL venue is more collectively engaged.”  There are certainly churches offering a great collaborative sense of worship, mission, and belonging to a community.  But my sense is that this is less and less the case in many places.

So what is the challenge that comes from this?  What is our take-away?  Let me give three quick hits on what some of the take-aways might be, but my lists isn’t all there is, it’s just the beginning.

Belonging  – I could file this whole post under belonging, and it’s become a very important part of my ecclesiology so I’m challenged to be brief here.  But like with a professional sport team’s fan base belonging is the target.  Cubs fans consistently show up to watch one of the losingest (not a word I guess but it is in this Cub fan’s vernacular) teams.  They aren’t showing up because the product is the best, they are show up because the experience of belonging won’t let them walk away.  Jesus’ calling and baptismal covenant is about belonging.  And radical discipleship is the acknowledgment that the challenge of Jesus’ way is endurable, in fact joyous, because thick or thin – we belong here.  How many of our churches fight battles over style and not substance because we are afraid we do not attract people, or that people will get bored.  Connect with people, nurture people so that they belong to your vision and mission and you to theirs – and no differences over style will drive them away.  I’ve seen it.

Collaboration – pretty close to belonging.  But a particular, and easily overlooked, piece.  Collaboration acknowledges that in belonging each person has a voice and vote in the process.  Collaboration means everyone is invested in the process and the product.  No-one is just along for the ride, and everyone has to work together on the problems that arise.  Here I think is also a very interesting point for worship – which is so often led by a few for the (viewership?) of the many.  How do we collaborate for, in, because of worship?

Passion – maybe I should call this energy.  Like fan chants (tribal language?) and team colors we witness our passion for our sports teams and it’s essential to the belonging.  But do we have this for our churches and in our worship?  When we are gathered do we look and feel like a people who would rather be here than anywhere else?  If not… why should anyone else want to be here – is our being here really important at all?

Belonging, Collaboration, and Passion.  These are all a part of making a community rather than just a random gathering of like-minded individuals.  And they remind us that the work of the church is the work of the community engaging in vital and essential ways in each other’s lives and the life of the world.  So recognizing some truth in the thought that “there’s a bigger incentive to leave the house when it actually feels like you will be part of something collaborative and special,” ask yourself: what are you doing to nurture that feeling in yourself and in others?

Advent: Illuminate Joy!

Yesterday we illuminated joy through music and drama – all ages gathered to tell the story of Advent and Christmas.  And, because it just happens that way, the light of Advent shone particularly well through the eyes of our children.  Children teach us much about joy.

And I’m reminded again of King David bringing the Ark back to Israel after its long time in captivity and exile (I’d love to say more about that because it’s among my favorite stories but alas it’s too off topic today).

Here is the story of the ark’s homecoming with David in 2 Samuel 6:


So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing… David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 16As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart…20David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!”21David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” 


I think sometimes we believe worship must be refined and dignified.  It should have an element of perfection.  So we dress up in good clothes, we sing happy songs, and we wear smiles on our faces regardless of the conditions of our hearts.  We script pretty prayers and make sure all is decent and “in order.”  We worship in a way that would meet the approval of Michal.  And then David – with all his ruddy and youthful exuberance – bursts in leaping and dancing and carrying on like a common drunkard.  And we often, like Michal, look on with disdain while we miss that what David is drunk on is the joy of the God’s presence and power and steadfast love.  God doesn’t desire orderly worship so much as passionate and authentic expression of our hearts.  So we weep when we feel like weeping and sing when we feel like singing, and we stumble, and leap, and dance to the Spirit’s calling.

We make ourselves contemptible to the sensibilities of the dignified while expressing with great honesty our lives before God.  Because this is as it should be – we do not live to please the conventions and rules but the one who binds us together in loving community.  And who better to teach us that then our children.  Who better to teach us to dance to the Spirit’s call then those who have not yet been forced to conform to the social norms but are willing to fling wide the gates of their hearts in joy and sorrow before all.

This advent may our children illuminate joy for us all – for a child shall lead us!

The Cross Must Come Down!

I read this article earlier about a judge ruling that a cross as a war memorial must come down ( and I can imagine the outrage among some Christians about this “persecution.” As if there aren’t much greater and more horrific things for us to get un/righteously upset about.  So I had this provocative idea to add a bit of perspective to this.  You see just like the Puritans are the only people who really ever staged a war on Christmas (they actually made it illegal because they saw it detracting from faith not celebrating it) the Church also has its own history of waging a war on the cross.

That’s right: meet John Calvin.  Mostly folk love him or hate him – I have a rather nuanced appreciation for him myself and while we are quick to dismiss him it should probably be noted that Karl Barth (much more widely adored by 20th century Reformed Theologians like Presbyterians) who himself had issues with Calvin also had this to say of him.

Barth was confronted with the disturbing strangeness of Calvin’s theology. As he famously expressed in a 1922 letter to his lifelong friend, Eduard Thurneyeson:


Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately….I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

So why do I bring Calvin on the scene?  Because Calvin waged a bit of his own war on the cross.  Removed them all in fact from the sanctuaries in which he worshiped.  Of the Cross as decoration he had this to say (in the midst of larger rant about images in churches, and I added a coupe or three parenthetical thoughts of my own):

I still cannot see what benefit such images (not yet talking about crosses but about Christian works of art in worship spaces) can provide for the unlearned… except to make them into anthropomorphites, {i.e. people who humanize God}.-Indeed, brothels show harlots clad more virtuously and modestly than the churches (he doesn’t mince words does he?) show those objects which they wish to be seen as images of virgins.-But then we shall also answer that this is not the method of teaching the people of God whom the Lord will to be instructed with a far different doctrine than this trash (no he doesn’t at all).  He has set forth the preaching of His word as a common doctrine for all.-From this one word they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of either wood or stone.-Therefore, He will vindicate His majesty and glory against any who may transfer it to graven images or other things.  And not once, but against fathers, the children and the grandchildren. (1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, p.21)

That’s right.  John Calvin was a remover of crosses.  A remover of all religious imagery.  John Calvin was a word guy of course (and a Word guy as well).  He probably would have greatly struggled in this image driven world we live in today.  Not probably – he would have – but lucky for him he’s 500 years dead.  However…. like Barth we could use to spent some time with Calvin’s thoughts on this subject.

It is okay to be image driven – but not image fixated.  Jesus story was about the word made flesh – not the word turned into a wood/stone/metal image that does our witness for us.  Let the cross be take down – its our lives that are meant to be speaking this story.  Paul Ricoeur’s great work on symbols reminds us that they only have meaning when they are embedded in the story from which they are birthed.  A cross has no meaning by itself, and as Calvin would be quick to remind us it actually becomes but a graven image when it no longer reflects the story from which it speaks.  And so Calvin stripped the cross out of his worship – crosses that had become bereft of their deeper meaning – to get us back to the story, the good news, the word made flesh.

Jesus sits at a meal and breaks bread and says, “when you do this, remember me.”  Too often today we wish to leave our remembering, and even our doing, to static symbols, buildings, and platitudes.  In a season of Advent what I am always reminded of the most is that we are called to, awaiting, participating in an incarnational ministry.  “The word became flesh and lived among us.”  And we became the word and went into the world.

Let the crosses come down; and let us live the cross in our lives.