More people go to church this weekend in Australia than will go the footy.
Someone wrote that on Facebook this week as an encouragement to Christians in a hardening secular landscape.
I read it last year too, at around the same time, which, since footy is not my thing, must mean that the footy season is now in full swing.
That’s the statistic. I believe it. I believe it for last weekend. I believe it for this weekend. I am a true believer. More people will go to church this weekend in Australia than will go to the footy.
I believe it. With a few caveats.
I assume we’re talking elite televised footy such as the national AFL, the national rugby League, or the A League Soccer. The big stuff.
Not sure it is talking about every game of footy attended by everyone. Like the game in which 65 year old Grubber McGee has been coaching the under 15s since the drop kick was still a viable part of an Aussie rules games, back when the jerseys were woollen and designed to add 10 kgs to your weight in rainy conditions.
So is it all footy across all codes and all grades, and all churches across all denominations and sizes?
Are we comparing how many people went to “elite” church – think cathedral or megachurch?
Does the figure include how many people went to grassroots house-churches or that small struggling suburban churches that have Baptist in the name, but not the name of the suburb in front of it?
And what about the millions of Aussies who rarely get to a footy game, but who would drive over their grandmother on the way home with the hot pies to ensure they don’t miss the bounce down/kickoff on the big screen in the home theatre?
Or, for that matter, the huge arguments about when or when not cousin Claudia can have her wedding because it might fall on AFL Grand Final Day.?
I just assume people are not rushing in from their Sunday morning breakfast at the cafe, fighting for the remote control to get Hillsong TV on.
Which means, in the long run, it’s not about statistics at all is it? We all know what statistics are. They’re the third part of the unholy triumvirate of “lies, damned lies and…”
You see, it’s not about the numbers who attend any given event, it’s about the buy-in.
More than that, it’s about what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the modern social imaginary” – the way our modern secular culture understands itself publicly. What it permits as public square knowledge and what it relegates to private place opinion.
And the answer to the question of which is more influential in shaping our culture’s conversations and its loves, is not whether church attendance is higher on the weekend than football, but which of the two topics – footy or church – will be the common topic of conversation on Monday morning at work?
And that’s not a hard question to answer is it?
That’s why we don’t require six week programs to devise ways we can bring up the topic of football at work in a way that makes it sound casual and normal rather than merely a “sell”, or a “bait and switch” around the water cooler.
That’s why we don’t even have to raise the topic of football among our friends or work colleagues. That’s why they’re waiting to pounce and talk about it to us!
Come Monday it’s the air of the office as we walk in. Perhaps even on the desks of our colleagues in the form of scarves or crowing headlines cut from that morning’s paper.
It’s the social imaginary. It’s the water we’re swimming in.
It’s why football codes (take a bow Australian Rugby Union), are at the forefront of any social campaigns to shift or affirm the culture’s understand of race, sex, drink-driving, whatever, and church isn’t.
None of this is to say that we should see the statistic of equal attendance (at whatever level, elite or grassroots) as something completely insignificant and merely give a shoulder shrug and a “meh”.
After all the church used to be central to, if not the public social imaginary of Australia, then at least the wider framework upon which our nation is built.
But numbers do not equate with influence. Representation is not the same as reach.
Indeed one of the things pastors and churches are struggling with in general is the decreasing level of buy in by “regular” church attendees, in which the word “regular” now means twice a month. In other words the “reach” that church has with people who call themselves Christian.
It only takes a small hurdle; a change of start time for a couple of weeks; a change of venue due to a building problem; a Mother’s Day event, for numbers to plummet. Sometimes it does feel that fragile.
And it makes me grateful for the constant “turner- upperers” because it’s part of their framework. It’s been all too easy to be snide about such people, as if regular turning up is a sign that all is not well, and that people should be “doing more”, but turning up is the foundation of doing more. Plodding along isn’t particularly sexy, but it is necessary.
The weeks between the end of the footy season and the start of the cricket season in Australia are almost weeks of mourning as we scratch around for something to do, and even something to talk about!
Of course it’s not all about how integral church attendance is, is it? I can be a Christian by myself in these straitened times, can I not?
A missionary friend who works oversees in central Europe recalls how when he went to Yemen to visit other missionary friends, just getting to church itself was an ordeal. Separate cars for family members; a few changeover cars to throw people off the scent; arriving at the destination in small, undetectable groups; keeping the noise down once inside.
Not that we should long for an Yemeni type experience of hardship, but intriguingly in that setting in which no one can talk openly about going to church, everyone talks openly about religion.
You can’t have a conversation in the country of Yemen without the topic of God coming up. It’s as if God is central to the Yemeni social imaginary. Which, of course, he is. Don’t believe me? Then get into any taxi in Australia in which the driver is from a Muslim country and see how long you can go without a conversation about God.
And that’s what makes our experience of being a Christian, publicly in Australia, a challenge in an altogether different way to what it is in the likes of Yemen.
I wouldn’t swap the Australian experience of church for the Yemeni experience of church for anything, but I might give it a second thought if, alongside it, the Yemeni social imaginary rubbed off on Australia.
In missional church history (can’t believe I am saying that!), the answer was for the church to get out to the places that the world was in and meet there instead.
So, for example, if the local remote control car club meets on Sunday morning, the church should not set up a Christian remote control car club, it should seek to be missional and join the local club instead and bring Jesus into that mix.
I’m all for not replicating activities in the wider culture with Christianised versions of the same, in the hope that non-churched people will come to our event (increasingly they won’t, if they ever did at all), but I don’t think that alternate solution has borne much fruit in the long run.
And part of the reason why it hasn’t worked is the sheer enervating manner in which the secular frame grinds down the social imaginary of the gospel and replaces it with the modern godless imaginary, that is deeply individualistic and hostile to the challenge of the values of alternate social imaginary such as the church.
I’m with Jamie Smith; the liturgies we practice shape what we love, and in these times, the gathering together on a regular basis with the people of God, over and against other activities that are running concurrently, is by its very nature a challenge to the modern social imaginary and its past-times, and it both shapes and confirms what we love.
Such a practice also equips us to live individually in the world in such a way that we can critique and challenge the modern social imaginary as we face it.
Our goal should not be to normalise church in order that a conversation about it in the office goes down as smooth as a conversation about football. In that sense all we have done is domesticate what we are doing, allowing it to assume its place in the subculture of things we get up to on the weekend.
Our aim should not be to normalise church as if it were our version of a sport event that runs parallel to footy, and is just as threatening as footy to our lifestyle. Here we were thinking that sport could be sport, when all along, as the Israel Folau incident has shown, it has become so much more. It is a vehicle to shape and direct our lives and loves far beyond a yellow oval shaped, or white spherical, ball.
Our aim is to refuse to domesticate church, to ensure it remains angular, and even slightly weird, in the face of what the culture values. To live in such a way that your social imaginary looks and smells different to everyone else’s.
To ensure that if someone is longing for water that quenches their thirst, they will sidle up to us and say “Pssst, what’s your secret?”, and you explain to them why three car rides, a secret location and a pack of Yemeni wild camels could not drag you away from meeting with the King every Sunday, in footy season and out of footy season.