Is the Future of Church in Fantasy Faith Leagues?

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.

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  • the DOC church, among mainliners, the most capable of picking and choosing the “best” aspects while still being true to the mission and call of Christ Jesus. This may be no coincidence since the Disciples movement wanted to end fragmentation of Christians over petty things like worship style (funny how the Church of Christ and Disciples split over one such thing, though it was a symbol for something much larger).

    • Christian Piatt

      Isn’t it always, at least for those involved? The problem is those on the outside just see brokenness.

      • Brian P.

        Christian, would suggest a better wording. We on the outside see “incongruity.” We would love to see “brokenness” [of heart].

  • Tim McCoy

    Dear Christian. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I watched a piece on increased violence at NFL games last week. We were warned twenty years ago that the danger of post-modernism is tribalism. As you describe the church, it may have practiced that way before PM hit. My read is until the church understands it has been defined by a 300 year old scientific story that is manmade and a reaction then we will continue to live in the reality you depict. The world is one, and more intimately connected than we have ever imagined. The only thing that exists is the “Field”. Peace my friend, Tim

  • Brian P.

    Umm… Well… Uh… Yeah. This is just the way it is Christian. The nature of what you describe here, isn’t just contemporary to the age of fantasy football leagues. This goes way back and is the nature of how things have been described even in the canonical books. And yes, even those canonical books say things like that it should be this way and that we’ll know people by their fruit. In the current age though, where family and personal identities are much more loosely associated with any sort of denominational loyalties, one divide in this though has increased. This problem has kind of shifted from shared by pulpit and pew to one that’s left needing to be owned up pretty much only by pulpit. Over the last handful of decades pulpit (and in context of massive sociological change) has made us laity church shoppers and church hoppers. We’re now becoming more and more aware of pulpits’ inabilities to commune with each other, pray with each other, even talk with each other. For the laity, our solution is simple. We simply stop following those who care more about their turf gained than their own Christ-infused blood shed. Clergy’s welcome to be all grabby, grabby and try to grasp and keep whatever they can in their own backyard. Sure, knock yourself out. Just consider a) this may not be following Christ and b) we may not be following you; simply, you just may not make the draft cut for either of us.

  • SamHamilton

    This is good analysis, for what it’s worth. I’m glad to see the author acknowledging there are downsides to the modern philosophy of “this church congregation doesn’t satisfy my needs so I’m going to drop out of church until I find one that does.” It’s not about you! Congregations and denominations are made up of people; therefore they’re inherently flawed. The sooner Christians come to understand this and work to make them better as opposed to going on to found their congregations of one the better the universal Church will be.