March 21, 2006
March Madness: What a fan and a foreigner learned from a basketball liturgy
In February last year, my best friend flew down from the Midwest for a delightful, week-long visit. While she was here in the Carolinas, I introduced her to one of my most favorite experiences in the world: a Division I college basketball game. The home team shall remain nameless, except to say that its arena now features a 2005 NCAA Championship banner.
Anyway, I was thrilled to have my friend join me and share my passion for an evening. It was her first major college game, so I made sure I explained as much as I could beforehand about what she could expect from the experience.
I could tell she was a bit overwhelmed when we entered the buzzing arena, but we soon found our seats and settled in for the event. As the horn sounded after warm-ups, the house lights were dimmed to focus attention on the court, and the players readied themselves for the opening tip-off.
For the next two hours, I stood up, sat down, shouted, sang, jumped, raised my hands, swayed, and clapped with 22,000 other devoted fans. I grinned as I participated in rituals and chants that had become so familiar to me over the years. And after the victory, I joined the band, the team, and the rest of the crowd in a devoted rendition of our alma mater, which ends with everyone lustily condemning our bitter rivals (appropriately named the Devils) to eternal punishment.
I was so energized, I barely noticed the chilly night air as we hurried to catch the park-and-ride shuttle. While we stood waiting outside of the arena, I turned and asked my friend, "Well, what'd you think?!"
"I wonder if that's how people who don't go to church feel the first time they visit somewhere," she replied.
My friend, who is also a pastor's wife, went on to explain: she had a great time; she likes basketball, and it was fun to watch the game. She enjoyed experiencing the emotion and enthusiasm of the crowd. Still, she felt like an outsider because she didn't know our "liturgy."
At first, I felt disappointed. I was so excited for her to experience the same thrill that I feel when I enter the building, greet friends on my way to my regular seat, and cheer the celebrities on the court during what is essentially a large-scale worship experience. But my friend's observation begs important questions we probably don't ask ourselves enough as ministry leaders:
-How do "outsiders" view our church if they're not familiar with the tradition, routine, and ritual?
-How do we treat newcomers? Do we look at them as "foreigners" or even "opponents" if they don't dress the right way or know the songs, the cheers, the physical expressions, and the lingo?
-What does a visitor experience at church? It may be an excellent event in every respect, but the experience is still foreign to most people outside the church's walls.
-How do other people view us, the dyed-in-the-wool fans? To me, my cheers are an expression of my passionate devotion. But to the uninitiated, my loyalty can be viewed as fanaticism; to those who root for other teams, it can be construed as outright snobbery. Even when I know my team is better, is that the way I want people to think of me?
My friend's response to the game reminded me that at one time I, too, found my experience of basketball to be foreign. While I had a longstanding relationship with the game, I married into this particular expression of the religion. (And believe me, where I live, basketball is a religion, and it is a powerful influence in a marriage.) The colors were different; the cheers were new to me; the rituals rooted in the familiar, but on the surface strange. However, it didn't take long for me to adopt my new team to cheer as fervently as those who were born into this "faith."
Given time and a generous welcome, newcomers to the true faith, and our expression of it in our local congregation, will take the resident fans and the new locale to heart as fervently as those who have been there all along.
Interestingly, by the end of her visit, my friend had become a true-blue basketball fan. It didn't take her long to dress the part and talk the talk. Still, her experience - from our invocation (The Star-Spangled Banner) to the closing hymn (the school's alma mater) - served as an effective reminder to me: In the sanctuary as in the arena, everyone needs an intentional introduction to the liturgy.
Angie Ward is a ministry leader, pastor's spouse, associate director of the Innovative Church Community, and fan in basketball-crazy Durham, North Carolina.