In my researching the history of sports and religion, I have found that the idea of denominations forming athletic teams and conferences is hardly far-fetched. In the beginning of organized sports, churches were at the organizational forefront. Which has gotten me thinking, especially with the recent shakeup to the college conference landscape over the past few years, what would it look like if denominations organized themselves in a similar fashion to college conferences?
In The Gospel According to ESPN, Hunter S. Thompson records the following conversation:
“Q: Is Sports a Religion in America?
Q: Is it an organized religion?
A: No. It does not appear to be Organized – but if it were, we would all be members of a very powerful church. We would be a political majority in the U.S.A.” (p. 2)
Well . . . what if we got organized? A quick survey of denominational headquarters and combining my limited understanding of geography and denominationalism has provided me the following proposal . . .
We begin with the oldest conference in the United States (and can you please do something to update that logo?)
The Denominational Ivy League represents the theological erudite and socially elite American Christians. Just like in today’s college sports landscape, there are some smart and powerful folks coming out this conference . . . but their significance remains mainly on the fringes of the larger picture of American Christianity (with the exception of the regular conference champion UMC). Like the real Ivy League, they may not have great success “on the court” but they are the people that largely shape the minds and institutions that, in turn, shape everyone else. In addition, they are leading the country in their women’s programs. No one is even close.
- United Church of Christ
- United Methodist Church
- Episcopalian Church
- Anglican Church
If you have a number in the name of your conference, that number apparently is pointless, so we continue the college theme with exactly five teams representing the Big Ten. Like the colleges that make up the real Big Ten, these denominations are rooted in the Midwest. They have a rich history, but in regards to theological contributions, they have found themselves to be about as relevant as the Real Big Ten is in football. They seem to specialize in niche sports like ice hockey, revivalism, and buck the trend by not playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before their sporting events (though the Brethren and Mennonite board members are losing their power to maintain this tradition). They have natural rivalry with some of the Southern schools that dates back from before the Civil War.
- Christian Church
- Brethren Church
- Lutheran Missouri Synod
- Disciples of Christ
Much like the dominance of the real SEC in football, the Denominational SEC is the most powerful conference in the country. Their denominational headquarters are littered across the Bible Belt and as they have slowly overcome their racial prejudice (like in football) it has led to increased success in their conference. They are
proud arrogant, and mostly believe they are the only ones who really know how to play the sports. They mock the other leagues, though they largely owe their existence to most of them. They freely interchange discussions of sport, religion, and politic, for in the South, it is all the same . . . that is, if you’re a man. The Denominational SEC, has yet to field women’s teams.
- Southern Baptist
- Church of Christ
- Fundamentalist Baptist
- National Baptist
- Presbyterian USA
- Church of God (Cleveland, TN)
- Church of God in Christ
Showing themselves to be ahead of the real college conferences, the PAC 12 conference is the first Super conference as it has recently swallowed up the conference formerly known as the Big 12 and stretches from Missouri to California – geography matters as much as numbers in this new era of conferences. Somewhere across Texas, the Holy Spirit began showing up in American Christianity and that has fused together with this Super Conference to make it one of the fastest growing. Most of the schools in this conference do not practice but encourage their teams to “follow the prompting of the Spirit” to “see where the Spirit leads.” The result has led to some fast growing groups . . . but they are still fighting an uphill battle for mainstream acceptance throughout the country. The women’s teams in this league are also struggling to get off the ground, however, they do report the lowest injury rate in the country. Well-known players from other conference have gone West and experienced “miraculous healing.”
- Church of the Nazarene
- Assemblies of God
- Lutheran Missouri Synod
- United Pentecostal Church
- Vineyard Churches
- Calvary Chapel
- Christian & Missionary Alliance
- Oneness Pentecostal
Just like the real Big East, the Denominational Big East is falling apart. With only three charter members left, each of these schools is having a hard time finding a good fit anywhere else. They may be destined to join the list below as Independents, though will they ever be able to reach the levels of success experienced by the other Independents? Each of these schools has a hard time finding anyone to take them seriously, and they don’t seem to be a natural fit for any of the other conferences.
- American Baptist
- Seventh Day Adventist
- Jehovah’s Witnesses
Three of the more powerful denominations in the country who continue to fight for their independence. They are conferences in and of themselves. They have shown an increased interest in working with the others, but the benefits of being Independent far outweigh the advantages of joining a conference, so, unless something drastic changes, these three will remain on their own. It’s amazing what a couple Presidential candidates can do for your PR.
- Catholic Church
- Mormon Church
- Eastern Orthodox Church