Last year, as the University of Oregon football team whipped the Tennessee Volunteers 48-13, a Vols defensive end pled for mercy. “If you guys run two more plays at this speed, I’m going to fall over dead.” Oregon runs a no-huddle offense that’s changing football. Would it also be an effective offense for the faith community?
The Oregon Ducks were dreadful at one time. During Don Read’s three-year term as head coach in the 1970s, the football team suffered its worst loss (66-0 to Washington) as well as a 14-game losing streak. After opening the 1975 season with losses to Oklahoma (62-7) and San Jose State (5-0), Read was sacked. The Ducks improved under coach Rich Brooks, got even better under Mike Bellotti, and last year played for the NCAA national football championship under coach Chip Kelly.
Oregon’s success is due to Kelly installing a no-huddle offense. Football teams have been known to run a no-huddle when trailing late in a game. Kelly’s innovation was having the Ducks run it the entire game, running over teams like Tennessee. That’s why Oregon went 10-0 in 2010. The Ducks averaged nearly a point per minute, only losing the championship game on an Auburn field goal as time expired, 22-19.
A no-huddle offense works because it reframes two aspects of football: huddles and practice. Huddles impart information but there is no correlation between the number of times a team huddles and the number of times it wins. A team could huddle hundreds of times in a game yet never score and win. Since the name of the game is winning, huddles don’t necessarily help. There are more effective ways for players to get the plays. A no-huddle also reframes practice. Under Kelly, Oregon runs precisely tuned practices so that players acquire habits helpful for the no-huddle. Wide receivers for instance have to learn to backpedal to their position so they can watch the quarterback’s signals.
No huddles and precise practices are reminiscent of the ancient church. It knew the name of the game—loving God and neighbor. Love requires learning to die to self and seek the flourishing of others, or shalom. This required precise liturgical practices in the assembly, the ekklesia. Liturgy is training “the body and soul in suitable posture and movement,” Peter Leithart writes. Corporate standing, kneeling, singing, confessing, and reading counter our individualistic leanings. Liturgy “depicts the world as it ought to be, the real world as it is believed to be… and what we believe and hope it will one day be.1 The corporate service cultivated selfless habits so that believers sought the flourishing of others. It worked. The church began to win. It grew. Some assemblies outgrew their space, so they continued holding practice sessions in homes. Home groups were practice sessions, not huddles. They practiced confession and communion and built healthy habits. It’s fair to say the Early Church ran a no-huddle offense.
That’s a far cry from what we see today in the modern church. The reigning paradigm is WIFE—worship, instruction, fellowship, and evangelism. Sunday is for the first two, but the songs and sermon represent a “thin” liturgy. Modern churches “generally adopt only one physical posture in worship—sitting to listen to a sermon,” Leithart writes. To be honest, it’s more like theater. The proof in the pudding is that American church attendance is sporadic at best and more infrequent than self-reported. It’s like going to the movies—you do it when it’s convenient and fits in a busy calendar. Can you imagine an Oregon football player attending practice when he found it convenient?
Modern churches then prod parishioners to join a small group for fellowship and additional instruction. “We are trained to accept as a matter of course that it is possible to think our way through life, all of life,” Leithart writes.2 This is the Enlightenment error—think right, act right. For J.R.R. Tolkien, the fellowship of the ring wasn’t a huddle. It was a harrowing task—throwing the ring into the mountain of Mordor.
Running an offense with lots of huddles explains why the Western church is on a losing streak. Half of all U.S. emerging adults no longer self-identify as “Christian” and 15 percent of all adults check “no” religion.3 There is no correlation between the number of times a church huddles and the number of times it wins. Younger believers are tired of Christian huddles making no headway in culture. In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman says a growing percentage of Christians are checking out of the Western church. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70 percent of young Protestants between 18-22 have stopped attending church regularly.
If Einstein was right—you can’t solve a problem in the frame that created it—the solution is reframing how the church plays the game. Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of religious studies and history at Penn State University writes: “Christians of European descent should learn that they are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core.”4 If the Western church is not the norm, the solution is stealing a page from Chip Kelly’s playbook: reframe huddles and practice. Drop home groups that are merely huddles. They don’t help win the game. Practice “thick” liturgies in the corporate service so that believers acquire healthier habits.
These changes are innovative and this presents perhaps the biggest challenge. Pastors are products of a system—educational institutions that are ill equipped to develop innovators. As it is currently taught, theology thwarts innovation. LinkedIn recently surveyed over 13,000 professionals who are entrepreneurs. They profiled the most successful ones, including their courses of study in college. Theology turned out to be one of the “least entrepreneurial majors.”5 That’s a problem since entrepreneurism is a kissin’ cousin to innovation and innovation is Latin for renewal, the work of the church. Theological institutions seem to be perfectly designed to thwart renewal.
If seeing is believing, there is hope. Mike Bellotti, Oregon’s former coach, now recognizes how huddles can hurt a team, especially the defense. “In the old days, you could pull aside a guy while they huddled up. You do that now and you would miss five plays.” Imagine all the opportunities the church misses because it is preoccupied with huddling. Imagine all the games it might win if it began running a no-huddle offense.
1 Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), p. 91.
2 Leithart, Against Christianity, p. 92.
3 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
4 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, Volume 13, No. 2, March/April 2007, pp. 18-20.