The 2015 NBA finals are upon us! On Wednesday, the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers begin a best of 7 series that puts two of the game’s superstars, Stephen Curry (Golden State) and LeBron James (Cleveland) in a head to head battle. It promises to be a climactic season finale in an exciting sport that is a lot of fun to watch. It’s going to be epic.
But the NBA was not always exciting and fun to watch. Back in the early 1950s attendance had declined to the point that the league’s financial viability was in serious jeopardy. Professional basketball contests had turned into dull, slow-moving, low-scoring affairs in which one team typically grabbed an early lead and then spent the rest of the game holding on to the ball until the clock ran out. Bored fans were literally reading newspapers during games; many were walking out in disgust.
What saved the NBA? Innovation! Agility! Nimbleness! Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone, hoping to pick up the pace of games, developed the idea of a 24-second shot clock, placing a limit on how long a team could hold the ball and forcing both teams to play the game at a faster pace. Implemented in 1954, the innovation proved to be an immediate and obvious success: the speed of play improved, scoring increased dramatically, and by the end of the 1955 season fan attendance at NBA games was up 50 percent.
The church in 2015 faces similar challenges to the NBA of 1953—many people find church activities generally and worship services in particular to be dull, slow-moving, inward-focused, irrelevant affairs. They are walking away in droves, leaving many congregations’ viability in serious jeopardy. What can save us? Innovation! Agility! Nimbleness! But first it will take a humble acknowledgement that people have many options on Sundays and unless the church demonstrates relevance and meaning (and yes, excitement) they will choose something else. And it will take a willingness to let go of our outdated rules and language and ways we’ve always done things so God’s new creation can emerge.
Of course there was resistance in 1953 to changing the way professional basketball was played. Of course the shot clock experiment could have been an abysmal failure. Yet someone in the NBA was willing to take a risk in order to generate new energy and excitement for its current fans as well as those outside the arena walls. Books have been written about why Americans find such a strong sense of community in team spectator sports. What is the 24-second shot clock equivalent that can draw people together into a strong shared faith community and give new energy to what we do in Christ’s name?
Is change worth the risk? When was the last time you heard anything in your church referred to as epic?
Rev. Rhonda K. Kruse is a Teaching Elder currently serving as Connections & Change Presbyter for Hudson River Presbytery.