By Eddie Pipkin

There was a lot of great football on last weekend, and if you watched any of it while you were digesting all that turkey, at some point you noted a spontaneous, ubiquitous phenomenon familiar to modern sports fans the world over.  It’s called The Wave, and if you’ve ever been to a big sporting event in a big stadium, you probably – maybe even though you were not enthusiastic about the prospect and were just literally going along with the crowd – participated in The Wave yourself.  A few weeks ago, in attendance at a college football game, I had great view of something I had never before observed firsthand: the birth of The Wave.  I watched as one determined guy got a movement started that eventually circumnavigated the entire venue of 40,000 people.  It wasn’t instantaneous.  It took several, determined tries.  But he had a clear strategy and he worked that strategy until his spark of an idea generated a life of its own, and in so doing, he provided some invaluable lessons on the right ways and wrong ways to get a ‘new wave’ going in ministry.

This guy, whom I immediately wanted to recruit to run a ministry initiative, was a gung-ho, go-getter, filled with energy and eager to impress the kids who accompanied him.  I was all focused on the action on the field until my wife nudged me (she’s a participator) and said, “Hey, they’re trying to get the wave going.”  This guy actually had a little syncopated song/chant he got going with the kids, then the people closest to him, then rows 10 up and 10 down from him, and eventually the whole section.  It involved rhythmic hand-clapping and simple words to the effect of “we’re gonna start the wave!”  And it built and repeated in a way that ended in a clear launch of unified arms in the air.  I had never heard this approach before, and I can’t really find it anywhere online – here’s perhaps the best I could do – but it was clearly something organized and structured that he had been taught by some Jedi master of wave creation.

By the way, for you sports and cultural history nerds – or just trivia nerds in general, really; I’m talking to you, obsessive Jeopardy watchers – did you know that the wave is generally referred to around the world as The Mexican Wave?  That’s because, although this specialized cheer definitively started in the U.S., the first time the rest of the world was exposed to it was at an internationally televised World Cup game in Mexico in 1986.  It’s really interesting as an activity, because if you had never seen it before, and someone was trying to explain it to you, it’s hard to do – to describe it step-by-step in words and explain the mechanics of getting it started – but once you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you instantly get it, and participation is easy and intuitive.

This, too, is a ministry lesson.  We use an awful lot of words trying to explain concepts and expectations, programs and vision casting.  What really works is when we show people firsthand ministry in action – compassion in action, love in action, generosity in action, service in action, joy in action, empathy in action – and then give them an opportunity to join right in, buoyed by the energy of other people doing exactly the same thing in community.

Somebody came up with the idea originally, though, worked to demonstrate the concept to others and propagated its popular usage.  (You can watch a fun video on the history of the wave or link to the Wikipedia history excerpt.)  Generally attributed to the genius of iconic professional cheerleader Krazy George Henderson in the late 70s and early 80s (with some minor dispute and debate as to exact origins and inspirations), what is clear is that it’s an American creation, and that prior to that time, it did not exist as a phenomenon.  If you attended a football game in the 70s or watched one on TV, there was no such thing as the wave.  It simply did not exist.  Ten years later, it was everywhere.

Of course, even though it’s as familiar as mascots and stadium hot dogs now, that doesn’t mean it’s an automatic, guaranteed feature.  My pal, the wave master, made numerous attempts to get the wave going before his efforts caught on.  Waves die out on a regular basis.  Sometimes they just never get started.  Sometimes they make it for two seating sections then start to fizzle, limping along to a sad dissipation.  Sometimes they crash dramatically – big start, then a sudden, seemingly inexplicable crash.  This, too, is redolent of ministry initiatives.

There are rules and guidelines for ensuring the success of your wave (stadium version or ministry version):

  • The right person with the right vision and energy. This is key.  There has to be a person as dedicated and skilled as my wave loving friend (and hopefully a core cadre of dedicated co-conspirators or followers) to get the thing rolling.  Starting a wave is not an assignment that can be handed off to a flunky or a non-enthusiastic volunteer.  (Here’s a video with an experiment that explored the question of exactly how many people are required to get a wave going.)
  • A strategy. You can’t just stand up and start flailing your arms in the air.  People do that for all sorts of reasons.  It’s the coordinated, unified, but timed with a purpose, standing and sky-reaching, and vocalizing (“whooooaaaah”) that elevates these spastic individual actions to the impact of a surging, purposeful humanity in motion!  A plan, launched with confidence, is key.
  • The right direction. You have to pick a direction that the wave is headed (stadium version), and if you get this wrong, you sabotage the process before it ever gets started.  You have to read the people in the seats and sense who is game for giving this a go.  In ministry, we tend to default to launching the wave in the big worship setting, but sometimes that’s the direct route to the big fizzle.  We might be better served by starting with small groups and working our way up to the big pitch.
  • The right timing, part 1. Most of the time the stadium wave gets going during a lull in the game.  It can happen at other times, too, but it’s important that it happens at the right time, not in conflict with other things that are occurring, like, for instance, a big sequence of game-deciding plays.  This was an issue for my super-enthusiastic wave starting friend: he did not have a strong sense of understanding the vibe in the stadium, and multiple wave attempts failed because, despite his intense single-minded focus,  the fans were busy paying attention to something more relevant at the moment.  We make that same mistake in ministry.  We are so single mindedly focused on the thing we are excited about and ready to launch that we can fail to understand the current ministry vibe in our context – what it’s ready for or not quite yet.
  • The right timing, part 2. Which is just a heightened form of the idea in “right timing part 1,” but to stress that sometimes the timing is not just slightly miscalculated, the timing is downright wrong.  You don’t start the wave (stadium edition) during the national anthem or during an injury timeout or when your team is 4th and 20 with the game on the line.  No matter how hard headed you are, no matter how convinced you’ve been given a holy vision, that will not work.
  • But when the timing is right, persistence is rewarded. Don’t give up easily.  The odds are almost certain that the initial attempt at wave generation will not succeed.  In fact, if you are in the section of seats where the wave is beginning, one of the thrills of the process is watching each renewed attempt gain a little more steam and a little more steam until, suddenly, the thing catches on.  Our strategies should embrace this phenomenon.  We should plan for fits and starts and moments of almost catching on.  Such moments build momentum in ways that are organic.
  • Joy in the execution. Boos break out in stadiums (and ministry settings) too.  There is something about the wave that is inherently joyous.  There is no such thing as an angry wave.  In creating a ministry wave (the propagation of a great new idea which will be propelled forward on waves of excitement), it’s good to remember that one of the ways to filter ideas, programs, projects, and initiatives is to be sensitive to whether joy and excitement are the propulsive energy that surrounds them.  Stoke that energy.  Ride it to success.  If the joy and energy aren’t there, or if you are having to constantly lecture people that it should be there (which is a thing we sometimes do), then that’s a good indication you’re on the downward slope to the big fizzle.  Pause for recalibration.

Thinking about your own local context, consider any popular and successful initiative that has been a feature of your ministry in the last five years.  Analyze it from the vantage point of wave creation, and it becomes easy to see the alignment with the bullet points mentioned above: the right person or team, working from a starting place of joy, in the right direction, with the right timing.  Voila!  (Which is French for “and the Holy Spirit does the rest.”)

Right as I was working on this week’s blog, I got a text from a friend who started a wave she calls Gift Share in which people bring new and barely used (very lightly and almost new) items to church on a designated day – the Christmas season is a perfect time for this – and everybody does some ‘priceless’ shopping.  It’s a great discipleship exercise in stewardship, repurposing our resources faithfully, and providing for one another as a community.  People miraculously see things that were just what they were looking for.  The leftovers are boxed and delivered to local charities, but most of the time there are hardly any leftovers.  It’s fun.  It serves a practical example of living out our faith.  And it meets some real needs.  This event has become a popular tradition at her church.  People look forward to it.  I would also like to humbly confess that I was on staff at this church when Shari was first inspired with this idea, and I was opposed to it.  There were so many ways it could obviously go wrong or spin out of control.  But I do have sense enough to duck under a big, beautiful wave and hold my breath when it’s about to crash into me, and that’s what I did in this case.  And Gift Share is still a hit.  You should try it.

We’ve all been part of a big, beautiful wave.  And we’ve all been part of well-intended fizzles.  It’s useful to think about the attitudes, conditions, and context that separate the one from the other.  We are inspired with so many impulses on so many days, but the movement from impulse to hyperkinetic mass participation is not random.  It is purposeful.

What are big wave moments you have been a part of?  Did you get lucky – was the excitement for an idea so intense that it just carried itself to fruition – or was careful nurturing of the nascent wave an essential part of the process?  What kinds of mistakes have seen crash a potentially successful wave?  What advice would you add to the wave generation pointers included here?  Share your own stories.