Tonight the NCAA men?s basketball tournament will come to a close as UConn and Kentucky go head to head in the championship game. As such, I?ve been thinking about why I and millions of others watch the tournament every year. Personally, I don?t have a true rooting interest in any of the schools, nor do I pay close attention to college basketball during the regular season. And yet, there?s something about the tournament.
What keeps people coming back to it year after year? There are several reasons, most likely, but here?s what stuck out to me:
The tournament balances expectation and surprise, certainty and mystery, the known and the unknown, and so people tune in.
What I mean by that is people approach the tournament knowing they can expect energy, excitement, and upsets. This expectation is met every single year. The tournament delivers. At the same time, no one knows just how things will turn out. You know there will be surprises ? top seeds toppled by Cinderellas, half-court prayers that find the basket as the horn sounds, some kid catching fire and having the game of his life ??but you have absolutely no idea when any of this will happen. (That?s what makes it a surprise, after all).
The tournament is so unpredictable that this year Warren Buffet offered $1 billion to anyone who predicted every game correctly in their bracket, and nobody even came close. His money was safe.
So, I watch the tournament because if I don?t watch, I might miss the surprise. I might miss the mystery. I might miss No. 3 Duke losing to No. 14 Mercer. And I don?t want to miss any of that.
Now, do me a favor and think about why people keep coming back to church week after week. A lot of people do it for the right reasons, obviously, but there are those among us who occasionally or habitually go to church out of obligation, because it?s routine or expected of us, because it?s safe and predictable, or because we want to keep up appearances.
No one watches the tournament for those reasons. The tournament is always voluntary, always an eager choice. So what?s the difference between church and the tournament?
The tournament has a tendency to surprise and delight, while the church has a tendency to copy and paste.?
I wonder what would happen if we tried harder to strike a balance between expectation and surprise, certainty and mystery, the known and the unknown. I wonder what would happen if we introduced some twists and turns into the stories we tell on Sundays. I wonder if over time people would become downright unwilling to miss a worship experience because they didn?t want to miss the mystery unfold.
That would really be something, wouldn?t it?
It would be risky and messy and hard, but it would be something. Week in and week out we?d have to meet people?s expectations for a formative, edifying worship experience. At the same time, we?d have the freedom to experiment with structure, tone, environment, dynamics, interactivity, sensory inputs, pace, and specific elements like music and teaching. We?d have to ask ourselves tough questions about what it means to tell a story like the Prodigal Son in such a way as to awaken, engage, and challenge people who?ve already heard a dozen sermons and read a couple books about that particular parable.
But if we were to succeed in that pursuit, well, that would really be something.