In an article on religion and sport in the Washington Post, an interesting claim is made. Not the larger claim that Americans are more devoted to sport than religion these days, but the reason why--competition has declined in religion. They write:
In short, sports are succeeding by the measures that have traditionally defined success for religious institutions: regularly immersing people in a transcendent experience and keeping them ardently committed over the long term. It could simply be that faiths do not stir the same competitive passions they once did. Tolerance for other religions and acceptance of intermarriage have risen sharply since World War II. Both trends correlate with flagging religious attachments among many groups.
This may be a salutary change. Religious adherents once hung heretics, discriminated against dissenters and tangled with those of other faiths. Methodists defined themselves against Episcopalians; Catholics defined themselves against Protestants; Christians defined themselves against Jews; and vice versa. We are better for having put such interfaith hostility behind us. But religious institutions may not be.
As faith attachments weaken, sports fill a psychological and cultural vacuum. Rooting for the Sabres, Lions or Broncos — and against the Bruins, Bears or Raiders — allows us to display unwavering devotion. Team attachments license us to love and hate in the most dedicated ways. And happily for sports aficionados, these antagonistic feelings are largely contained within games. St. Louis Cardinals fans who saunter around Chicago’s Wrigleyville should expect some badgering, but not physical harassment or abuse.
Just last Sunday I preached about the need to create a strong community, yet one that remains universal in its outlook. I do think that one of the challenges in the contemporary church is creating this sense of community identity.
One of the advantages of the Open and Affirming church movement is that it did help to create this sense of counter-cultural identity and that your faith community served a particular purpose. As the larger culture now follows our lead, ONA churches will need to find other ways of structuring this sense of identity and mission. I believe that is one reason that the UCC shifted so much focus to the environment in 2013.