| RECENTLY TALKED with a college soccer player who went to England and took in some Premiership matches. What immediately struck him about the British fans was how immersed they were in the action. They sat, watching intently and letting the ebb and flow of the game pull their emotions along, their knowledge of the game acting as their guide. Alcohol wasn't allowed in the stands, and people weren't there to watch each other.|
"That was something that just blew me away," the player said, "because everyone's there for soccer." What a novel idea -- fans going to a game for the sake of the game itself. I've been to countless games, and I can tell you that while there are plenty of true fans in the crowd, there are many present for reasons completely unrelated to the game.
At Ole Miss football games, for instance, frat boys and sorority girls dress in their Sunday best and use the game as an excuse to be drunk and loud. At the Super Bowl, you see more corporate stiffs than real fans, which is why it can be one of the most eerily quiet games of the year.
NBA games, especially Lakers games, are a great place for celebrities to be seen -- until they leave about midway through the third quarter (but give Jack Nicholson credit, he uses that courtside seat to his full advantage).
In America, games are social events as much as they are athletic events, which explains why we have so many ignorant fans. When the socialites actually try to get involved in the game, they start yelling about that which they do not know. (These are the people you hear yelling "Balk!" every time a pitcher fakes a pickoff throw to third base.)
This phenomenon is not restricted to sports stadiums. Oh no, it's an American lifestyle. Living in the Bible belt, I'm well aware of how people treat church like a social club. Mingling with God-worshipers are self-worshipers who want to show off their wardrobe, be entertained, bolster their reputations, etc. Church is a means to their own worldly ends.
I believe to treat a sporting event in such a way is disrespectful. To treat corporate worship that way is unconscionable. While the team owners will gladly take your dollar regardless of how you approach their product, God isn't so indifferent. He demands not just our physical presence, but our full attention. Like those British soccer fans, we are to devote every ounce of energy and concentration to the event at hand, fully engaging ourselves every moment.
A big game is called such because of what has led up to it. Only true fans understand the magnitude of that kind of game; others just want the cheap thrill and the highlight reels. Preparation for such a happening enriches the experience, which is why it's essential for worshipers to prepare.
I fail often at this. In the franticness of Sunday mornings -- I have four young children, after all -- I often skip my devotional and walk into church "cold," like a reliever who's taken no warm-up tosses. And I admit to taking part in the banal conversations leading right up to service time, assuring that neither my heart nor brain are ready to be handed over to God for the ensuing 90 minutes.
This is where we must extend the soccer analogy, because our hearts and our intellect should belong to God 24/7, and church shouldn't be just another thing to check off our list. Like the soccer nut who lives and breathes the game, we must take God with us everywhere. Doing so enhances the worship experience and gives it context.
Putting that kind of focus on God has a way of giving one a right perspective. Like a fan who puts loyalty to the game above loyalty to his favorite team, we're called to put loyalty to God above loyalty to our denomination, or whatever else may turn our eyes from Him. That is what worshiping "in spirit and truth" requires of us.
Soccer, baseball, and many other sports are majestic games, and that's why so much joy can be drawn from them by those who truly appreciate both the DNA and the soul of these sports. How much more of an everlasting joy is experienced by those who do more than just fill up the church pews.
Brad Locke (email@example.com) is a sports journalist in Tupelo, Mississippi.
More columns by Brad Locke