My brother was thrilled when my siblings, our spouses and I agreed to join him for a Seattle Sounders soccer match against the Portland Timbers at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. After climbing up endless steps, we sat at the very top of the “Hawk’s Nest” bleachers. Even on a rainy, cold afternoon, the full stadium lit up with the Sounders’ colors. Fans donned green and white jerseys, jackets, hats and scarves, and waved six-foot-tall flags. The one exception was a rowdy section of Portland fans, who donned their team’s colors and waved their own flags.
This was my first experience at a live soccer game and it jarred me. Fan culture was the most intense I’ve ever experienced. It’s nothing new to compare sports fandom with religion, so I won’t rehash how clearly I witnessed the religious fervor of the game’s fans, or how the game felt like a worship service. Instead, I came away pondering what it’s like to witness a religious experience as an outsider.
I’m not an outsider when it comes to Christianity. My dad is a retired Presbyterian pastor, so I literally grew up inside the church walls. I love our traditions — reciting the Lord’s Prayer together during every worship service, celebrating communion and memorizing the creeds. I value both the familiarity of traditional worship and the enthusiasm of contemporary worship.
But, let’s face it: All of the things I love about Presbyterian worship would probably appear really weird to outsiders, at least the first time they experienced something like everyone praying the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Breaking bread with Jesus’ words, “This is my body, broken for you,” is pretty strange when you think about it. And let’s not get started about how enthusiastic some Christians get when they start singing praise songs. This is not to dismiss or make fun of anything that we do as Christians. It’s only to say that the traditions we assume as normal probably don’t seem normal the first time someone experiences them.
Back to the Sounders’ game: At other sports events I’ve attended, when the players are announced, people cheer. That was what I was prepared for. I wasn’t prepared for fans screaming out the last name of each player after the announcer read the first name. I wasn’t ready when the announcer said, “scarves up!” and all the fans lifted their Sounders’ scarves outstretched. And when I thought I couldn’t get any more confused, people started clapping in rhythm! They lifted their hands in a clerical blessing and then did what my brother calls a “Viking clap” or, as Sounders’ fans put it, the “boom, boom clap.” My brother didn’t warn me about any of these traditions. And so, as fans called out players’ names, lifted their scarves and did a clapping salute, I looked around in utter disorientation. I was baffled yet embarrassed that I didn’t know what to do. I felt left out, but I wasn’t sure I really wanted to participate.
Now, I imagine that if I returned to a Sounders’ game (or, even better, to several Sounders’ games), I might begin to enjoy these traditions. They provide an outlet for fan enthusiasm and add to the electric energy in the stadium. I imagine something similar happening with church traditions. Once one knows the meaning behind the tradition and can participate in things like the Lord’s Prayer, then what was once disorienting can become meaningful.
So, how do you get people to stay long enough to absorb the traditions and make them their own? This is the question that haunts me. I have two quick wonderings. First, if I was truly passionate about soccer, I’d probably keep coming back to games, and I suspect something similar holds true for churchgoers. Passion for Jesus or an experience of God is what can keep us coming back to a disorienting place, until it becomes familiar. Second, I also suspect relationship has a lot to do with people staying in a religious environment, even when they are initially uncomfortable. I stayed at the game because I love my brother and wanted to get a taste of his passion for soccer. If we can establish relationships with visitors to our churches, and communicate to them that they are valued just as they are (even as disoriented outsiders), perhaps they will return.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.