(Yesterday, I began a series of blog posts on how a book on soccer, Soccernomics, can teach us much about the American church.)
England is the birthplace of soccer, has the most popular soccer league and yet finds itself in recent decades failing on the global stage of soccer. Soccernomics highlights that England is in denial of this reality and finds ways to be disappointed in assuming their team will come out on top in the next World Cup. As the authors analyzed it though, you can bet on England falling short in Rio.
Soccer has become the most popular global sport. We can largely thank the British colonization for this, though it didn’t take off in America, as we hated all things Britain after our independence, but have recently returned to our anglophile ways. Despite originating in England and have the English Premier League, soccer’s dominance has found a home in continental western Europe, from the world’s greatest players, most obsessed fans, and even the style of soccer.
How could this be? How can the birthplace of soccer not remain the most dominant force in soccer? Soccernomics highlights that this is the result of England lacking and at times neglecting a diverse network in proximity, which influences the spread of ideas.
Diverse Network in Proximity: How Ideas Spread
In analyzing England soccer’s decline, Soccernomics highlights the benefits of a broad, diverse network to learn the latest best practices, be inspired to expand on those practices, and then spread your own ideas just as quickly.
“Just as the brain works by building new connections between huge bundles of neurons, with each connection producing a new thought, so we as individuals need to find ourselves in the center of the bundle in order to make more connections.
Networks are key to the latest thinking about economic development. Better networks are one reason some countries are richer than others. As it happens, networks also explain why some countries have done better at soccer than England. The country was too far from the networks of continental western Europe, where the best soccer was played.” Soccernomics p. 24
The spread of ideas from a diverse network in proximity can shape the status of a soccer team, but also an economy and an organization. This happens most effectively in Western Europe.
“Western Europe excels at soccer for the same fundamental reason it had the scientific revolution and was for centuries the world richest region. The region’s secret is what historian Norman Davies calls its ‘user-friendly climate.’ Western Europe is mild and rainy. Because of that, the land is fertile. This allows hundreds of millions of people to inhabit a small space of land. That creates networks…
For centuries now, the interconnected peoples of western Europe have exchanged ideas fast. The ‘scientific revolution’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could happen in western Europe because its scientists were near each other, networking, holding a dialogue in their shared language: Latin…the proximity of many thinkers in western Europe created an intellectual ferment. That is why so many of the great scientific discoveries were made there. These discoveries helped make the region rich.
Centuries later, soccer spread the same way.” Soccernomics, p.25-26
The authors go on to discuss how the proximity led to two world wars, but following World War II, the region again began to share ideas quickly, especially for soccer. The world’s best players and best coaches were packed together in Western Europe leading to the best soccer being developed and refined there.
A World Cup has not lacked a western European country in the finals in almost 50 years and the majority of the World Cups have been won from those countries over the same time period. They are great at soccer and their diverse, dense network provides that success.
What does this mean for the American Church?
Often the church has been close-minded to a broad network, limiting who we will listen to by determining our denominational boundaries and refusing to listen to others with a filter. My generation of church-goers (though shrinking supposedly) is honestly tired of the denominational battles and prideful exaltation of secondary issues as primary.
The Christian blogosphere is a microcosm of that affect. A writer posts an article and apparently that’s a signal for forming into battle lines, choosing sides and fighting an online war that looks foolish to the outside world. Why have we decided to read everything without a filter and take an all-or-nothing approach to online bloggers?!? Am I the only one that thinks this is foolish?
Are we unable to read with a filter, extend grace in perceived errors like we have received from God in Christ?
There are a few main issues and hurdles that the American church needs to move beyond and then I can foresee partnership and the exchange of ideas that could move us forward.
Lacking Close-Handed Issues, Differing Theology is Seen as Heresy
The first I ever heard of close-handed and open handed issues was from Mark Driscoll (cue battle lines being formed). The idea being that Christianity has close-handed issues, fundamental issues that deal with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ability for someone to be saved through His life, death, and resurrection.
The open handed issues are things that differ between denominations, churches, and Christians. These are issues like baptism, though the Presbyterians & Baptists different in their theology, you won’t (for the most part) hear them claim the other is not Christian. There are issues of ecclesiology (how the church is structured) and missiology (what’s the mission of God’s people) that are also secondary, open-handed issues.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that even these that I have called secondary issues, are secondary for everyone. But that’s the problem. Christians have spent much time, energy, and money fighting over these issues while the world around us breaks apart with no effort from the church to help. I’m aligning myself as guilty here as well.
This is easily the biggest hurdle for many denominations and churches. An additional issues that needs to change must be the willingness to share ideas for the greater good. A number of churches and denominations draw unnecessary lines that prevent partnership. In doing so they assume this helps them, but it ultimately is killing the church. Only when we view the gospel moving forward as success rather than our church growing will this change.
The good news is I’ve started to see a change in the American church that gives me hope.
Partnering for Gospel Mission to Help The World
In New York, where I live, I’ve honestly never seen church unity like I do here. Pastors praying together regularly, encouraging transferring church-goers to reconcile or at least discuss their reasons for leaving before doing so, and seeking to learn from one another. I don’t see fighting between churches, I see celebration of the gospel and it gives me hope.
I see similar things at conferences like Verge. There was quite a diversity of theological distinctives at Verge, but a collective desire to make the gospel primary and learn from one another how to do so.
These types of partnerships display the unifying work of the gospel, not the unifying work of discussing unity. Jesus declared that our unity and love for one another will declare to the world that we are His followers. This also creates a willingness to freely share ideas in hopes of benefitting the larger community of faith beyond our church walls.
Not only are we failing at the declaration and demonstration, but we’re hurting the American church by cutting off a lack of new ideas that can fuel our mission to love the world. Our shrinking network that often lacks diversity of race, denominational affiliation, and methodology is matching England’s shrinking network of soccer ideas. We can follow England’s soccer slide to mediocrity if we continue to due so.
I highly recommend Soccernomics, you can buy it here.