Golf or the Gridiron?

Michael Metzger

Tiger is missed.

The Professional Golfers Association is facing uncertain times. Golf is individualistic; so when one individual, in this case Tiger Woods, is absent, PGA attendance dips 50 percent. Individualism however is not exclusive to golf. It is endemic to American culture. It is why the American church approaches culture-making as a game of golf. It’s not. Culture-changing is more like football, played on a gridiron.

To understand why faith organizations view culture-making as golf, you have to understand American culture. According to Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, the U.S. is singularly unique in religious individualism. Cherlin contends that you can find countries as deeply religious as the U.S. Spain is an example. And you can find Scandinavian countries as highly individualistic as the U.S. But you cannot find the combination of high rates of religiosity and individualism anywhere else in the world. Not only that, it’s a unique individualism.

This unique individualism “lies at the very core of American culture,” sociologist Robert Bellah wrote in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. It’s the result of a 400 year evolution. Bellah says Americans started with biblical individualism, represented by John Winthrop. It was anchored in a relationship with God that held individualism in tension with community. It was a commitment “to that only which is good, just and honest,” Bellah notes. If that sounds like shalom – individuals working as a team for the common good – you’re correct. You’d also be correct to note that biblical individualism is in short supply today.

The second individualism was civic, represented by Thomas Jefferson. It was not anchored in God but was still accountable to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” It’s essentially Deism and also in short supply.

The third is utilitarian, represented by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay, Self Reliance. Emerson declared the individual and community to be in competition, or opposition to one another. Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau promoted this individualism, professing to rely on no one and promoting whatever works. This version is alive and well today in faith organizations.

The fourth individualism is expressive. Bellah found this to be the most common type of individualism in the modern American church. It’s heard in such statements as: “This is my personal relationship with Jesus,” “I need to be authentic,” and “I want my church to be a safe place that meets my needs.” Expressive individualism is consistent with Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s observation that “moralistic, therapeutic deism” has triumphed over historical creedal faith and practice in the American church.

This is all fine and dandy, but what do these types of individualism have to do with culture-making? Biblical and civic individualism are moot at this moment. Faith communities infected with expressive individualism see reality through a therapeutic prism. Culture-making is a non-issue. It’s all about me.

There is however a small percentage of faith organizations that takes culture-making seriously. The downside is that many are affected by utilitarian individualism. You can see it in the funding model. It’s just like the PGA.

To make a living, PGA golfers have to get financial sponsors. There’s a limited pool of available investors, so the process is competitive. Once secured, golfers are then understandably loyal to their financial backers and vice versa. That’s why golfers’ apparel is adorned with company logos. For their part, sponsors measure whether the individual they sponsor wins. Sponsors look for a return on investment. The arrangement works.

This is the manner in which most faith organizations get financial support. There’s a limited pool of available investors, so the process can be competitive rather than collaborative. It works; but it’s individualistic and utilitarian. It breeds tunnel vision since sponsors measure whether the individual organization they support “wins.” But this funding model practically guarantees failure when measured in terms of cultural renewal. Why? The success of cultural renewal is dependent on overlapping networks of leaders, institutions, and resources.

This is an important point James Davison Hunter lays out in his forthcoming book, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. The decisive factor in changing the world is overlapping networks. “In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; move to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes those ideas to popularizers who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply those ideas.” But these networks never form without a rich source of patronage, Hunter writes. The funding model is critical for encouraging teamwork. At this moment, we fund golfers, and play the game like golfers

If you think this doesn’t matter, read John Feinstein’s A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour. PGA might look collaborative from the outside, but it’s a cutthroat world on the inside. Feinstein points out that, almost without exception, golfers are narcissistic and competitive, not collaborative. The funding model does not encourage teamwork.

Now consider football, the New Orleans Saints, for example. Drew Brees didn’t win the Super Bowl on his own. It required teamwork. Every player shared in the victory and got paid from the same pot, in this case, team owner Tom Benson. It’s closer to the picture of biblical individualism, individuals working within a community. Culture-change is played on a gridiron, not a golf course.

James Hunter suggests that if we’re serious about changing the world, “the first step is to discard the prevailing view of culture and cultural change and start from scratch.” In 1959, Vince Lombardi started from scratch with the floundering Green Bay Packers. “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Faith communities need to start from scratch: “This is shalom.” We enact shalom through overlapping networks of leaders and institutions. Such collaboration requires overlapping networks of resources. This would mean faith organizations no longer acting as individual fiefdoms vying for financiers. It would mean teamwork. This could happen. But it would mean getting off the golf course and onto the gridiron.


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  1. Mike, Good stuff. I’m working with a non-profit right now (still in the Navy) and we’re looking at how to do funding for our staff. We’ve been doing the golfing model and I’ll share this article with our team. We may consider adopting more of the football method – the trouble will be in the transition and getting the “buy in” from the staff – after all, the golfing model does work in the short term. Thanks again for your terrific insights! Steve

  2. The challenge of overlapping networks is a daunting one. Networks demand loyalty. This is a big reason for why there is great division among campus ministries, and why students on college campuses who end up in campus ministries do not end up participating in other activities. Powerful networks are selective and demanding networks.

    In Hunter’s scheme of ideological process, I think you fit in as a popularizer. Keep up the good challenges!

  3. Hey Mike,
    I’ve been following your blog for a few months now. I buy into to what your saying about shalom and institutions role in it. But I’m having trouble explaining shalom to others. Is there a resource that explains it well?

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