I used to be in a fantasy league, but the fanaticism of the whole thing wore me out. The guys would gather online for an evening-long draft event, debate rules ad nauseam and haggle over trades through the wee hours. I considered myself to be a fan, but these guys had practically made, well, a religion out of fantasy sports.
I was reading a piece today by Bruce Reyes Chow about what we Christians might learn from fantasy sports, and it got me thinking. One of the most interesting things being in the fantasy league did for me was that it totally changed how I watched the games. I would turn on games I never would have had interest in before, just to see how my selected running back performed. I even found myself rooting against my own favorite teams once in a blue moon when it served my fantasy team and didn’t affect the outcome of the actual game.
The whole experience drove my wife crazy, partly because of all the time it took, but also because the way I engaged sports was so different that, even if we were watching the same game, it was as if we saw two completely different things.
We’re in the middle of a similar kind of shift in the west with respect to organized religion. While folks within the walls of church may be intent primarily on keeping the institutions placed under their care alive, a growing majority of people outside the doors don’t really care about the denominational logo over the entryway, the name inscribed on the stone sign by the street or the long, rich history of all the congregation has meant to the community.
This is hard for those within the church to hear, but we really don’t need to take it personally. In fact, as we’re willing to shed those systemic identities and step outside of them to engage people on a more personal level, and in a context that doesn’t place others in an inherent power and knowledge deficit, most folks are more than willing to connect on matters of faith, justice and transformation.
They just have no interest in doing it the way we’ve always done it. And to be honest, those who cling to the prerequisites and identities of old as the basis for relationship and discipleship are automatically associated with a general resentment toward religious institutions and wariness about deeper underlying agendas. And rightly so, in many cases.
I’m not saying that we should set up actual religious fantasy leagues. In fact, some of the pick-and-choose appeal of such sports activities is that it makes the players yet another commodity for us to consume on our own terms and to construct a reality of our own design. While it’s fun, this also points to a trend in our culture that isn’t necessarily healthy. It’s one thing to apply such self-focused dynamics to entertainment; faith and social justice are, in themselves, about something bigger than just what we want.
So it seems there’s a gap between us, with the public on one side of the chasm, conditioned to expect everything to be custom-tailored to fit our personal needs or interests, while the institutional is on the other side, still wondering why the world doesn’t seem to accept Christianity as the cultural and social baseline for community and discourse. But maybe it’s not to much about those on the so-called “outside” getting to play fantasy church as it is incumbent on those of us within the systems to think more like fantasy team owners in our approach to ministry.
See, the key to building a great fantasy team is to set aside personal affiliations with any given team, romantic notions of what a player used to be able to do or was promised to deliver, yet never did. You have to take a long, serious look at what the needs are on your team and who can best fill those needs. It doesn’t matter where they were picked in the draft, which team they play for or whether you like the way they style their hair or fill their arms with sleeve tattoos. You reach across such lines to pull together the best group of people available to achieve your goals. Everything else is not that important.
We talk a good game in religion about “ecumenical” this and “interfaith” that, but in most cases we’re still driven ultimately by the desire to see our individual church or denomination (read: team) thrive. This places the larger goal, whatever it may be, in second chair to this aspiration. Sure, we want to achieve greater efficacy across these old lines and boundaries, but only in so much as we can keep things more or less as-is in our own back yard in the process.
The thing is, the rest of the world doesn’t care about the state of our back yard. They do care about the poor, the marginalized, their own sense of isolation, despair or unresolved hurt, the state of our global climate, human rights, war and the kinds of things we, too, claim to care about.
The harvest is plenty and the laborers are few, but it will take us letting go of our home turf to do much of the real work that needs to be done.