ATTENDANCE & The Relationship between Live Sports and Live Church. UK researchers discover sports-from-the-couch is less “inspirational.” Church too? #GrowingThePostPandemicChurch

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel. Some interesting research has emerged from the UK. It shows that sports fans who watch live a sporting event, have a more enthusiastic experience than those who watch the same game on TV. This may have ramifications for and parallels with the hybrid church (though the research on this is still inconclusive). Read the article to consider the ramifications.

The Relationship between Live Sports and Live Church

by Robert Ellis, The Christian Scholar’s Review, 6/4/21.

… A study by UK Sport in 2011 reported that there was a very significant difference in the “inspirational effect” of watching major sports events live in a venue compared with watching it on TV.3 One of their measures was the extent to which fans agreed or strongly agreed that they felt reconnected with the enjoyment of sport itself and also inspired to be more active and to take up sport or exercise. The difference is striking: 67% of those in the stadium reported this, compared to a meagre 28% of TV viewers. Watching sport “live” gave a greater affective impact than watching it on TV.

… Some aspects of sports fan experience are comparable with (or possibly a substitute for) the kind of experience women and men might have in the spaces of organised religion. I have suggested elsewhere4 that sports embody the “dimensions” of religion identified by Ninian Smart: the ritual, mythological, doctrinal, ethical, social, experiential, and material dimensions of religion.5 It is interesting to speculate, therefore, on the different kinds of impact of enforced sporting deprivation for fans and the deprivation of church going upon believers.

Consuming recorded worship services on YouTube or tuning in live on Zoom takes some of the heat out of Sunday morning routines for many people. Worshippers are as likely to be in their loungewear as their “Sunday clothes.” For some it is not just a question of being “pandemic-safe,” it has been so convenient not having to leave the house. Many sports fans say they long to be back in the stadium: as our churches begin to open up again we will find out how many churchgoers long to return and how many have lost the virtuous habit of public worship.

There is some initial and preliminary evidence (though “evidence” might be too strong a word at the moment) that suggests that a negative impact is being had on church worshippers. In a widely reported phenomenon (though perhaps still anecdotal in status), the digital natives’ millennial generation seem less enamoured of worship streamed on YouTube or Zoom than their older counterparts. David Kinnaman of Barna, a group specializing in research on religious practices and cultural interactions, believes that the loss of in-person worship in the pandemic has accelerated the loss of younger members to churches.6 But we might also wonder whether, by comparison with the UK Sport conclusions, the effect of Church-from-the-sofa is less inspirational than the experience of face to face worship. Might we speculate that the effects of church online are less powerful than our pre-pandemic experiences? The absent younger people testify to the importance of maintaining contact with the routines, practices, and faith reinforcement of church life. Without these, as any sociologist will know, plausibility structures crumble. But if sport on TV is less inspirational than its live counterpart, what of worship on a zoom-screen?

But we might also wonder whether, by comparison with the UK Sport conclusions, the effect of Church-from-the-sofa is less inspirational than the experience of face to face worship. Might we speculate that the effects of church online are less powerful than our pre-pandemic experiences?

It is interesting to compare these two deprivations. Discerning lockdown TV sports fans complain of a lack of “atmosphere” while watching (especially without the piped crowd noise), and some also miss the “close fellowship” of the bleachers and the liturgies of match day. Our experience of a football game is not simply the passive watching of an unfolding contingent contest, it is also the hot dogs and the songs, the sense of wonder of being in the same space as remarkably skilled protagonists, the coarseness and the closeness of the stadium seating.

… Listening to people who have been prevented from attending church in person over the last year it is interesting to hear what they miss. Fellowship and singing figure prominently among evangelicals. For others, the loss of sacramental life creates a huge void. The physicality of worship, and it is not just through the sacraments that we experience it, reminds us of the stadium experience and its game-day ritual. Right down to those annoying people who sit behind you, so easily avoided when we lounge on the sofa and “go to church” on You Tube, or watch the game on cable.

Read more at …