Wrestling Your Friends to Church

I like to get there early. This gives me time to mill around in the lobby and do some people watching before I find my seat. Once I find my seat there is always a pleasant murmur filling the space as others file in. Everyone is excited, cheerful, brimming with anticipation for things to get started. Without warning, the lights go out. In the darkness, we all know…this is only the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve been to over 20 live professional wrestling shows and they have all started virtually the same way. There is a rhythm to the experience. The most seasoned wrestling fans are privy to the cues. They know the lights turning off is the call to worship. They know when a wrestler is punching another in the corner of the ring they need to start counting to ten. They know when a wrestler kicks out of a pin before the count of three it’s time to yell “TWO!” at the top of their lungs.

Faith and Wrestling 4

Did you know there was such an ingrained cultural liturgy in professional wrestling? I recently took a group of non-wrestling fans to a live event put on by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and I watched their faces as they witnessed the show play out. It was a consistent mix of confusion and unbelief. There was so much they didn’t know or understand and this left them bewildered and, dare I say, bored.

How did this happen? The art of wrestling has been capturing my imagination for almost two decades. The problem is I didn’t prepare them enough. I never gave them a chance to participate fully in the experience because I never told them about the liturgy of the event. Don’t we do the same thing with church, though? When you invite someone to church, how do you prepare them for the liturgy, the cultural norms that guide the experience? Do you prepare them at all? I wonder if there is anything I can glean from my experience bringing newbs to a wrestling event that can translate to how I invite people to church?

Call and Response

Wrestling fans are constantly Woooing. The lights go off at the beginning…”WOOO!” A wrestler open-hand chops another wrestler across the chest…”WOOO!” Basically, if there are any moments of stillness in the ambient noise in the arena…”WOOO!” It’s the fault of wrestling legend, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The 16-time champion often slipped into fits of wild Woooing with the crowd jumping in. Now, because Woooing is fun and easy, it is the common response to a lot of what happens in the show. It might be the closest thing we have to a wrestling “Amen.” If you know nothing about Flair, however, it might sound like you’re surrounded by crazy people.

Faith and Wrestling 2

This may have been how I felt the first few times I attended a more traditional church service. The person upfront would say or do something and the crowd would respond together. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. It felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I felt left out, so confused, somewhat embarrassed, and started to check out. The Lord’s Prayer? The doxology? The people in the pews might as well have been Woooing. It was nonsense to me.

This isn’t confined to traditional churches, though. Most churches feature a set of music, right? Well, when I started going to church, this was my least favorite part. It wasn’t that the band was bad or the music was lame. It was because I had no idea why we were doing it. When was the last time you thought about every element of your worship service and wondered why you do it? Could you explain that to someone who had no context for it whatsoever?

Wrestling Psychology

When I was a novice pro wrestling fan there was one wrestler who grinded my every gear. His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. His style in the ring wasn’t flashy. Hart didn’t take many death defying dives off the top turnbuckle and wasn’t big enough to hit punishing clotheslines. The Hitman wrestled a slow, methodical pace that, as the uninitiated, I found to be the equivalent of a sleeper hold. As I begun to understand more about the art form, though, I discovered it wasn’t so much what you did in the ring but when you did it. Hart is a legend because he was a master at working the crowd, or as most people in the know would call it, wrestling psychology.

The most skilled at wrestling psychology are basically emotional conductors who pull the audience through a symphony of different feelings throughout the match. Performers read the temperature of the fans and that dictates what they do. The right move at the right time can take a match from average to phenomenal. As much wrestling as I’ve watched over the years, every once in a while, the best wrestlers can surprise me and send me off my couch into the air screaming with anger, shock, or pure joy.

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The mistake new wrestling fans often make is wanting a match filled with big stunts and not a big story. It’s the story that matters, though. The bigger picture, the greater context happening before, during, and after the match. When you invite someone to church do you prepare them by selling the big stunts? The music is amazing. The preaching is awesome. They serve awesome coffee. Experiencing a church service that way might send new attendees away from the Bret Hart of churches. Our greatest worship experiences come when the leaders move us into a big story, a story that taps into our lives and emotions, a story that moves us from sitting on the spiritual couch to leaping in the air in victory.

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

“Professional wrestling is fake isn’t it?” This is the question that most often follows any invite to watch wrestling. As my friend, Tommy, told me after I took him to a live event, “Why do people get so hyped about something that isn’t even real?” Let me settle this once and for all. Professional wrestling is scripted, live sports entertainment. The physical feats that happen in the 20’ by 20’ ring are real, the story is on par with any scripted show on television. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s entertainment. People ask me all the time how I, a grown adult with advanced degrees, can enjoy professional wrestling. I show them this video.

Daniel Bryan, Triple H, John Cena, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Chris Jericho are all 100% real to the kids who watch pro wrestling and sometimes I need to be reminded what it’s like to be a kid. Wrestling pulls me into mental spaces where anything is possible and the world is filled with fascinating, diverse casts of characters. Growing up has a way of beating skepticism and cynicism into our hearts. When I walk into the wrestling arena I get to leave the weight of disbelief the world has thrown on my shoulders at the door and start believing again.

I love the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspires me to be creative and believe the place I live can be better than it is. When I first walked through the doors of a church sanctuary my guard was way up. I built a wall around me with bricks of guilt, shame, and mistrust. Not only that, I was terrified. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of being told I was a bad person, church making absolutely no sense to me, or that it might make perfect sense and change my life forever.

Jesus eventually broke through the wall and the fear. It might have happened sooner if someone told me that Jesus could handle all those things I was feeling. I didn’t have to build a wall, I didn’t have to be afraid. It wasn’t that I could leave all of that weight at the door when I walked in, but Jesus was inviting me to leave it at the foot of the cross. The Gospel becomes real when you approach it with fresh eyes like a kid watching The Rock deliver The People’s Elbow.

How intentional are you with your church invites? How intentional are you when planning a worship service? Are you setting your neighbors, friends, and loved ones up to have a genuine interaction with the Lord of All? If I can get my wife to drop the stigma of professional wrestling and give it an honest chance, I believe you might be able to do the same thing with someone that carries a pretty heavy stigma about church.

One of my favorite pastors is such because I feel so cared for by him through the course of any given worship service. The bulletin thoughtfully explains each element of the service and at several points he pauses to give easy-to-understand instructions, especially for elements like communion. I love it when a worship leader stops for a second to explain why they chose this particular hymn or why we’re reciting this particular creed. Coming from someone who still feels awkward at church sometimes, I promise these things aren’t a waste of time. What if we took greater care with our friends before, during, and after the church service? What if we set them up to become massive fans of Jesus and his bride? Occasionally, I wonder if our church leaders could learn a thing or two from the liturgy of professional wrestling

In “Foxcatcher,” devaluing others leads to a grim ending.

The real-life John du Pont

John du Pont, dressed in his Foxcatcher best, being arrested after the murder of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz.

When I was a kid my favorite toys were action figures. These were not the dolls my sisters played with, they wore camo, carried guns, and always caught the eye of the lone female action figure I had (Dr. Ellie Sattler from “Jurassic Park” of course). As the only boy amongst my siblings, my narrative interests as I played with toys were very different from those of my sisters. They cared if Barbie finally landed Ken, while in my productions there was always more at stake, most of the time the safety of the entire world.

What drew me in to playing with these toys was the creative freedom I had. They could do anything and go anywhere I needed them to go to advance my story. I used old soda boxes to create elaborate city skylines and when my main villain needed the upper hand on my valiant hero his main mode of capture was freezing my protagonist in a glass of water. This is a good time to thank my mom for putting up with the lack of freezer space.

As time went on, I realized that the fantasy world I’d created in my soda box city didn’t have to be the end. I could put the action figures away and participate in the real world with real people. When we enter Bennett Miller’s hauntingly weird retelling of the real-life events that ended in the murder of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, the picture he paints of Schultz’s murderer, John du Pont, is that of a man raised in wealth that maybe never separated the six inch plastic soldiers in his life to living breathing people.

Foxcatcher

“Foxcatcher,” named for the ranch owned by du Pont that became a training ground for US Olympic wrestling in the late 1980’s, exhibits du Pont as a boy trapped in a man’s body. Every move is made to impress his mother that has little to no interest in anything but maintaining the gaudy brass sconce laden world that is their estate. He fills his ranch with action figures in the form of wrestlers led by world and Olympic champion Mark Schultz, whose book the film is based.

Maybe we see du Pont’s life when he has given up on participating in the world and just wants to play with his toys. These wrestlers are things that he can play with and exploit. Mark Schultz has been adamant that there were no sexual interactions with du Pont during his stay at Foxcatcher and I really don’t believe that Miller expresses an explicit homosexual tone in some of the scenes that are called into question. Du Pont’s actions in the film, to me, are exploitation. He is acting out all of his boyhood fantasies with real-life toys. We even see him buying a tank. What little boy doesn’t want to ride in a tank?

Carell’s performance, the shocking murder scene, the dark, foggy environment of the ranch are all frightening aspects to the film but perhaps the most horrifying piece of this true crime puzzle is how old money and a culture of wealth created the monster. The tragedy is that when he was done playing with his toys one Olympic gold medalist was no longer a champion and the other Olympic gold medalist, devoted coach, loving brother, husband, and father was dead. A possession of du Pont’s put back in the toy box because the game didn’t end his way.

“Foxcatcher” is undoubtedly filled with some of the best acting performances of the year. My sympathies to Channing Tatum who will more than likely be overshadowed at Oscar time by Carell in the lead and the awards veteran status of Mark Ruffalo who starred as Dave Schultz. Tatum was perfect and heart-wrenching as Mark Schultz, a role the likes he may never see again.

Tatum’s best scene in the film is an example of the emotional toll exploitation can have. Dealing with a loss and looking into a mirror, unable to recognize the person he has become in the wake of the life he has been leading as du Pont’s lap dog, he snaps and self harms. He spins into self-destruction. He loses his sense of worth he proudly felt at the beginning of the story with the gold medal around his neck. Du Pont’s whittling away of the personhood of those around him leads to an unhappy ending, a reminder of what it looks like to take away the value of another person.