No Huddle Offense

Michael Metzger

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.
5 http://blog.linkedin.com/2011/09/01/entrepreneur-data/#_ftn1

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9 thoughts on “No Huddle Offense”

  1. While I understand what you are getting at, I think that you incorrectly assume that we all agree on what a win is. In football, a win is defined by how scoring more points than the other team. Each team has a fair shot at achieving this (unless your quarterbacks are John Beck and Rex Grossman), and have a common understanding as to what a win is.

    The unfortunate truth in the church world is that we have lost sight of what our win is. Many churches in the evangelical stream define the huddle as the win. We also define certain political or social actions and running the WIFES model well as the win.

    Too often we focus on the methodology instead of the underlying philosophy that is causing the church in this country to be ineffective (at best)… more than cutting back on huddles or programs or anything what we need to be doing is teaching people to ask why, and develop an ability to think critically, wrestle with scripture and our God, and I think that the huddle problem will gradually disappear.

  2. Fr. Jonathan Smith

    Mike, excellent article. Regarding small group fellowships, have you considered the old practice of the daily office? Once a week liturgy was never the only offering but was accompanied by daily liturgy: morning, noonday, and evening prayers. These practices were set to the calendar “reframing” daily priorities and practices.

    Just re-aligning you back into Anglican holiness.

  3. I do not quite see the connection between no-huddle offense, liturgy and church growth. There have been churches with a long and strong liturgical tradition which have not grown.
    It seems to me that the strength of the no-huddle offense is that it can wear down the defense more quickly.

  4. I grew up in a denomination that was “super-thick” in liturgy and had no small groups and was simply dead when it came to transformation and growth. Liturgy, carries content by it’s form but people can’t understand it unless it is explained through good biblical teaching and therefore properly contextualized.

    In a culture that is quickly moving toward post-christian, there needs to be a place for robust, creative teaching that builds a solid foundation for innovation to sit on. Therefore innovation is tethered to something larger that keeps it from becoming innovation for innovation’s sake.

    Same with small groups, it not that huddles are bad (Oregon still does them, albeit in a more limited amount) but when you do them the question is how are they positioned? What is their purpose? In our church they are tool created to encourage our value of Interdependence, not to become another venue to “autopsy” scripture and debate meaning.

    Because of this we are actually seeing much of our growth from younger demographics because they are connecting with God and each other in a small group form where scripture is relationally presented. In some cases they are more committed to this context than to Sunday worship. Small groups that function this way are actually more “sticky” for us, actually keeping and adding folks.

  5. The strength of the no-huddle is that it’s clear on the goal – win the game. If huddles help, good. If they don’t, drop them.

    By the way, the test of any faith tradition is not necessarily whether it experiences numerical growth but whether it is taken seriously and acted on.

  6. A MAN BE FOUND FAITHFUL is really what is required.

    It’s not a question of ““thick” liturgies in the corporate service, but rather the failure of stewardship of Christ’s ministers.

    1 Corinthians 4:1-2 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the “mysteries of God”. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.

    The “7 mysteries” revealed in the New Testament are: 1. The Incarnation of Christ 1 Timothy 3:16 “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” 2. The Indwelling Christ Colossians 1:27 “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:” 3. The Body of Christ Ephesians 5:32 “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (See also Eph 3:1-5 4. The Blindness of Israel Romans 11:25 “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” 5. Babylon the Great Revelation 17:5 “And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”

    If every Christian minister had been faithful in preserving these “mysteries”, we would not be in the mess we are today. The Catholic Church doesn’t even mention the last three.

  7. 2 “mysteries” not included in previous comments:

    5. The Incarnation of Satan 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming:”

    6. The Rapture 1 Corinthians 15:51 “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,”

  8. I agree with Mr. Metzger. I think the no-huddle offense he’s speaking of is primarily concerning the essence of the church growing collectively to become more Christ-like, rather than a congregation increasing in numbers. The church functions most effectively as a collective body, and sharing sacraments and liturgical worship serves to intimately unite and strengthen the body as a whole.

    Our collective worship isn’t something we “huddle” up for, but a posture of living in His presence daily. It’s not an occasion, it’s a shared response to the call to take in our Savior, to be His bride. Leadership in the church is paramount in nurturing, training, and equipping her. Our worship isn’t where we gather to receive an insular, individualistic game plan, but where the body receives sustenance from Him to live out our faith in the world.

  9. Pingback: Halftime & No-huddle Offense: Two Football Metaphors for Today’s Church | Darrow Miller and Friends

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