Rethinking Participation Trophies

I cheated some kids last year. Stole from them, really. I was the coach of my son's flag football team and when it came time to hand out participation medals at the end of the season, I refused. I thanked each kid for playing and told them I was proud of their hard work. I did not award medals. They're still hanging on the pegboard in my garage.  

Participation trophies have become a punchline in our culture. We deride them and the generation that has grown up with them. But I wonder if our derision is misplaced. I wonder if participation is getting a bad rap. Participation may be exactly the thing America is missing.  

The most significant recent trend in marketing and media has been the removal of “mass” from both. Mass media is splintering. Mass marketing no longer works. And companies like Facebook and Participant Media are blurring the lines between participation, identity, and consumption. We are kickstarting, text-to-giving, liking, sharing, change.org-ing, go-fund-me-ing, and growing a culture of participation.  

Consider the alternatives. Someone who doesn’t participate is merely a spectator or, worse, a critic. Internet trolls, negative reviewers, and non-voters are not participants.  

Participants aren’t followers. Followers don’t work. Participants practice. Though they may not deserve a trophy for it, they put their hand to the plow. They give their name to a cause. If I follow someone on Twitter, I am not asked to work or risk. But if I sign a petition, share a post, or lend my voice to a movement, my participation costs me something.  

There’s a lesson for our churches in this. For too long we have forgotten that Jesus didn’t gather spectators; he recruited participants. Jesus didn’t establish an institution; he started a movement. Institutions have members, but the church is called to make disciples — people who will do their part, push forward the movement of rescue and renewal.  

I cheated the kids from the flag football team and, at the time, I felt good about it. Now, I wonder if the participation trophy is more valuable than I thought.