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In a few short months, Deion Sanders has changed the game of college football. Last December, Coach Prime and the ever-present concomitant cameras met the players of the University of Colorado Buffalos for the first time. In his opening remarks, he told the players of a 1-11 football team that when he moved to Boulder to assume the position of head coach, he was bringing his luggage with him. He didn’t mean Samsonite or American Tourister. He said his luggage was Louis (Vuitton). To translate from the Coach Prime Dictionary — he was bringing different (read, better) players.

That first address to his players on December 5 went viral and sports fans and writers were polarized on the approach. When I first read the tweets and watched snippets of the speech, I fell on the side of those not impressed, my reaction no doubt influenced by my previous impression of Sanders as self-centered and brash. Furthermore, I felt bad for the kids who would be displaced. They committed to the University of Colorado because the University of Colorado had made a commitment to them. I thought Sanders was bad for college football, and I assumed that in short time, this experiment would be over. But then I watched the whole speech.

The seven-minute address was more sermon than speech. He began and concluded by talking about how he understood his calling from God. The rest of the time he listed the sins of the Colorado football culture; an acceptance of mediocrity that had poisoned the outlook of two decades of players. “I have a problem when young men with everything in front of them don’t believe,” he said. He told the players they had an opportunity to make a real, substantial difference in life and that they could rescue their mothers and their friends from difficult circumstances, but they had to first believe. “There’s a spirit that’s around this team that is not traditional and in some kind of way you guys have accepted it and you’ve begun to be complacent.”

Like the best in black preaching, his voice rose with alliteration as he said he had been sent to “restore, replace, re-energize.” He directly challenged what he saw as detrimental to the culture that would produce successful football players and men. He concluded the homily, um, address, by telling the players that some of them didn’t want this unique opportunity and didn’t love the game. “Is that you?” he asked. If not, Coach Sanders was going to bring men who were smart, tough, fast, disciplined, and had character. He asked them to repeat those words. “Is this you?” he asked again. Thus endeth the Sanders Sermon, and at the end, I was a convert.

The Church is not a football team, and as good as a preacher he might be, Sanders is not a bishop, rector, or warden. But could there be, underneath the gold jewelry, cameras, and sunglasses, an important lesson?

I recently followed the path of a footnote and came upon the book Two Friends by Dora Greenwell. Published in 1862, it is a very Victorian conversation between two friends on life, faith, and the practice of Christianity. The protagonist’s interlocuter, Philip, described the power of Christian community: “To know, as I do, looking over the country at this moment, till my eye rests upon the remote edge of the horizon, that there is a poor man or woman living there who believes, and loves, and prays, makes me a happier, abler Christian.”

Philip then compares Christian community to nature. Ice cannot become water or water to steam until the whole has been raised to a certain temperature. Philip gave thanks for those Christians, few as they might be, that prevent the whole of a society, or village, or family, from freezing solid. “How much Christian energy and love disappears, sinks below the surface, in this way, depressed by the low level of the surrounding atmosphere.”

I think that is an extraordinarily helpful image. The church and society have long been sustained by the prayers and witness of the faithful few. Because they refused to give in or give up, the Holy Spirit has used them to warm the body just enough so it doesn’t freeze solid. That image also works both ways. In order for transformation to happen, as in water to steam, the faithful few need the spiritual heat of the whole body to join them.

On Christmas Day, 1969, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger gave a radio address titled What will the church look like in 2000? In it, he prophesied a smaller, more faithful Church. The address is worth reading, and has aged well: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. It will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. … In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decisions. As a small society it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of its individual members.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Philip from Two Friends, and Deion Sanders are all in agreement: a committed few will change everything. There is no virtue in being small for the sake of being small. I am convinced that the reason people are drawn to megachurches is not because of the praise band, the lobby latte, or the acrylic lectern. People are drawn because they discover people who want to be there. There are people who aren’t ashamed to speak openly about prayer, discernment, the Bible, and their personal experience of Jesus Christ. If they want to be steam, they know they need heat. Martin Thornton was right when he wrote, “There is nothing so contagious as holiness, nothing more pervasive than Prayer.”[1]

Is not coach Sanders on to something? He walked into an environment complacent with stagnation. One could almost hear the words of Jesus to the Church of Laodicea: “I know your works, you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16). To change that environment, he had to set a new, higher expectation. To realize that expectation, he needed individuals to set the example. His approach has been controversial and while he enjoyed success early this season, his team as fallen short of his lofty prediction. He has, however, likely changed college football. Are we courageous enough to look at our own culture? Do we believe enough to change it?

Again, the Church is not a football team and I do not want to take this metaphor too far. The church is open to all who desire Christ, there is no question or debate on this issue. No one is kicked out because they don’t pray enough, give enough, or read the Bible enough. But those Christians, nominal, lapsed, poorly formed, what have you, need a burning core to raise their spiritual temperature. Our priority, our commitment, needs to be to the committed. The future of the healthy parish will be built on the foundation laid by faithful Christians who are committed to the catholic faith, which necessarily means they will be not only open to, but desirous of, the transforming love and grace of Jesus Christ. The heathy parish will need missionaries to raise the expectation, change the culture, and be the example. They will be on fire by the Holy Spirit, sent to prevent the Church from freezing solid.

[1] Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation, page 24



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