A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to go with him to a Cubs game. Now, despite the fact that baseball is about as exciting to me as watching paint dry, I had a good time. Not only do I enjoy my friend’s company, we spent most of the time talking about theology and church-related stuff. But as we were talking, I noticed that our conversation wasn’t the only thing that had a religious feeling to it: so did Wrigley Field.
With a 1pm start time on a Friday afternoon, you might have expected a slightly lower than average attendance (I did, at least). In fact, it was a sellout game (41,547), standing room only, despite being right in the middle of a workday. A good portion of the people there must have taken the day off or left work early. In terms of demographics, the crowd was significantly younger than what you’d find in a typical congregation on Sunday morning.
The level of devotion that can be seen at Wrigley these days is hard to find. We’ve traditionally used the phrase “religious devotion” to indicate the highest degree of dedication to something, but more and more people seem to be finding their spirituality in stadiums instead of sanctuaries. In a 2014 Washington Post article, Beneke and Remillard write,
“American sports fans have forged imperishable bonds with the people, places and moments that define their teams. You might even call this attachment religious.
But that would be unfair — to sports.”
The average Cubs game draws an average of 38,842 fans. Compare that to the average weekly attendance at U.S. congregations, which is less than 100. There seems to be an inverse correlation here between an activity’s significance and how much we’re willing to sacrifice for it.
For most people, it’s harder to go somewhere at 1pm on a Friday afternoon than at 9am on a Sunday morning. Yet, the same generation that is ubiquitous at Wrigley is mostly absent from worship. They’re still getting their religion, it’s just not from church. Fierce loyalty, ritual, and sacred space are all central to the fan experience. Beneke and Remillard go on to say,
“Modern sports stadiums function much like great cathedrals once did, bringing communities together and focusing their collective energy. This summer, the Archdiocese of New York is expected to outline plans to close or merge some of its 368 parishes; 26 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have ceased operation. By contrast, the city and the state of New Jersey spent hundreds of millions to build new baseball and football stadiums.”[iii]
Non-churchgoers will often tell you they don’t need to go to church because they “can pray anywhere.” At least we know where they’re doing all that praying.