I admit it: I am not a sports person. Still, the Super Bowl has always been fascinating to me. It’s a vivid illustration of the human hunger to affiliate with greatness and desire to experience a sense of victory. We do it all the time, but it’s rarely as obvious as this day when people all over the country select a team to root for. If you are a sports person, then you know what I am talking about. Regardless of normal loyalties, you pick a team. If “your team” didn’t make the cut, you either root for the guys who are geographically closer to your team, or you root for the team you hope will clobber the team you hate more. You declare your affiliation, and may even purchase a team jersey to demonstrate your affinity with this team. Like magic, you, like thousands of others, have joined the team. How do you know you joined the team? Do you attend football practice? Lift weights? Run plays? No, you show that you are part of the team by celebrating the people who do those things. Houses and cars are decorated with the team’s colors and logo. Facebook and Twitter are clogged with comments like, “We’re gonna wipe the floor with you guys,” “Yeah! Made it to the Super Bowl!” “No! Come on, Ref! You’re killing me!” Exchanges sound like every person observing is right there on the field, fighting for life. After the game, if you rooted for the losers, you dejectedly clean up your party, muttering your frustration about the refs’ calls, the foibled plays, the bad weather. If, however, you rooted for the winners, you join the tens of thousands who descend upon the streets and explode all social media with your excited gloating over your victory. “WE WON! We won the Super Bowl!”
Really? YOU won? Because from here, it looked like maybe 60 guys (including all the ones on the bench) actually won. Maybe if you include the managers, the guys with all the earpieces and matching team uniforms yelling at the sportsmen, and the people who help with practices, you could get up to, say, 150 people can take direct credit for the win. So how does this claim of victory extend to reach thousands, or even millions, of people? Aside from owners and sponsors, only one way: Association. You may be a computer programmer, or a secretary, a scrawny middle-schooler or a middle-aged man who has been putting off his next morning workout for years, but when you affiliate with your team, you get to claim a victory that has nothing to do directly with your actual life. They do the work, they play the game, and you get to “win” because you like them. You’re with them, and you have the jersey to prove it. Pass the beer and Doritos. You won, right there on your couch. Association is a powerful thing.
What does this have to do with our theology – or more directly, with our sense of mission and calling as followers of Jesus? Maybe more than you think. I was sitting in a church service recently. The congregation had several thousand members and beautiful grounds. Even more impressively, the church had an active ministry to the homeless in this urban setting. During the offering – which was to go exclusively to their ministry to the poor – the pastor shared, “We feed 1,000 homeless people each week.” Impressive. That is no small feat, and I was deeply moved that the church was intentionally trying to reach out in meaningful ways. But then I looked around. I couldn’t help but wonder who “we” really was. Easily 5,000 people were in that service alone, and there were at least two other services that same day. Taking away the visitors, still several thousand people called that congregation home. Some small team was clearly pulling the bulk of the weight… yet everyone who attended – especially if they contributed a dollar or two – gets to claim that they are “feeding 1,000 people each week.” In Western churches, leaders talk about the 20% of the people who do 80% of the work. They work with the kids, feed the poor, help the elderly, visit the hospitals and prisons, reaching the lost and making disciples, even go to exotic places to serve people in abject need. And all the other people who simply wear the same team jersey are legit. They are alive. We can tell – not because they are actually doing what Jesus commanded them to do, but because they claim the “team” as their own.
Whether we are the doers or the jersey-wearing affiliates, how does the way we do church create and foster the Super Bowl effect? As leaders, we want to lead something alive – which means our people need to be actively engaged in mission. But we also may feel implicit or explicit pressure to demonstrate life by size. Are we sometimes too anxious to make the church look both big and active that we make it too easy for people to come en masse, watch the game, and walk away with a false sense of spiritual vitality by association? What if we measured a church’s life exclusively by how many disciples are actively on mission? What if we measured our own life that way?