What College Football Can Teach the Church

“The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).

The legendary coach was done. After forty-one years at the University of Chicago, leading the Maroons to seven Big Ten championships in football, most recently in 1924, coach Amos Alonzo Stagg stepped down, due to forced retirement at the age of seventy. Known for his purist practices, and serving a school that did not provide easy “jobs” to athletes, the school had been struggling to compete, not only in the Big Ten with private Northwestern and with some of the state schools, but also with Notre Dame as a Chicago attraction. Once regarded as fielding the “Monsters of the Midway,” the University of Chicago eventually dropped football altogether, following one last burst of mediocre glory with Heisman Trophy halfback Jay Berwenger in the mid-thirties.

To many alumni and armchair critics, the decision was an outrage. One alumnus sent his son to Northwestern, complaining, “Red-blooded young men and women demand a well-balanced environment for study.” Others blamed the new coach. Still another blamed the school’s young president, Robert Hutchins, who allegedly stated that football related to education like bullfighting to agriculture. Though Hutchins did not coin this saying, it did reflect his attitude. Writing in the Saturday Evening Post a year before the gridiron ceased, Hutchins asserted:

Since the primary task of colleges and universities is the development of the mind, young people who are more interested in their bodies than their minds, should not go to college.

Curriculum at Chicago reflected this commitment. Revamped in 1931, two years into Hutchins’ presidency but laid out beforehand, the curriculum made the undergraduate program resemble a graduate program, with no easy majors and physical education courses that helped athletes. As a result, enrollment dropped. At one time, Chicago was the largest school in the Big Ten; now, its thousand could hardly compete with the more than ten thousand at Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio State. Therefore, on December 21, 1939, football ended at the University of Chicago.

Now imagine with me First Church of the Gridiron. Former members recall the glory days of high attendance. Sermons, Sunday School, softball, and soaring solos all met with the enthusiasm of numbers. Tough rules were ignored, and touchy subjects floored, allowing more and more people to crowd the arena. Then one year, leadership began to return to the original script. Playing by the rules lost some recruits, and even some members. Justifying each aspect of ministry by the overall goal of the church lost some more, as some of the platform got trimmed and programs got cut–not that these items were bad in and of themselves; they just did not fit the purpose of church. As in benevolence, so also in activities, the church should not be burdened with what families should do (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-4, 16). The church is for worship and discipleship, which is not the same thing as glossy platforms and classy programs. It is relationship based on truth–relationship first with God, and then with His children.

Interestingly, the University of Chicago has since become famous for larger things than football. In the postwar years, some of the brightest conservative thinkers taught there, including the bibliophile Mortimer Adler, southern rhetorician Richard Weaver, and economist Milton Friedman. Though not Christian, these men represent thinking more conducive to Christianity than the acidic writings of former professor Shailer Mathews, who led the academic attack against the fundamentalists during the later heyday of Chicago football. Ironically, when the university loved football, it was in the hands of liberal Christianity, having been started with Rockefeller money; when the university repented of football, its stature as a conservative secular university grew. Even more ironically, during the war, the abandoned football stadium became the site for the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction, an event that culminated in the end of World War II. Sometimes an institution moves forward by turning back to the basics.

At Open Door Bible Church, we have been encouraged by a sister church to rethink the purpose of church from the original script. This is a slow process that actually began in spring 2008, and has yet to be completed. If you know the Lord, please pray for us as we seek a vision from Christ for His church, and then seek grace to implement the changes. Some things may end; some alumni may be alarmed; but if we get back to the core of what a church is for, who knows what opportunities God has for us in the cosmic war of Jesus Christ! God give us grace! Amen.

Source: John Sayle Watterson, College Football (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 191-96.

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