(This is post 6 in a series of blog posts on how a book on soccer, Soccernomics, can teach us much about the American church. I took a couple of weeks off, but hope to finish the series soon.)
One of the most interesting chapters in Soccernomics focused on the difference between American football and British football (Americans call it soccer). Soccer has become the global sport, but American football remains America’s favorite sport with little influence throughout the world. This chapter forced me to reflect on the church as it seeks to influence the world for the good of the entire society. The approach of the church has largely mirrored the American approach to influence around the world, while it could follow and learn much from the British approach.
The spread of soccer as the global game also can be attributed to relational influence the British tend to use as the means for creating culture. The church has often aimed for positional influence in the culture and often finds itself on the losing end. There is much to learn from the British approach. The authors began describing the different approach of the British and Americans in fighting wars and colonization by quoting John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics.
“The United States has rarely even aspired to vast cultural reach. The country fought wars, but mostly tried to avoid creating long-term colonies… In Vietnam and Iraq, for instance, the aim was to “go in, do the job, get out.” Unlike Britons, Americans generally didn’t want to be in the business of empire.” Soccernomics p. 160
The authors went on to describe the British & American Army’s use of different tactics in working with local officials in the Green Zone during the Iraq war. These tactics reveal the different approaches to influence.
“We know an American lawyer who spent a few months working for the British government during the occupation of Iraq. In the “Green Zone” in Baghdad he noticed a difference between the way Brits and Americans operated. When American officials wanted an Iraqi to do something, the lawyer said, they would generally call the person into the Green Zone and if necessary “bawl him out.” Sometimes this strategy worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But the Americans summoned Iraqis only when something needed fixing. British officials worked differently, said the lawyer. They were always inviting the Iraqis in, for parties or just for chats, even when there was nothing in particular to discuss. This was exactly how the British had operated both in their colonies and in their “informal empire”: they made long-term contacts.” Soccernomics p. 161-162 Emphasis mine
Positional vs. Relational Influence
The contrast is in using positional influence vs. relational influence in culture shaping. The church is famous for culture wars, seeking positional influence to primarily legalize morality. It rarely works, when it does it alienates people and places a judgmental label on the majority of the church. It seems to be an inherited trait from a time where the church played a vital, and in many cases, helpful role in society. The church no longer finds itself in this position, she finds herself on the margins of society.
There has been a lot written about the culture wars and the majority written from my generation is tired of it. The next question is how to move forward. There continue to be faults in the response to culture wars and much seems to be a pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. Many seeking to have a voice in the culture compromise aspects of the Christian faith that have been held to since the beginning. In doing so, they sacrifice the benefits to society of Christianity they are trying to bring into mainstream culture. Still others dig their heels in and maintain the core tenets of Christianity, but adopt an us-against-the-world posture continuing in the war on culture despite poor results.
There’s another way forward for the church and there are great examples of people pursuing it. It seems to match the British approach to colonization and long-term influence.
Creating Culture that is Attractive
Before describing the Green Zone differences, the authors of Soccernomics discuss British colonization, specifically how sports and culture were shaped by the British for centuries in countries they no longer occupy.
“From about 1850 until the First World War, Britain was the sole economic superpower. As late as in 1914, Britons still owned about 42% of all the world’s foreign investment. The British expats who inhabited the informal empire represented the empire’s economic might. The men tended to work in the railways (like Charles Miller’s father in Brazil), or as businessmen (like the Charnock brothers, who set up Russia’ first soccer club for their mill employees outside Moscow), or as school-teachers (like Alexander Watson Hutton, the Scottish teacher who in the early 1880s introduced soccer in Argentina).
These people only had “soft power”: the wealth and prestige of the British gentleman. That was enough to spread their games. Men like Hutton taught foreigners to see sports as an upper-class and hence aspirational product. If you were a young man like Mandela who wanted to become a British gentleman, one of the things you did was play soccer… Soccer conquered the world so fast largely because the British gentleman was such an attractive ideal. A century later a new British archetype, the hooligan, in his own way probably added to the game’s glamour.” Soccernomics pgs. 159-160
The “attractive ideal” was so compelling that it created a long-lasting culture. The church has lacked in presenting an attractive ideal, but Jesus was very much the attractive ideal of his day. People traveled to find him, to be around him, to learn from him, and many to follow him.
The church today has a massive opportunity to create culture that aims to benefit society, enhance current cultural beauty, but also to redeem and heal the brokenness in our society. Only the church has the tenets, grace, and wisdom of God that shapes a culture for its full joy, concern for the collective over the individual, and sacrificial generosity of time, resources, and energy to long-suffer in caring for the poor, needy, impoverished, and orphan.
Now some may say, the British empire has lost its power, why should the church mirror it? Christianity was never about power or about creating a Christian political nation. It’s an informal empire that moves beyond boundaries to the entire world.
How Does the Church embody Jesus as the Attractive Ideal?
First, the church must shift its method of engagement with the culture. Similar to how the British army engaged in dialogue with the Iraqis, the church must engage in dialogue with the culture with and without an agenda. This type of engagement creates relationships and relationships are the context for influence and change.
Relational influence carries more weight, but the aim must be the relationship over the influence. Aiming for influence only is engaging as the American army, only when it’s time to fix something, but aiming for relationship allows for influence and cooperation to seek long-term benefits for all in a contextual manner.
Secondly, the church must begin creating good culture, not settling for a knock-off subculture. The Christian subculture has become a Christian ghetto walled off to the outside world, turning inward which leads to foolish battles. Creating culture is seeking to provide an alternative way in which society as a whole, not just those of similar beliefs, benefits.
The early church humbled the government in its care for the poor, sick, and those without a voice. The government would then ask them for assistance when interacting with this sector of society because their influence was about relationships and caring. The church must embody a holistic gospel that matches the lifestyle of Jesus and the actions of Jesus, returning to the consistent practice of church history.
When we do this, we create culture worth participating in and a great example of this can be found in artist known as Lecrae.
This month, Lecrae, a hip-hop artist who happens to be a Christian, released his latest CD Gravity. It currently sits at #3 on the top hip-hop albums two weeks after it was released and has been number 1 for the majority of these two weeks. It’s quality hip-hop/rap music and Time Magazine published a bio of him online and an interview in their latest print magazine in the culture section. The reason was that his music was really good while also contrasting the prevailing culture in hip-hop. It presented attractive ideals for culture and people responding by listening, praising it, and telling the world about it.
When the church creates a good culture, the world will listen. We follow the most attractive ideal in Jesus and when we live like Him in the world, our workplace, our neighborhood, and our city will benefit. They most likely won’t beg us to lead or give us power (remember that they did kill Jesus), but our aim is to bless others not ascend to earthly power.