Research on Fandom, Small Groups, and 3 Implications for Church Leaders

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a funny bit where he pokes fun at us sport’s fans. He says that because players are constantly changing teams, we are not really loyal to players as much as we are loyal to the clothes the players are wearing. Sport’s fans are essentially rooting for laundry, that we are standing and yelling for the clothes from our city to beat the clothes from another city.

In his book, The Secret Lives of Sport’s Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, Eric Simons quotes scientists, researchers, and psychologists who have studied what motivates a sport’s fan. The conclusion is a longing for community. The reason we gather in arenas and stadiums is not because we root for clothes, but because we long for community. As Christians we believe that our longing for community is a God-given desire. Community is not something we created, but something God created for us. The Bible teaches us that the community we have as Christians is stronger than any other community because it is built on a foundation that never changes. It is built on our eternal God and the unending love He has for us. He gave it to us because we need it. We need it for our spiritual health.

The research on the impact of small groups on a person’s faith development is significant. In the book Transformational Groups, Ed Stetzer and I share insights from research that essentially concludes people who are in a small group display attributes of discipleship much more than people who are not in a small group.

From research on sports fans to research on small groups at church, here are thoughts for church leaders (me included):

1. People long for community even if they can’t articulate the longing.

Most sports fans won’t say, “the reason I am wearing a jersey is because I want to connect with others,” but the lack of admission or even the lack of recognition only masks the longing. The longing is still there. Which means the people who come to our churches are looking for community whether they realize it or admit it. We should do all we can to invite people into community that is Christian. From launching to groups to evaluating our systems to training group leaders, we must work hard to provide community for people.

2. Community makes us healthier.

While people are living more isolated lives, those who study human development continue to advocate for community. According to the research on sports fans, community is encouraging even when the fan’s teams perpetually lose for decades. While we may think that being a fan of a team who is losing is miserable, psychologists believe it is actually healthy and helpful. When rooting for a losing team you are rooting for a losing team with others, in community. Losing with others is better for you than being alone. Why does this matter for church leaders? It matters because the community we offer not only helps people grow spiritually but it helps with mental and social health too.

3. Christian community makes us spiritually healthier.

The research beneath our book indicates that those in a group are healthier spiritually than those not in a group. Those who are in a group give more generously, serve more sacrificially, and share the gospel more regularly than those not in a group.

The research and the insights from the research challenges us church leaders to do all we can to help people be in Christian community.