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In-Person Experiences – What the Church Can Learn From the NFL

in-person experiences

Football is back, baby! If you’re not a football fan (or sports fan), stick with me for a minute. I think, at least at this moment in time, football is attempting to teach us all an invaluable lesson about the future of in-person experiences.

So, back to football for a minute: While football literally never left, the 2020 football season did not give us fans the complete football experience. The 2020 pandemic year did that to everything, right?

You see, the game of football is more than the game of football. It provides in-person experiences. Not to wax poetic, but if you’re a fan, you know exactly what I mean. Football is about the game and everything around the game. In 2020, the games were mostly played, but the experience surrounding the games was lackluster at best.

Stadium capacities were significantly limited. Some games required masks. Tailgating wasn’t allowed. There were very few bars and restaurants to gather and watch with friends and fellow fans. There were no pre or postgame parties of substance.

The players played games. But that’s about it. Something big was clearly missing.

I have a son who attends Auburn University (War Eagle!). He attended all the AU home games last year — spread out, with 20% capacity, and void of the AU football experience.

Two weeks ago, football returned to the plains of Auburn, but this time, the game came with all the trimmings. My son was able to tailgate and sit in a packed student section (he’s vaccinated, so that feels mostly safe). The band participated, the players ran onto the field to screaming fans, and the eagle mascot flew into the stadium. The pomp and circumstance was back in full force. And his experience was completely different.

Just like last season, there was a game. But this time, in-person experiences were back.

Understanding In-person Experiences: Football & Your Church

As a leadership coach primarily working with pastors and churches, the juxtaposition of packed football stadiums and partially full sanctuaries creates a strategic crisis. And it should.

For most of the pandemic, it was easy to justify and excuse a lack of attendance and engagement. People are still nervous about the virus. You can just as easily watch online. We have CDC guidelines limiting our physical growth. All of that was true. In some situations, it may still be valid. Or partially true. Before we go any further, hear me loud and clear: I’m not a fan of recklessness in the name of attendance. I believe digital church experiences play an essential role in every local church. But, I emphatically believe that local churches must provide physical gatherings because in-person experiences create better authentic spiritual community and connection. Not to suggest digital expressions can’t foster community, but face-to-face is better than face-to-screen when both are available. There’s a reason people meet on dating apps but progress to an in-person experience.

Now that in-person experiences are available in most churches, where are all the people?

Why Are Stadiums Sold Out?

That’s the core question we must answer if we want to learn from the football experience.

  • Why are hundreds of thousands of church people jamming into football stadiums with rabid enthusiasm yet skipping church almost every Sunday?
  • What is the in-person football experience offering that the church is not?
  • What did people miss about football?

And perhaps the most painful question:

What did church people NOT miss when they missed church for a year?

That question should haunt every single pastor.

Before we start making excuses, let’s acknowledge that football has similar in-person issues as your local church. Watching the game on television is better if the game is the draw. The camera angles, instant replays, and ongoing commentary available on a screen create a better experience if the game is all that matters.

With church, rolling out of bed, grabbing a cup of coffee, and watching online is certainly easier than getting dressed, getting the kids up, and fighting traffic if worship and sermons are the draws.

These packed stadiums should be a wake-up call to every pastor and church. If the game alone were the goal for football fans, stadiums would be mostly empty. They are not, because the draw of the game is more than just the game.

In your church, a welcome, some worship, and a sermon can no longer serve as the draw of the gathering. The gathering facilitates an opportunity for corporate worship and collective learning, but that alone is not enough. People will no longer attend impersonal, in-person experiencess if the experience is relatively equal on a screen. Your church remains partially full because people missed it for a year and didn’t really miss it.

It’s painful to admit, but for most church attenders, they stopped “attending,” and their life didn’t get worse. Let’s admit it: Church people missed gathering with fellow football fans more than with fellow Jesus-followers.

The Time for Action is Now

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. It’s time we collectively admit that we, as church leaders, created the problem we are experiencing today. We saw declining in-person worship attendance trends in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and we made excuses. We blamed the people for choosing not to attend rather than looking in the mirror at why they weren’t attending. We waited for some other leader to be bold and course correct so we could mimic their model. It’s unacceptable.

Our mission matters too much to sit idly by worshiping our past models without an honest assessment of our guilt.

I know the passages like you. I believe with all my heart that the “gates of Hades” will never overcome the movement of the body of Christ. Equally, I think church leaders and pastors who refuse to acknowledge the reality of our recent results aren’t helping those gates remain in their place.

We can’t expect what wasn’t working well before the pandemic to be today’s model of choice. The pandemic accelerated the trends. Your ministry model is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. If you’re unhappy with your results, take responsibility for changing it.

It is time to evolve our approach and create something worth not missing.


This article on in-person experiences originally appeared here, and is used by permission.