Let’s get this out of the way at the start: World Cup month is the highlight of every four-year period. Yes, England will crash out, probably in embarrassing fashion, but to be honest who cares? Because once the emotional investment is tossed aside we get to watch multiple games a day featuring the best teams on the planet. Absolute bliss.
Now, some of you have read that paragraph and probably decided you’re not really interested in anything else I have to say about football. STOP. DON’T TURN THE PAGE. COME BACK! The rest of this article is not going to be a thorough examination of who England should start alongside Harry Kane against Tunisia on 18th June (Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, if you’re asking). Neither is it going to offer four ways to use the World Cup in your youth and children’s ministry (you don’t need a whole page for that: figure out what games will be popular in your area, invite the community, job’s a good’un). Instead, let’s take a quick look at what we can learn from the beautiful game, and how it might inform our ministry.
For the sake of transparency, I watch a lot of football. Probably too much, if I’m honest. Most of the football I watch is in person rather than sat on the sofa, and most of the games I go to are towards the bottom of the English football pyramid: non-league games. There’s one team at that level, Kingstonian, that takes up most of my football-watching time. After going along for a while, it became clear that the experience of watching games at that level is vastly different from those in the upper echelons of the game. At Kingstonian I’m a valued member of a community. My voice is, mostly, heard. I’m known and my contributions are valued. I know the board and the staff. In the Premier League I’m a consumer. I pay my money, I sit in my seat, I’m flogged pies, pints and a programme, and I go home. The mates I go with know me; that’s it.
We need to invite children and young people into a story that invites them to play a part and will keep them transfixed
The difference between the two levels is obvious to anyone who attends, but as someone who is passionate about building community among young people my mind was drawn to the parallels between the two. What could the Church learn from non-league football? Fortunately, I had a dissertation and research project to write… so I got underway. I assumed the answer would be obvious. The feeling and experience of community at smaller football clubs is stronger and more tangible than at bigger clubs, while the ‘experience’ (feelings of elation and transcendence) was a bigger deal at big clubs. I would then find that the same was true in churches. Small church = good community, big church = great experience. Bish, bash, (David) Bosch.
This wasn’t the case. What I found was that among football fans the factor with the strongest correlation to feelings of community was not the size of the club but the idea of some kind of shared narrative. Fans of clubs that were held together by some kind of story or struggle (such as Liverpool and the Hillsborough disaster or AFC Wimbledon having to reform) expressed much stronger feelings of community than other clubs of the same size. The buy-in these stories create – feeling like you’re part of a tale that’s gone on before you and will outlive you – that’s the thing that keeps people connected. The stories are even told in such a way that echo religious communities. Just as the Jewish people passed down the story of the Exodus as “while ‘we’ were still in Egypt”, football fans still talk about games decades after they have happened, sometimes even before they were born, in the same terms: “Well, our manager left halfway through the season, but we still won the European Cup in 1982.” Something about the ongoing, unfolding nature of those stories means you can’t miss the next game, even the next kick, because it might just be the moment we’re still talking about in 50 years’ time.
And so, yes, on the whole, smaller clubs did do community better than bigger ones, but this seems to relate to being known and feeling like a bigger fish in a smaller pond rather than any magic small clubs do better than big clubs. And yes, the ‘experience’ generated by big clubs does dwarf that of smaller ones. But for those of us in churches who are trying to create strong community bonds, the size of said community isn’t something we can control. Fortunately, that isn’t the principal factor. Instead, we need to invite children and young people into a story that invites them to play a part and will keep them transfixed. Which is exactly what we have to offer.
As part of its Youth Series, Grove Books has produced Football and Faith, a booklet that explores more links between the Church and the beautiful game. You can get a copy at grovebooks.co.uk.