I was raised to love football, which is really just another way of saying my obsession with it isn’t my fault. I was a young boy during the days of the Orange Crush, and I was glued to my TV set when John Elway led what is now simply known as “the drive.” He was equal parts Paul Bunyan, Johnny Unitas, and—dare I say it?—Mile-High Messiah.
I grew up between Colorado and Texas, but lived in the Dallas area when Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith were winning multiple Super Bowls together in the early 1990s. On certain January Sunday mornings, our pastor would shorten the worship services so our congregation could get home in time to watch the Cowboys play. Football was so ingrained in our collective imagination that it shaped the devotional life of our worshiping community.
My story isn’t exceptional. Many Americans—including American Christians—are obsessed with football. And though every week, hundreds of thousands of fans attend games at the temple—er, stadium—football is really a game made for TV.
Or, rather, it’s perfect for the whole range of media that comprise our contemporary convergence culture—games broadcast on network TV, streamed via the Internet, or watched in encapsulated form on NFL iTunes “game rewind.” In fact, the at-home experience is so compelling that the NFL is now making plans to retro-fit its stadiums with HD screens and interactive apps that mimic the home viewing environment, allowing fans to update their fantasy rosters and keep tabs on other NFL matchups while sitting in the nosebleed section.
TV and the NFL are inseparable. During the last week of October, Nielson reported that five of the top ten most-watched TV programs were NFL-related—either the games themselves, or pre- and post-game commentary about those games.
Apparently, Americans love football so much that we would rather spend our time watching people talk about a game that we just watched than do just about anything else.
This demands thoughtful attention from Christians. The NFL is, in a real sense, our civic religion. It has Sunday worship services, midweek Thursday celebrations, patron saints (Hall of Famers), and a liturgical calendar that begins with the NFL draft (in April) and ends with the Super Bowl (in February).
The NFL even has a robust small group network (Fantasy Football leagues) dedicated to studying every nuance of every play of every game. The catechesis process is rigorous, but the various avenues for inclusion are generous (notably, women are the fastest growing demographic of NFL fans). And the result is a profoundly football-literate community that is also devoted—yes, devoted—to interpreting the significance of this game for our life and the world.
Little else in our culture has so fully captured the American imagination and compelled so many people to orient their lives around it—and that’s not even counting the economic commitment that fans make, which has pushed the NFL’s annual revenue over the $9 billion dollar mark.
Some Christians might bemoan the situation, decrying the many ways in which our collective devotion to the false gods of the NFL is simply another form of idolatry—worshiping and committing ourselves to something other than the one true God. Others may join the chorus of cultural critics who are calling for fans to boycott the NFL for their poor handling of the prevalence of domestic violence among their employees, or their begrudging response to concussions, or their tendency to make decisions that only benefit its very small, very white, very male ownership.
These concerns are real, and we need to remain vigilant against the tendency to sweep under the rug anything that calls into question our blind adoration. But in our haste to criticize and condemn, we might be missing something.
Something meaningful is happening when people habitually gather with friends and family around a common experience mediated by a television screen that serves as the centerpiece of the American home. An impulse is hidden within this ritual practice that moves participants toward community. That impulse urges us to live a life marked not by disbelief and cynicism, but by passionate devotion (to our team) and hopeful possibilities (to our team’s Super Bowl chances). It invites us to celebrate the potential of God’s good creation, rather than lament its dysfunction and perversions. It suggests there is another reality just behind the world we see and experience each day.
That’s ironic, in a way. Our culture treats institutions suspiciously and thinks of “organized religion” as a vestige of a more superstitious time—or even as a detriment to society. But an entire industry has cropped up that functions as a kind of secular devotional life for the masses.
Because the NFL’s practices involve an ongoing ritual element, they indelibly shape everyone involved. That’s why Christians need to see the “church of the NFL” as an opportunity, rather than a problem. What if Christians dove into this meaning-filled context by actively participating in it as people who have been shaped by the Christian vision?
At the very least, this would involve activities like attending games and hosting gatherings in our living rooms. But let’s be honest, evangelical Christians are already just as involved in the daily life of the NFL as anyone else. What if we were more intentional than that? For example, what if Christians turned pregame tailgating into a conscious act of Christian hospitality, opening our table fellowship to a diversity of others—even those who may be fans of the opposing team? Or what if fantasy leagues managed by people of faith featured updates on the real-life struggles of its participants in addition to its roster updates, prayers of encouragement alongside intra-league smack talk?
In other words, what if Christians were the most faithful NFL fans?
If so, we would develop a greater capacity to articulate the gospel in ways that our contemporaries understand. By learning the language of the NFL, we would discover ways to connect God’s ongoing presence and activity to the passionate devotion, the communal drive, and the hopeful belief that defines much of NFL culture.
We would also serve as a critical presence in that world. True devotion is not “blind” devotion. As the prophetic tradition reminds us, the Christian vision is constantly aware of how power and position distort how we see the world. By involving ourselves in the devotional space created by NFL fandom, we could disciple people not only in what they are seeing, but more importantly, how they see. Christians have plenty of experience dealing with corrupt and corrupting leaders who prefer us to be distracted observers rather than engaged participants. By bringing the Christian vision into this public space, we enable NFL fans to clarify their vision.
So how do we respond to next week’s slate of televised football? Let’s try swapping how might we correct the situation? with how might God already be present and active in this situation? And then we can follow it closely with how might we participate with what God is doing there?
This approach certainly means we’d have to affirm practices that might not look or feel or sound much like the ones we have come to know and love within the Christian community. It might even mean that we occasionally forgo the safe confines of our Sunday morning worship and instead walk headlong into another kind of sanctuary devoted to a god who is not our own. That might make some of us uneasy. It should.
But given our post-Christian context, we must be willing to enter into this uneasiness, just as Paul did when he entered the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17). It comes with the territory of building bridges and forging alliances with those who will never darken the doors of our churches.
And who knows? This might also shape the way we structure our weekly worship services and midweek gatherings, our own “Super Bowls” (Easter?) and “Fantasy Football leagues” (seminaries?). Now that online sermons and digital devotional practices are everywhere, are we as thoughtful about the flesh-and-blood experience of Christian worship as the NFL is about its in-game experience? As a community that remembers God’s physical, embodied presence in our midst through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, have we at all considered what happens when the “at home” experience supersedes our “live events?”
There are plenty of other questions worth exploring. But we’ll never be able to address this or any related question unless we are first willing to discern the ways that God is moving in this televisual world and, in turn, to allow that activity to shape not only who we are, but ultimately, to whom we direct our devotion.
Kutter Callaway is director of church relations and affiliate assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. His book Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience (Baylor University Press) is on the theological significance of music in film.