Football health warnings and evangelism

So it seems a professor of something or other thinks that footballs should now be sold with dementia health warnings on them. The Times (paywall) report:

The link between dementia and heading a football is now so strong that balls should be sold with health warnings, the scientist leading a landmark study has said.

He went on:

We’re at the point with this current data to suggest that footballs should be sold with a health warning saying that the repeated heading of a football may lead to increased risk of dementia.

Now, the argument for changing the laws of football is a legitimate one to have. Just as certain rugby laws have changed to account for certain significant health risks – head on head clashes and charging players in the air, for instance – so there is a case to be made, on known health grounds, for protecting football players. The discussion about whether heading should remain part of football is one to be had (whichever way we might fall on the question itself).

But the suggestion that footballs should come with a health warning seems a bit daft to me. Not because the link isn’t legitimate, but because it is an entirely pointless act. As long as football continues to allow heading of the ball as part of the professional game, the idea that anyone will be put off doing the same simply because a tag on the ball suggests there is a link with dementia is insane.

Take cigarette warnings as an example. I’m not aware of increasingly graphic warnings on cigarette packets achieving anything very much. The most significant steps in reducing uptake in smoking was the raising of the age at which they can be bought to 18 (and many places choosing to ID everyone who looked under 25) and the smoking ban, first in pubs and then in most public buildings. It wasn’t until the actual act of smoking was made considerably harder that much changed. Health warnings achieved very little because, at the end of the day, most people are well aware of the health risks and are choosing to disregard them anyway.

In exactly the same way, if heading footballs is deemed so detrimental that it needs to be limited or stopped, health warnings on footballs will do absolutely nothing. The only thing that will put a stop to it is if the laws of the game change. As long as heading the ball is part of football, it will continue to be something everyone who buys a football does as part of their playing with it. No warning labels are going to do anything to stop it otherwise.

Now, I am not particularly concerned with heading footballs. I am not taking a view on that here. But I thought there was an interesting parallel to be drawn between the plan to put health warnings on footballs and our evangelism. Stick with me, I’ll explain what I mean.

As far as I can see, health warnings on footballs is utterly pointless. It might well be true that heading footballs increases the risk of dementia, but a label on a football being sold will do absolutely nothing about that. It is arguably a statement of fact that will make little to no discernible difference to anything.

Much of our evangelism can be a bit like those football warning labels. Right message, essentially true, utterly ineffective. Just like labels on footballs, unless we actually speak to people’s real concerns, the truth we share with them will just be seen as valueless to them. If what I am warning people about, or what I am presenting to them, doesn’t cut to the heart, then what I am sharing might be true, but it will simply be ignored in favour of whatever else they want to do.

If football involves heading the ball, when I buy a football I am going to head the ball. No amount of warnings about dementia links will cut through because I buy a football to play the game. Those warnings will only work on the tiny proportion of people who, at the point of buying the football, are already worrying (for some reason) about dementia links. But for most people, that just isn’t on their agenda and suddenly raising it apropos of nothing won’t keep it there.

Just like that, most people are not thinking about the things of eternity very much. If we, apropos of nothing, suddenly confront them with it, how likely is that message to cut through? What we are saying might be true, but if it isn’t on people’s agenda already, our message is likely to get a little lost. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t talk about eternal matters – in my community we often begin with the doctrine of Hell because Muslims believe in it already and white working class people know we believe in it and want us to tell them, straight up, what we think about it. But these are some of the people who have eternity on their minds already.

But what about the overwhelming majority of people who don’t. Their lives are full, they’re busy, they feel relatively happy, they are concerned with simply living one day to the next. Do they need to know about Heaven, Hell and matters of eternity? Of course they do. But if I just confront them with it out of nowhere, is the message likely to land? Probably not. I need to do a bit more work than that if the message is going to be heard helpfully.

There are all sorts of things we might do and helpful ways we might do it. Those things are perhaps for another post. But we do need to think about our messaging. It’s not that what we’re saying is wrong or untrue. But is it possible that what we’re saying doesn’t land because we’re saying it in the wrong way or not really scratching where people itch? I can share the gospel, but unless I’m connecting the gospel with the concerns and affections of the person I’m speaking to, I might end up essentially being a health warning on a football – basically true, but ultimately to no avail.