Our Savior of the Soccer Pitch
Like many young families, our weekends in the fall are busy with soccer. We have four kids on three different teams. That means three practices and three games each week, mostly clustered on Friday night and Saturday morning. While the schedule is hectic, we love to see our kids play, and we track their progress year over year. (That said, we aren’t those crazy sports parents . . . although I will admit that my wife probably cheers the loudest of anyone on the sideline.) For me, my four kids constitute the only fantasy team I ever need to track.
Last weekend, we endured the dreaded annual ritual of soccer season: Team Picture Day. An hour before each of the kids’ games, we showed up at the local middle school cafeteria, where we waded through a sea of kids in different colored jerseys—not to mention parents hurriedly filling out picture orders—and reunited our children with their teammates under the glare of the photographer’s lamp.
But this year, what I’ve historically thought of as a nuisance (that’s putting it mildly) became part of what we like to call in our congregation a “God moment.” Why? Because over the course of last weekend, with its games, practices, and, yes, pictures, I ran into four different church members—all young dads—who are coaching youth soccer.
Put Me In, Coach!
Encountering those four men constituted a “God moment” for me because it represented so well what Martin Luther called our “ministry in daily life.” Through their coaching, those dads were using their gifts to help kids, families, and the community. And in doing so they were living out their ministry and holy calling in the world.
The idea of “ministry in daily life” is often affiliated with the notion of a “priesthood of all believers,” which insists that each of us, whether clergy or layperson, has a particular calling, or vocation, in life. But too often, people associate the “priesthood” with the collection of dutiful church folks who undertake jobs that the pastor or priest doesn’t have the time or inclination to do. When that’s the case, the “priesthood” becomes sort of like the second string of congregational life: it’s comprised of laypeople waiting around for a chance to show their virtue by helping out the “real” pastor.
In Luther’s original writings, however, “the priesthood of all believers” pointed not to all the helpers within parish walls, but to all the ways in which people can love and serve God and neighbor primarily outside the church. As Luther told his parishioners in a sermon from 1534,
See to it first of all that you believe in Christ and are baptized. Afterward, see to your vocation. I am called to be a preacher. Now when I preach I perform a holy work that is pleasing to God. If you are a father and mother, believe in Jesus Christ and so you will be a holy father and a holy mother. Pay attention to the early years of your children. . . . Oversee the running of the household and the preparation of meals. These things are none other than holy works to which you have been called. That means that they are your holy life and are a part of God’s Word and your vocation.
For Luther, there were no “second-string ministries.” Every Christian takes the field every day to make the Gospel real in the lives of their families, friends, coworkers, and communities. That includes the soccer team, the Girl Scout troop, the after-school tutoring program, and the myriad other vehicles that offer parents opportunities to extend their holy calling into the world around them.
I fondly remember the coaches that I had growing up and recall what important parental figures and role models they were to me. These days, with sports so important in my own kids’ lives and in our life as a family, I also recognize the time and commitment it takes to be trained as a coach, communicate with families, plan practices, corral energetic children, and sketch substitution schedules for the games.
So, at church this past Sunday I took a moment to talk about my little epiphany. I named the guys I had seen over the weekend, as well as a few other individuals I had learned are coaching. I thanked all of them and told them that what they were doing on those soccer fields was ministry—part of their ministry in daily life.
I swear I saw one guy tear up.
The Stigma of Sports
Talking about sports from the pulpit felt a little risky for me. After all, validating and lifting up the ministry of coaching is a far cry from the way that we often talk about sports in church, where “sports” sometimes becomes something akin to a dirty word. In council meetings and coffee hours across the nation, sports schedules are blamed for decreasing church attendance and interest in parish life—or seen as a symptom of a larger cultural decline. Clergy seem to almost love complaining about how soccer saps Sunday attendance—and they do so with nearly the same amount of passion that Philadelphia football fans exhibit as they revel in thrashing the Eagles. (Forget all that high-minded talk of being the city of “brotherly love.” There’s an old joke about football being the other Sunday sacrament—and Philly residents, recently voted the “most hated fanbase in the NFL,” understand that celebrating the sacraments isn’t for the faint of heart.)
Frankly, I think clergy just don’t like having to deal with competition—whether from sports, band, or anything else. During the era of American civic religion, clergy, ministry leaders, and congregations became so accustomed to the de facto non-compete clause between the church and culture that they now view twenty-first-century encroachments on their once-protected time as personal affronts.
Ministry leaders can portray sports as religion’s nemesis and insinuate that people who participate in them just don’t have the right priorities or value systems. But I want to suggest that it might not be the values of families involved in weekend sports or other community activities that demand scrutiny. Instead, if a kid and his or her family believe that sports is more beneficial than the church, maybe we need to take a hard look at ourselves and our ministries. Rather than going around casting judgment, maybe we should get outside our church buildings and go into the places where people are living their lives and enacting their own holy callings. Rather than sitting at church and pouting, maybe we should find ways to connect with and support families. (Even simple gestures, like publicly thanking people for their ministries in the world, seem to work well.) Maybe we need to leverage new community-building and learning technologies to connect with parents and children who cannot make it to church on Sunday.
Many families are, after all—despite clergy’s misplaced resentment—living out the Gospel in remarkable ways. In the midst of their busy and stressed lives, they are fulfilling the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In case you missed it, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he had nary a word to say about attending church and age-appropriate Sunday school classes every week.
During these times of numerical decline in church membership, we need a more expansive way of understanding what it means to be “church,” as Xochitl Alivizo emphasized in last week’s Bearings piece. We need new ways of identifying where and how ministry happens, and these new definitions of ministry may not necessarily boil down to numbers in a parochial report or spreadsheet. In short, we should acknowledge, celebrate, and support the rich and varied vocations of everyday life in our worshipping communities.
I often wonder: When we examine people’s quotidian (everyday) vocations, who else and what else are we missing? How can we look more closely at the “priesthood of all believers” as it plays out both within and outside our congregations? For, truly, the vast majority of our congregations’ ministry already happens beyond our doors—but we have to get outside to see it.