Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sweatin' for Jeezus

I am not much of a sports guy. I rarely know who is playing in the Superbowl. A pilot announcing the score on a Boston flight was the only reason I knew who was in the last World Series. Before I read a newspaper, I carefully extract the classified and sports sections, and discard them before ever engaging the paper. I have never held a golf club in my hands. With waterboarding torture being a hot topic these days, I would say that all they would have to do to me is tie me up and set me before a televised golf or baseball game. I would confess to anything. I firmly believe that professional sports is the scalpel by which modernity has lobotomized American popular culture.

I do make a few minor concessions. I enjoyed the Tour de France as long as Lance Armstrong was competing. I take a bit of an interest in the World Cup every few years--where you can root for an actual country. On the weekend after Thanksgiving, I usually have the television or radio on, to periodically check and see how bad my alma mater (The University of Texas at Austin) is whupping-up on the little school down in College Station. Even then, my interest is not such that I would actually sit down and watch the game.

Several years ago, I was walking past our school's ball fields. It was summer, and Little League was in full swing. I heard one of the coaches yelling at his young charges, trying to motivate them, I suppose: "It's not all fun and games out here, you know!" Oh really, that is what I thought it was supposed to be. Therein lies the whole problem, in my view.

The meshing of our sports mania with religion has always baffled me. Years ago, one of my very oldest friends--too clever by half--commented on the mad rush among Southern Protestant churches to build basketball gyms. He called it "sweatin' for Jeezus." I continue to find the remark applicable to so many situations.

Recently, a golf pro won some tournament somewhere, and in his acceptance speech, he said he "gave all the glory to God." That is well and good. But glory is one thing. Hitting a little ball with a stick into a hole for money is something altogether different.

Back in my Protestant days, we were in the habit of closing out Wednesday night services with a devotional message. Indeed, it was almost an unwritten creed that you could not have a Wednesday night service without such. Anyway, one of the leaders of our little church was fond of using inspirational, hut-hut, locker-room motivational stories on these occasions. I remember sitting in the pew, wondering what in the hell any of that had to do with our faith, failing to grasp the least bit of significance any of it had to the real questions of Christian living. I saw it all as just insipid, superficial fluff, a cheesy refashioning of Christianity along the lines of our Southern sports culture.

We once had a preacher who delivered a Sunday night sermon using hunting analogies. He walked up to the front of the auditorium in hunting cap and vest, carrying a rod and reel, shotgun and other hunting props. I remember sitting in the pew, cringing in embarrassment and thinking to myself: "Just don't lay the shotgun on the communion table. Just don't lay the shotgun on the communion table." He did. That preacher didn't last long. But apparently, his only problem was that he was just a little ahead his time.

This Sunday morning, I caught a bit of the televised broadcast of our local Baptist megachurch. Their new auditorium--nicknamed by some cynics as the "Baptidome"--seats 3,400 and it takes 3 back-to-back services to handle the crowds. The church's parking lots have quite literally consumed what was once one of our cities prettier neighborhoods. Buses are needed to taxi worshippers parking in the more remote lots. Membership here carries a lot of weight in this town, and has the reputation of being where you need to be to do business around here.

But I digress--back to this Sunday's service. The church has a full-fledged orchestra to accompany their praise team. They opened with a peppy song of some sort. I don't remember exactly what it was, I just remember there was a lot of clapping and bebopping around. And trumpets. These are not your father's Baptists. Then the preacher came out--dressed head to toe in a full baseball uniform and cap, carrying a bat and a ball. His entry set off lots of laughter and clapping. Who knew worship could be so, well, fun. This get-up was to inaugurate their new series called "GSPN." Get it. Obviously, this is inspired by ESPN, which--I am told--is an all-sports network. The preacher explains that the GSPN stands for God's Spiritual Player Network. He goes on to detail how the purpose of this program is to make every member a "spiritual player." Next week, there will be Bass Pro theme, where the lesson will be on "God's Fishing Tips." The following week will be golf-themed, "Keeping it within the Fairway." After that would come the football sermon, but by this time I couldn't watch anymore. Years ago, I thought our preacher's hunting sermon was sappy and silly. This is much worse. Don't ever think that things can't go any lower.


Milton T. Burton said...

Don't you know that anybody who don't support the local high school team ain't nothing but a pinko commie terrist and probably a degenerate sodomite as well? Why down here, sports is the litmus test we use to separate the sheep from the goats. All right-thinking American Christians love sports, Rotary, bidness, and the PTA. Get with the program!!!!!

Milton T. Burton said...

On a serious note, the idea that the Creator of this universe would become a mewling, puking piece of protoplasm in the innards or a young girl and then suffer a filthy and humiliating death to redeem His people is deeply fightening. The most frightening idea ever presented to mankind, in fact. What it calls us to be and do, no one can come up to. That is why there has always been this urge to make it more mundane and therefore more emotionally acceptable. Jesus as coach is more cuddly than Jesus as King. After all, kings have been known to say, "off with his head." They rule while coaches encourage.

Anonymous said...

GSPN?? Wow!

As I am wont to do, last week I watched--via the internet--the worship service for the congregation in which my wife was raised. The preaching wasn't bad; however, near the beginning of the service, after the first praise-anthem, they incorporated a faux newscast to deliver the announcements, consisting of the youth minister sitting at a newsdesk with a picture of downtown Austin in the background.

Really: must we?

Anonymous said...

By the way, it is obvious from the theme of the series that the Hooterville Baptist Church is attempting to appeal to men. (I wouldn't doubt the football message to be replete with cheerleaders and beer commercials.)

Do you think this stuff really works?

Dixie said...

GREAT post...I particularly liked the appropriateness of the photos of the Jesus sports statues. EEECK!

Our priest's early teenaged boys and their friends attended a large (for the area) Baptist church youth revival this past weekend. All of their friends from school were there. There was a great band. Lots of energy and enthusiasm and, of course, the altar call finale.

Presbytera asked the boys what they thought about it and their first comment was that it wasn't like worship at all but rather it was like entertainment. From the mouth of babes! It took me 45 years to figure out that worship wasn't about me being entertained!

We are also a non-sports family...with the exception of my husband's proclivity for watching formula one racing. It's the sounds that grab him in! :)

Anonymous said...

Bravo, from a fellow clueless-as-to-the-appeal-of-sports person. Those Jesus sports figurines are one of the most repulsive things I've ever seen, I don't EVEN want to know where you found them. What baffles me about the mega-churches and their sports programs/youth blowouts/etc. is that there are hurting people all around them - homeless people, abused people, drug-addicted people, in other words *the people whom Jesus would be preaching to if He were here* - and they are all holed up in their megaplexes bouncing balls. WWJD, indeed.

Terry (John) said...

Milton--"kings...rule while coaches encourage." Well said.

Kirk--"Really: must we?" Apparently, we must :)

"Do you think this stuff really works?" No. Not at all in the long run, and not in any meaningful sense in the short term.

Dixie--re: entertainment. As an outsider looking in, it is amazing just how much of it is pure entertainment. The praise worship is unabashedly so, and now it seems the sermon must be an entertainment show as well. This has long been the rule in so many of the undenominational churches in the U.S. But this example is in THE mainstream Baptist church in a city of 100,000+ people. And Kirk's example is also from another mainstream church. So this is now normal operating procedure, across the board, or at least for churches of a certain size. And all the stops seem to have been pulled--there's nobody there anymore to say you've gone too far.

Mary--you are Dixie are right on, the Jesus sports figurines are the tackiest things I've seen in a looong time. Although I don't know where they originated, I know some of them, believe it or not, are marketed on I came across one of them on some woman's collection of kitsch. They were right next to the "anatomically-correct" ceramic frogs. Ha!

Your closing comment about "being holed up in their megaplexes bouncing balls" is one I will definitely hang on to!

Steve Robinson said...

As one of our church hopping Orthodox converts once said, "The only thing you'll find different from mega church to mega church is a better lead player in the worship band." sigh.....worshiptainment.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget how Arius gained many of his followers. Clever one liners and catchy tunes. It was cool to be a follower of Arius. So who's going to be our Athanasius or Basil of the 21st century and get these guys to shut it? (In the spirit of piety and humility of course. Of course. Yes.)

Ranger said...

I think that sports is just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to trying to mesh our lives in Christ with pop culture. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard John Maxwell quoted in protestant sermons. They are all leadership quotes, because after all, that's what Christianity is all about. Archaic ideas such as serventhood certainly will not reach the masses.
One of the most used books in my old church for couples counseling is His Needs Her Needs. Which has absolutely nothing biblical in it, and I would argue that it completely counters the biblical view of relationships found in Philipians chapter two. Can you imagine a troubled marriage seeking counseling, and instead of being directed to a Christ centered self-negating relationship, they are directed to contemplate the age old (worldly) question of who is meeting whose needs.
My last service in a protestant church was almost as horrific as the "gun on the communion table". We walked into my former church a few weeks after becoming catechumens and there on stage (what some may refer to as an "altar") were two motorcycles, and yes that day they were serving communion beneath the stage. It was a definite contrast and it certainly solidified my convictions that I was not a protestant anymore.
P.S. I can't remember how I stumbled on your blog but I enjoy it immensely:>

Milton T. Burton said...

Folks, let's get our terminology straight. Christianity is divided into the Roman Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant comunions, of which there are only three families: the Lutheran bodies, the Reformed of Calvinistic bodies (read Presbyterian here for this country) and the Anglican Communion. Properly speakng, only the churches organized in the sixteent century in porotest of the Church of Rome are called Protestant. The proper terms for Baptists, Church of Christ, Nazarne, etc, should be either "dissenters" or "nonconformists," meaning they do not conform to or dissent from the three major groupings. This terminology was once fixed in this country, and it is still meaningful.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy was its physicality. Every Sunday, the Divine Liturgy is a real experience. We see, smell, hear, taste and touch the Kingdom of God on earth. We bow and venerate. We partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. We enter into the Kingdom in a very real and tangible way. And I'm okay with essentially the same workout every week. It's what gets me in shape.

Conversely, if all that awaits me at church is a mental or emotional experience, it had better be a darned good one, and certainly not the same episode from the week before.

Church is supposed to be exercise, but it has become cable tv.

Milton T. Burton said...

Re Modern Mega-Church Services: "Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the taste or intelligence of the American people." -- H.L. Mencken

Anonymous said...

Teri Anna wrote, "Conversely, if all that awaits me at church is a mental or emotional experience, it had better be a darned good one, and certainly not the same episode from the week before."

...which is why worshiptainment will ultimately fail: they won't be able to keep topping themselves.

Terry (John) said...

Ranger, thanks for stopping by. Your story about the motorcycles is one for the books too. What was their significance? Revving-it-up for Jesus?

Anonymous said...

The worshiptainment of today's evangelical mega-churches reminds me of the crowds that expected Jesus to perform miracles. They came looking for a show, not a Savior.

Terry (John) said...

Milton, I am going to differ with you a bit about the proper definition of "Protestant." Very strictly speaking, you are correct. But in practice, I believe it is a distinction without a difference. I am guilty of the sloppy use of the word Protestant. But I do so on purpose.

All dissenting churches formed in dissent from one of the 3 major Protestant groupings you mention. All are products of the religious milieu that Protestantism inaugurated. All accept the basic Protestant presuppositions that set them apart from the Catholics and Orthodox. All are either the children, or stepchildren of the Protestant Reformation.

Back in my CoC days, it was confidently proclaimed that "we were neither Catholic nor Protestant, we were just Christians." And yet, our whole way of looking at God, ourselves, the Scriptures, the scheme of Redemption, etc. was Protestant to the core. I held my counsel and never made a big deal about it, but just saying we weren't did not keep us from being Protestant. Even though the CoC likes to pretend that they just leap back over history to the 1st century, the bottom line is that if you trace all dissenting churches back in time, you end up in central Europe in the early 1500s.

Also, thanks for the Mencken qoute--he is truly one of our national treasures.

Terry (John) said...

Teri Anna and Kirk, you have hit on something. There really is something to the physicality of worship. And even though the Liturgy is much the same thing every week, it is never stale, never rote. Perhaps this is because we are engaged in worship, with all our senses, and not spectators to a show. In my old days as a Prot., I remember brainstorming with the preacher as he sought to come up with something "fresh" each week--what a burden, and what a recipe for failure. As you say, in this scenario, each show has to be better than the one before.

Ranger said...

I looked on line for My former pastors sermon notes. the answer is kinda long, so I will just email it to you.

EricW said...

John said:Next week, there will be Bass Pro theme, where the lesson will be on "God's Fishing Tips." The following week will be golf-themed, "Keeping it within the Fairway."

You weren't kidding:

How to Make it Safely Home
David Dykes

Fishing Tips from the Master
David Dykes

Keep it in the Fairway
David Dykes

It's All About Reaching the Goal
David Dykes

Welcome to GSPN! During this series I’m going to be using sports as a platform to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ. The other messages in this series are: (1) “Fishing Tips from the Master;” (2) “Keep it in the Fairway.” Then I’ll conclude the series with a message about football entitled, (3) “It’s All About Reaching the Goal.” ...

Today we’re going to talk about baseball, the sport that has been called America’s pastime. Of course, you know baseball is mentioned in the Bible. The Bible says in Genesis 1:1, “In the big inning God created the heavens and the earth.” God only needed six innings to create everything there is! And God is still the God of big innings!

- - -

Get free transcripts here!

Green Acres Baptist Church

Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin' is the life for me.
Land spreadin' out so far and wide.
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

Anonymous said...

Orthodox Christianity is where I'd rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hair spray.
I just adore a church that has no pews;
Darling, I love you, but give me saints and martyrs, too!

Terry (John) said...

Jacob and Kirk--too funny. My cousin Selma--a Mobile Southern belle of the first order--once told me: "What a clever, clever boy you are!" (For proper effect, pronouce all "r's" as "h's".) She would have really gone for you two!

Anonymous said...

What . . . no hockey Jesus? I am deeple disappointed!


magda said...

Not to disagree with you about the way things are frighteningly presented, but athletic references are all over the New Testament: "Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1 Cor. 9:24-25). Of course, they're talking about buckling down and getting serious about what you do, not about how you feel.

I especially enjoyed Fr. John Moses' article: Orthodoxy and Football, which, though admittedly not your cup of tea, might still make you smile, or better yet, think.

~Presvytera Magda, whose husband is too athletic even for her.

Terry (John) said...

Dear Prevytera Magda, thanks for your input and the link. I did enjoy the article, "Orthodoxy and Football," but as you say, it's not my cup of tea. I guess I've been burned too many times by sports analogies.

You are absolutely correct, St. Paul makes great use of athletic references--that whole "buffeting our bodies" thing. Maybe its just my prejudices, but I've always drawn a distinction between athletics and "sports." In my view, athletics harkens back to the Olympics, and sports harkens back to the Colesium.

Milton T. Burton said...

The real point is that we have two much of this sweat for Jesus crap in this country; far too many people who want to wrap the Gospel first in a football jersey then in an American flag; and too many fools who equate excellence on the playing field with excellence of character--which people still maintain despite the numerous college athletic scandals involving both stimulant drugs and steroids. Enough already!! as my Jewish friends say.