March Madness: What a fan and a foreigner learned from a basketball liturgy

In February last year, my best friend flew down from the Midwest for a delightful, week-long visit. While she was here in the Carolinas, I introduced her to one of my most favorite experiences in the world: a Division I college basketball game. The home team shall remain nameless, except to say that its arena now features a 2005 NCAA Championship banner.

Anyway, I was thrilled to have my friend join me and share my passion for an evening. It was her first major college game, so I made sure I explained as much as I could beforehand about what she could expect from the experience.

I could tell she was a bit overwhelmed when we entered the buzzing arena, but we soon found our seats and settled in for the event. As the horn sounded after warm-ups, the house lights were dimmed to focus attention on the court, and the players readied themselves for the opening tip-off.

For the next two hours, I stood up, sat down, shouted, sang, jumped, raised my hands, swayed, and clapped with 22,000 other devoted fans. I grinned as I participated in rituals and chants that had become so familiar to me over the years. And after the victory, I joined the band, the team, and the rest of the crowd in a devoted rendition of our alma mater, which ends with everyone lustily condemning our bitter rivals (appropriately named the Devils) to eternal punishment.

I was so energized, I barely noticed the chilly night air as we hurried to catch the park-and-ride shuttle. While we stood waiting outside of the arena, I turned and asked my friend, "Well, what'd you think?!"

"I wonder if that's how people who don't go to church feel the first time they visit somewhere," she replied.

My friend, who is also a pastor's wife, went on to explain: she had a great time; she likes basketball, and it was fun to watch the game. She enjoyed experiencing the emotion and enthusiasm of the crowd. Still, she felt like an outsider because she didn't know our "liturgy."

At first, I felt disappointed. I was so excited for her to experience the same thrill that I feel when I enter the building, greet friends on my way to my regular seat, and cheer the celebrities on the court during what is essentially a large-scale worship experience. But my friend's observation begs important questions we probably don't ask ourselves enough as ministry leaders:

-How do "outsiders" view our church if they're not familiar with the tradition, routine, and ritual?

-How do we treat newcomers? Do we look at them as "foreigners" or even "opponents" if they don't dress the right way or know the songs, the cheers, the physical expressions, and the lingo?

March 21, 2006

Displaying 1–3 of 3 comments


March 27, 2006  3:35pm

What a timely comparison! I, too, struggle with how to share my appreciation for liturgy with those who haven't been exposed to it - or who didn't appreciate it growing up. I have brought up the sports metaphor (in my world it is Ohio State football) and gotten shot down for being sacreligious. Maybe approaching it from the opposite direction - sports is a liturgy of sorts instead of appreciating liturgy is like being a sports fan is more easily understood.

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March 25, 2006  12:58am

Angie For those of us across the country and have minimal ability to attend Tar Heel games (though we do get to participate in the a lower form of BB liturgy), thanks for sharing.

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March 21, 2006  10:27am

Angie, You have touched on the struggle with liturgy. Liturgy as a wonderful God-breathed work of the people enables us to unite in our worship and focus on God in a way that forms us as individuals and as a community. And yet, when you first encounter liturgy, it can be so foreign as to remove you from any experience of worship or focusing on God. It makes you very aware of how much of an outsider you are. Conducting worship that is open for people who don't understand the liturgy of our services, without being so instructive as to lose its flow and beauty is a difficult task. I think the key must be what you touched on. If the community that the liturgy is born out of is open, welcoming, and gracious, then one will feel the desire to stay and learn and understand it. If the community feels exclusive then the liturgy has lost its power and significance. As a pastor in Chapel Hill, I am glad to say that I understand the liturgy of basketball very well. Blessings-

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