As a kid I had a single bookshelf in my bedroom that served a two-fold purpose; the bottom shelves held books, while the top shelves housed a wide assortment of cheap, “golden” (yellow plastic) trophies. By the time I finished playing sports, there were easily fifteen or twenty trophies lining those shelves. The thing is though, aside from an “MVP” award in a roller hockey tournament in 6th grade and a Junior Varsity Conference tennis title, I never actually won anything.
The trophies that lined that bookcase were “participation trophies.” They were end of season awards that were gained by every single kid who made it through a full season of baseball, soccer, flag football, or whatever the sport of the season happened to be. While there was nothing overtly special about those little trophies, I was proud enough of them to keep them on my shelf until I graduated high school.
As we know, participation trophies have been getting quite the bad rap here in the last few years. A 2012 piece from the Huffington Post diagnosed America with “Everyone Gets A Trophy Syndrome” and declared that this sickness promoted things like “ego inflation.” An article written in the Washington Post last summer went a step further and declared the 18-25 year old segment of our population “The Participation Trophy generation.” This, of course is not a new debate; it seems like every generation has some version of the “these kids these days” lament, but in the age of social media and the vicious 24 hour cycle of social and cultural commentary, once a phrase is coined that fits well in a tweet or Facebook post it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of it.
So let me come to the defense of the “participation trophy” by asking the question, when did the simple act of participating become something to belittle? It was Woody Allen who astutely declared that “80 percent of life is just showing up.” It seems that our society does not have an “entitlement” problem, but instead a “participation” problem.
Let us for a moment consider the numbers. According to PBS, in the 2014 mid-term elections only 36.4 percent of eligible voters actually made their way to the polls. This qualified as the lowest voter turnout since World War II. The Wall Street Journal reports that youth participation in organized sports decreased by four percent from 2008 to 2012 (it is not surprising then, that in 2012 it was reported by the Center for Disease Control that eighteen percent of children between the ages of 6-11 are classified as obese). The Economic Policy Institute estimates that there are currently 3,140,000 people in this country who would like to work, but for one reason or another are unemployed and not currently seeking a job. In other words, there are over 3 million people who are capable of working, but not participating in the job market. These statistics all have a common denominator; folks are feeling like their opportunities are limited, their voices are not being heard, and their presence does not make a difference. This is a serious problem.
And while this is true in the secular world, the same reality rings true for the Church. It is not groundbreaking to declare that membership and participation in the life of the Church is on a serious downward decline. This week, a new report from the Pew Research Center sent shock waves through Christendom with the news that the number of professing Christians in America has fallen to 70.6 percent. We now know that only 14.7 percent of the American population classifies themselves as Mainline Protestant and if the trends continue to hold, those numbers will continue to plummet.
The harsh reality is that we are in fact a people that are becoming less and less engaged in what the world has to offer. Even as opportunities for participation abound in every corner of every community we are choosing not to join in. This is becoming a systemic issue that is making it’s way into every element of our lives.
Take, for instance, our homes and our neighbors. Recently, my wife and I have been elbows deep into the process of house hunting and I have been dismayed at lack of homes that actually have a front door that is not recessed thirty feet or so behind the garage. Houses are now actually being built to limit necessary engagement with the outside world. They are built this way because this is what the market dictates because this is what we as consumers have declared that we desire. We have a participation problem.
So to what can we attribute this continued decline in participation? Have we as a society become so caught up in “winning and losing” that we have completely failed to celebrate the act of participating and engaging in a cause or activity no matter the final outcome? Have we become so goal oriented that we have ceased to honor the joy of the journey? Have we unintentionally (or not) fostered the belief that, if we do not “win” it is better to have not participated at all? Perhaps most importantly, have we ceased to simply celebrate the presence of one another? Is “showing up” not enough any longer?
This spirit of disengagement is not good for anyone or for anything. This continued trend towards isolation and apathy isthat now prevails amongst ALL sections of our population is not healthy, faithful, or sustainable.
So what do we do? We need to start encouraging and REWARDING participation. We need to start teaching our kids that there is joy in simply engaging without concern with the outcome. We need to stop trying to compare ourselves to our neighbors and start celebrating shared commonalities. We need to become less focused on making sure our political party of choice “wins” and start embracing the greatest freedom that we have; the ability to make our voices heard through our vote. We need to recognize that our presence in worship matters greatly and that no matter our “position,” the community of God is much more whole when we each are present. Our churches need to find new ways to celebrate and lift up the presence of each person who crosses over the threshold.
Maybe what we need are more participation trophies.