Yesterday I attended a baseball game with my family, and I found myself pondering again a comparison I’ve often heard made by preachers between corporate worship and sporting events.
“Look at how excited and enthusiastic everyone is,” they observe. “If we can get that excited about sports, we should be even more enthusiastic about God in worship!”
So goes the common admonition.
There is some truth to admonitions based on such a comparison, but I believe that an unqualified comparison like this is misleading at best and destructive to a biblical understanding of worship at worst.
There are truly several ways in which such a comparison is true and helpful:
There is an amazing sense of community at a baseball game. These are not individuals coming together for private experiences. Likewise, corporate worship should be, well, corporate rather than simply a group of individuals seeking some kind of experience.
Many sports fans are devoted to the game such that they dedicate considerable time and effort to memorizing stats, reading commentary, and supporting their favorite team financially. If we’re talking in terms of degree, then it is certainly true that our devotion for God should occupy much more of our time and attention than sports do for many fans.
The corporate singing at a baseball game is often stunning. I am frequently amazed at the number of grown men willing to sing at the top of their lungs (the flow of alcohol may be a contributing factor!). Anyone who insists that congregational singing in worship is a thing of the past is mistaken.
However, there are also some significant differences of kind between corporate worship and baseball games that must be understood:
We must be very careful to avoid measuring spiritual vitality by the intensity of physical expressiveness. (tweet this)
Most of the outbursts of enthusiasm at a baseball game are primarily visceral. There is a reason they play loud, driving music and frequently project pleas for more noise; these purely visceral stimuli create an atmosphere in which even people who know little about the game or couldn’t care less who wins are caught up in the excitement. Such goals in the context of corporate worship would be manipulative and would forego the necessity of worship in truth. Any expressions of emotion in corporate worship should be first rooted in the understanding.
Speaking of expression of emotion, it is not enough to address the objects of our expression when comparing baseball to worship. It is not enough to simply insist that our emotions expressed to God should be at least as intense if not more so than in a game. Part of the reason for this is what I explained above–most emotion at a baseball game is stimulated by visceral manipulation that is naturally more immediate and physically intense. But it is also critically important to recognize that the emotions experienced in a sporting event are different from those in worship not simply by degree but also by kind. My joy in God should not simply be more than my joy at a baseball game; it should be a different kind of joy. We must be very careful to avoid measuring spiritual vitality by the intensity of physical expressiveness.
It is quite true that the devotion some people give to sports puts to shame the devotion they give to God.
But at the same time we must be careful to recognize that a sporting even and a worship service are two very different events, not only in their object of devotion, but also in the very character of what is happening. We shouldn’t expect them to look or feel the same.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written several books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.