BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church
I’ve seen numerous polls and surveys that identify Penn State sports fans as being among the most loyal fans in college sports. I’ve not experienced any other major college environments, but I’ve often said that standing in the midst of 110,000 raucous fans in Beaver Stadium is, by far, the most intense sports experience I’ve ever had, and I can’t imagine a greater one.
What is it that produces such commitment and loyalty to a sports team? One of central dynamics at work in the creation of a fan is the bonding power of sharing intensely emotional experiences together with the players, coaches, and other fans. The proverbial “thrill of victory” will create an attachment between people that can overcome a multitude of differences.
I was a teenager in the Pittsburgh area in the 1970’s when the Pirates won two World Series championships and the Steelers won four Super Bowls and a life-long allegiance was formed. Then I moved to Philadelphia in 1992 and worked hard to embrace the Philly sports teams. The Phillies went to the World Series the following year (and lost in heart-breaking fashion), but then followed 14 years of futility with few bright spots. But I’ll never forget a game late in the 2007 season, when the Phillies took over first place in their division on the way to making the play-offs for the first time since 1993. I was at the stadium that night, and as I walked out of Citizen’s Bank Park I saw amazing things – total strangers hugging and high-fiving each other; people beeping their horns and hanging out of their cars shouting joyfully to each other; and others waving flags and rally towels and declaring their eternal devotion to the Phils. And then a year later I stood and shivered with over a million fans, in a corporate act of emotional catharsis, as we watched the parade on Broad Street after the Phils won the World Series, and 25 years of frustration and championship famine in Philadelphia were washed away.
But the intensely emotional experiences that produce fans and bind them to one another don’t have to be positive ones. “The agony of defeat” can also produce deep attachments. How else do you explain Chicago Cubs fans?! The difference between suffering together through an excruciating loss in a big game and surviving front-line warfare together in a foxhole is only a (great) difference in degree, not a difference in kind.
This “bonding-through-intense-experience” phenomenon isn’t inherently good or evil…it just is; it’s human nature. But, in some ways, the process is amplified in ministry situations. I’d always heard about bonding effect of short-term missions trips, but until I joined the team that went to Turkey over a decade ago, I had no idea how strong that experience can be. You feel like you develop an intimacy with your team members that would normally take months or years to develop in other circumstances.
We all long for these kinds of deep connections with other people, and we try to develop them through superficial experiences, like sports events, parties, or hobbies. But, as Christians, we have a far deeper unity and intimacy available to us, through the indwelling spirit of Jesus Christ. These are the spiritual bonds that are most satisfying. But we need to share the gamut of intense spiritual and emotional experiences that happen when we worship and minister together – both good and bad experiences, the highs of celebrating conversions and changed lives along with the lows of persecution, grief, and disappointment in life and each other.
You can’t experience these kinds of relationships if you’re sitting on the sidelines of our church. If you invest little of yourself in the life and ministry of the congregation, you will receive little in the way of reward. Come to Sunday School. Stay long after worship for fellowship. Join a small group. Join a ministry team. Challenge yourself to stretch in the sacrifice of your time and talents for Christ’s kingdom, and see if you don’t begin to feel as though you’re part of the team… better yet, part of the family. And the closer you draw to God’s people, the closer you will draw to Him.
“…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” 1 John 1:3-4