Goal or Gol?

Bill Simmons, a writer for ESPN.com, recently tweeted that his wife was anxiously looking forward to a day when she was not greeted by the sound of thousands of bees emanating from the television.

The television in their home was not tuned to the Discovery Channel but to coverage of the World Cup.

For one month, this quadrennial event becomes the center of the world’s attention as nationalistic passions are channeled through this “beautiful game.” This year’s tournament is the first to be held on the African continent. That a post-apartheid South Africa is hosting this event only intensifies the feeling that the world of sport can both reflect and influence our collective successes and disappointments and that historical legacies are perpetual and incredibly complex even when displayed on an athletic field.

The unofficial soundtrack of the World Cup has been the vuvuzela, a plastic trumpet played incessantly in the stands of South Africa’s soccer stadiums. For some, the vuvuzelas are a downright annoyance that detract from the viewer’s experience. Broadcasters have tweaked audio levels hoping to muffle the buzzing. Vuvuzelas have been subsequently banned from American stadiums.

Others, however, have argued that the vuvuzela is an authentic cultural expression that the rest of us should critique with care. After all, is behavior at American stadiums all that dignified in comparison? Should the rest of the world be required to bend to our aural preferences?

The vuvuzela, along with several questionable referee decisions, have proved deeply controversial. Far less divisive was a late score by American captain Landon Donovan, a goal that assured the team would continue into the elimination round. A number of YouTube videos showed fan reactions from around the country as disappointment became elation in the blink of an eye.

However, my favorite reaction had to be the iconic call of Andrés Cantor.

Even if you don’t know any Spanish, the emotions of the moment are evident and unmistakable. As Cantor’s voice cracks in the midst of his sustained “Ggggoooollll,” we can sense the gravity of this athletic moment. His call translates easily across cultures and languages. While the vuvuzela seems strange to many, reactions to Donovan’s goal were virtually universal.

Perhaps there is much more in common between the World Cup and the work of preaching than we would initially anticipate. Preachers know instinctively that culture and context matter deeply in our work. There are cultural assumptions and practices so rooted in a particular place and time that they appear absolutely strange to visitors. In churches, such assumptions and practices help shape a common culture but can also repel newcomers.

What are the vuvuzelas in our churches’ pulpits? What is it that sounds so natural to those on the inside but so jarring to those looking in from the margins? On the other hand, how can we create profound moments of joy, insight, or contemplation that bridges the experiential gap between the lifelong church member and a new neighbor visiting for the first time? What are those assumptions and practices that reach across our differences and can create instant unity?

In the end, local church communities are cultural microcosms that must bring disparate peoples around core communal convictions yet remain open to those who are new and different. These underlying tensions are at the center of the challenge of preaching.

The World Cup is a double-edge sword. It unites the world around appreciation for great athletic performance but also inflames old nationalistic divisions. It demonstrates how cultural and linguistic difference can be bridged around a mere game but also how those same differences can still draw us apart. Analogous tensions take center stage every four years at the World Cup and every Sunday at the local church.