An exasperated Baptist preacher, a man who spent his lifetime embracing religion, once expressed to me what I thought was an astonishing admission.
“Sports,” he said, “is the God of our age.”
He was absolutely correct in one respect. Almost all the pews in sports cathedrals were passionately filled. Church benches? That was a bit more hit and miss.
During the past year, though, there has been a significant connection between sports and church.
Empty houses of worship.
That’s been the leveling effect of a worldwide pandemic.
Parishioners in both realms have been absent, mostly absent, largely absent, from temples to arenas to chapels to stadiums, leaving echoes in vast spaces of new emptiness. The greatly reduced numbers of attendees, when and where even permitted at all, as instructed or at least encouraged, showed up spaced out and masked, frightened by the presence of others — Lord bless them — who in their zeal might share along with their fellowship or fandom a virus that nobody wanted.
They were perfectly willing to grab hold of a railing leading to their isolated seats or to hold onto the iron rod, as long as they had been properly wiped down. On the one hand, the cost of parking, tickets, a hot dog and a Coke might have been objectionable, enough to make fans ill, and on the other, ward members might have unintentionally with their words and behaviors on occasion made other ward members sick, but in either case, never quite like this, never quite so literally.
Barreling toward another vacant General Conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has found itself wedged in with a wide swath of sports teams and all of society, troubled by the very thing it always craved — crowds. Many of the fervent have stayed away, not because of a lack of faith or a lack of interest, rather because they wanted to steer clear of the hospital and help others do likewise.
Those who have chosen to show up are no more chosen, no more righteous, no more worthy, no more loyal than those who have remained absent for reasons every being from heaven to hell would understand. Just like season ticket holders at Jazz games might love to finally take their regular seats at Vivint Arena, the same is true for church members who miss their usual spots in the chapel.
Or do they?
Some have tuned into proceedings through technology, old and new, sitting at home in their pajamas, or a T-shirt and shorts, watching and listening to spiritual messages beamed up on their big screen, scarfing a plate of ham sandwiches while soulfully pondering the good word in complete repose, the same way some fans have parked themselves in their TV dens, content to watch games from a distance.
The question that haunts ecclesiastical leaders, as well as sports owners and executives, is this: When the pandemic settles and simmers, will the crowds come back, and if they will, to what capacity?
Habits can be hard to break, and anyone who says sitting in a Barcalounger with feet up and a cold beverage in hand, while Brother Smothers breaks down King Benjamin’s famous speech to the Nephites, doesn’t have its advantages to sitting on a hard bench in fancy dress or suit and tie on-site isn’t being wholly honest with herself or himself.
Some of this new arrangement has been pretty darn cozy and convenient, especially for those fortunate enough to have ample family in the house.
It is true, some miss the thrill of being there, of taking in the action with their own eyes, of rubbing shoulders with the righteous or the unrighteously fanatic, bowing their heads in reverence or screaming their guts out in unison with 18,000 friends and strangers. But how many don’t?
We’re going to find out.
It’s problematic for those in positions of power — those who depend on or who hope for regular attendance by humans — just how comfortable, how content those humans can get when they realize after a year or longer that they really don’t miss the hassle or cost or trouble of being there.
On the church side, some have enjoyed huddling with family, in more intimate settings at home, discussing the same important principles they would have dissected with the larger group at the meetinghouse. They feel no less connected to deity than they ever have. Is that good or bad?
With sports, the same has happened, tighter circles watching and enjoying the competition, rooting for their team from afar, able to watch countless replays while hitting the fridge during breaks.
Will they return to what was previously the norm?
This much is undeniable: What used to seem so important, so mandatory, so unmissable doesn’t seem so much that way, not anymore.
Communication lines to heaven are every bit as direct and open and conjoined from home as they are from any chapel. Winning feels pretty good from a warm, soft, punched-up sofa, just as it did from Section 10, Row J, Seat 7. And losing — a little like sinning — feels less devastating when there are no people to face, no crowds to move through, no snarled traffic to fight to get back home.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.