The similarities between two unpopular subcultures: rollerblading and Christianity

I took up rollerblading again two years ago. The kids expressed some interest in getting rollerblades/rollerskates for Christmas, and I thought I'd get myself a pair too.


I started rollerskating when I was about 10, and after trying my first pair of inline skates on the St Kilda boulevard as a 12 year old, I was hooked. This was when 'aggressive inline skating' (tricks and ramps and jumps and stuff) was on the rise and so I got into that, until a severe injury on a handrail when I was 16 made me hang up my skates.

Inline skating exploded in popularity in the 1990s, and at its peak was vastly more popular than skateboarding. There was even a pretty ordinary comedy drama film with a very young Jack Black and Seth Green all about a rollerblader:

But somewhere in the late 90s early 2000s the sport went into precipitous decline, and has never recovered. But like struggling bands might say... 'we're big in Japan' :-) Here's a documentary that tells that story:

It was watching this documentary that first got me noticing some of the similarities between rollerblading and Christianity. They speak about the effect that being a mocked and 'persecuted' subculture has on your identity and the cohesion of your community. Over the last few years I've noticed more similarities.  So here we go:

1. The rollerblading community is interested in people joining the sport, not just having a go

To be Rory Shiner has already done a simliar thing to this post, with something he wrote about how the church should be more like a the sport lacrosse, than like the cinema in the way they deal with declining popularity: the cinema will do anything to woo you to get your money, whereas the lacrosse community doesn't just want your money, it wants YOU. The lacrosse community is a formative community. 

Some stuff about this isn't quite the same: rollerblading doesn't need a team, a time keeper, a sausage sizzle.. so there isn't the same parallel that Rory could draw between a lacross team and church rosters. 

But what is similar, is that when your sport is small, you really feel a desire not just to get people to dabble. You want people to engage. I'm more excited by my friend Miranda who regulary rollerblades for fitness, than someone who tells me they have a pair and could do it now and then if they wanted to.

2. 'Persecution'

A need to get the image and the language right because you will be misrepresented by your persecutors

Rollerblading was really hated on the 'cool' subcultures of the 1990s. If you were skating around skateboarders you'd probably hear things like 'fruitboots' and 'rollerfags' and 'What's the hardest thing about rollerblading? Having to tell your mum that you're gay' (which is all interesting in itself, right? How 20 years ago so many insults revolved around a derogatory reference to homosexuality). You were not a 'real' extreme sport, like BMX or skateboarding. You were 'toy' or 'try hard'. It was all easy: they're strapped to your feet, right?

And so on the one hand was a lot of effort to try to improve the image of rollerblading. That's where the term 'aggressive inline skating' came from: to distance what WE did, from the lycra and hypercolour wearing recreational rollerbladers on the boardwalk. We were not fluro-colours recreational 'rollerbladers'... we were  AGGRESSIVE INLINE SKATERS. The videos and magazines of the time modeled a fashion and attitude very similar to skateboarding, and promoting tricks that were serious technical tricks, not goofy stunts.

This was all good stuff. And it is similar to what the church does: the effort to get the words 'right' and to clarify the preconceptions and unfair stereotypes. There really is a place for this. Because you will be misinterpreted by your detractors.

Getting the image right isn't enough: acceptance within a despised community

But in the end it didn't matter how much of this rollerblading did, it was always the loser kid brother of skateboarding. Because, like with Christianity, no matter how cool you look, and how clear you are on what you are and are not... if you are not culturally accepted, you're doomed.

So over time, as the documentary above describes, rollerbladers began to accept they were a despised minority. And with this came a happy sense of belongning: we love what we do, we get it, we love each other. This is the belonging within a subculture, that is very similar to Christianity. And in some ways the very experience of being on the 'outside' became part of the rollerblader narrative.

But the great thing about being part of a small and despised community is that you belong there. I could travel to many places in the world and be welcomed and looked after by rollerbladers. I could probably get personal access to many (all?) of the 'stars' of rollerblading pretty easily. Something about this feels similar to the global family of Christianity.

You might notice that I am using 'rollerblader' more than 'aggressive inline skater'... that's because this is what happened with the terminology. Over time, the aggressive inline community gave up on trying to get the perfect language to distance themselves from other things. They embraced the term 'rollerblader' anew. Besides, this is the term that everyone else understood. Perhaps this is similar to some of the challenges we face as Christians with terms like 'evangelical'?

This sense of being a despised community morphed into simple being an invisible community: a sport so small that no one cared enough even to hate you.

Treatment of other despised sports: welcome others because you know what it feels like

In some quarters there was a hateful backlash against this rejection: rollerbladers would hate skateboarders in return. Tragically there are now some rollerbladers say all sorts of mean things about scooter kids, which is sad. But many know what it's like to be rejected as the new kid on the block and so are quick to defend scooter kids and the younger sport.

Even within the rollerblading community, smallness has often encouraged a broadness. True, there are some who sink deeper and deeper into a kind of Pharasaical nitpicking (is it right to call a savannah grind an alley-oop backside unity?). But I am observing generally more openness. Few can afford to just celebreate 'aggressive' inline skating: instead we rejoice when we see recreational and roller hockey skaters too! And even within the aggressive community, there has been an openness not just to practice the cool, 'canonical' tricks, but also more goofy 'mushroom blading'. 

So also we Christians ought to defend other minority communities and religions, seeking their protection and respect, for we also know the pain of marginalisation. And even though I really think there is a place for a healthy godly 'tribalism' that cares about theological and ministry philosophy distinctives... there is also a reality that we cannot afford to endlessly divide over secondary matters with our brothers and sisters.

3. Post-persecution fascination

By the time I'd come back to the sport in the 2010s, and began turning up at skateparks swarming with scooterkids, rollerblading was no longer despised: it was unknown. And so the younger skateboarders didn't know they were meant to hate us. Instead of being dismissive: 'That's easy, the wheels are stuck to your feet', I've found they've been respectful: 'That's hard! They're stuck to your feet so you can't jump off when you need to bail!'. They see the unique potential that rollerblades have for spins, flips and grinds.

Part of this is also that kids are now growing up with three popular extreme sports: skateboarding, BMX and scooter. Skateboarding no longer has a monopoly, and so this pluralism has fostered openness, I think. (Also interesting is that skateboarding is not doing all that great these days either)

Some of this is increasingly true regarding Christianity on the university campus. Whereas the Gen X media and lawmakers are like old-school skateboarders — very negative and dismissive about Christianity — 18 year old students who have been raised several generations deep in biblical illiteracy are kind of intrigued by it. 

4. Lifestyle industries

You don't do it to get rich, you sacrifice for it because you love it 

You won't get rich making rollerblades, running a rollerblading shop or trying to 'go pro'. From the skaters right through to the manufacturers (except for those companies for whom rollerblades are just a small part of their overall production, like K2) this is a labour of love. A good example is this guy talking about the pressures running a skate shop put on his family:

When we started, I was able to support Gretchen completely through it, we bought a house, lived somewhat comfortably, and were able to travel a lot. Soon after the decline started, I found myself not being able to take a paycheck. I went years without taking one. Gretchen started working 2 jobs so we would have an income, we had really long stressful days. Struggling is probably an understatement. It was very stressful on us both of us, we joke now how cliche it is, but we literally had top ramen days. That’s all we could afford to eat. But, we always had hope for change. Gretchen also never gave up on me, she never quit on my dream. I am very thankful for that. Most girls would have bounced easy, gone. But, she stuck by me. She stuck by rollerblading.
Our storefront was amazing, it was difficult to let go of for sure. I worked there 6 days a week for 5 years straight. No days off, no sick days. We were dedicated for sure.

... Gretchen called me upstairs. I ran up, and she said I need to tell you something, “I’m pregnant.” That seriously put a lot of things in perspective. One second I’m figuring out the spot list for the day, then the next moment I find out I’m going to be a father. It wasn’t about me anymore or my crap, it became all about my son, Elias. Gretchen has sacrificed a lot for blading, and it was my turn to help her out. She has a really good job at Chandler Regional Hospital that provides a stable income, and health insurance. That is really important, so I told her, I’ll step back from the storefront, and focus on being a dad and be at home to take care of Elias and she can keep her job. The timing was right, our lease was up anyways, so I said, let’s close the storefont, and I’ll focus Revolution to be completely online. It made sense.

Sounds a lot like a church planter story! (for another story about a competition organiser see here)You do this because you love and care about it and are giving. 

In that sense, the wider community and industry is similar to Rory's lacrosse example above. Those who stick with rollerblading and get into rollerblading are lifestyle rollerbladers, not just consumers. 

Intersection of different groups to keep rollerblading alive

Like with the Christianity, there is an 'ecosystem' or people and groups that work together to keep rollerblading going... and provide a brittle skeleton upon which any future growth might happen: competition organisers, shop owners, website and magazine editors, podcasters, Facebook Group admins, YouTubers, manufacturers, other companies being generous to skate manufacturers. All of these have their place in keeping the community humming and giving it a chance of living on.

Sure, rollerblading could live on with people scrounging Salvos and Tip Shops for old parts and skates. Sure you could have solitary skaters carrying on almost entirely along. But that wouldn't last long.

So with Christianity: while the local church sits at the centre, there are the publishing companies, websites, conferences, theological colleges, parachurches. It would be naive be too quick to dismiss these different things. 

Investment in the industry to keep rollerblading alive

As I've continued on with rollerblading over the last few years, I feel a new responsibility: to do my little bit not only to promote the sport (see previous point), but also to invest in the sport.

So while I'll probably continue to buy skates of Gumtree to be frugal, I can see the sense in buying new skates to support the manufacturers (in case you were wondering if I were to buy a new pair, I'd get a handmade pair of Adapt Brand skates). If I needed to get a T-shirt anyway, I'm inclined to buy a rollerblading T-shirt, not only to help promote but also to help the company.

Even if I don't feel a strong need to find other rollerbladers in Hobart, I post on the Facebook Group, partly for possible evangelistic contacts (who knows?!), but also to keep the Group humming.

When you stop thinking like a consumer, in rollerblading or in Christianity, you realise that you can play a small part in keeping the whole healthy. You don't just attend or purchase or volunteer because it suits you. My financial support, my purhcases, my attendance, my volunteering: these all put economic petrol in the tank.

5. Promoting the sport and but powerless to seek revival

Is this the year the rollerblading will 'come back'? People often ask? We love our sport and would love to have more people be a part of it. Some of us remember the good things about being a larger sport: for skaters, for shops, for manufacturers. But then again, we also remember the sleazy side of corporate influence, and are kind of relieved to no longer be in the rollerblading equivalent if 'Christendom'.

But what would it take for rollerblading to be 'big again'? Pondering this question brings out plenty of parallels to those seeking revival for the church in the West. And why many 'quick fixes' are painfully naive.

Large cultural factors outside of our control

No matter how good rollerblading advertising is, not matter how much money we pour into exhibition performances and competitions in world cities, not matter how we adjust the look of the skates and fashion of the skaters... none of this could or would trigger a rollerblading revival. They might play a part in keeping the sport alive, and drawing in a few new participatngs. They might play a part in a revival once it gets rolling. But they can't trigger one.

Because the thing is, sport popularity is the confluence of so many factors, from media portrayal to streams of cultural zeitgeist. People around the world are scratching their heads about how to make rollerblading, or lacrosse or European handball or windsurfing more popular. But these sports aren't less popular than soccer because soccer is doing more 'right' in its social media strategy and delegation principles. There are larger forces, all governed ultimately by God's will, which determine these things.

Some sports might have in-built limiting factors (expense, entry-level difficulty, eccentricity). Others, due to their geographical base will struggle for global reach (think: Aussie Rules Football). But even those which have been huge, or by all accounts are fairly indistinguishable from huge sports, and have decent bases in the 'right' countries: these things don't guarantee anything.

I remember when Geneva Push was just starting up, someone came to one of our meetings and said 'People say "church planting movements can't happen in Australia". They are defeatist conservatives. I'm going to prove them wrong.'. Ten years later... nothing much. Turns out the defeatist conservatives were right.

We can't engineer a Christianity revival through church planting, social media, cool Christian music labels, 5Ms structures or whatever else. There are so many forces out of our control... and that is just thinking in terms of God's ordinary providence, leaving aside the need for supernatural intervention.


Instead, the best thing rollerblading can do is just not die. We are almost powerless to bring about a revival. But we can make sure that rollerblading still is a thing, so that it can be revived. So also with the church, while we may not be able to engineer revival, we can persist with a faithful presence: holding a candle and keeping it alight.


And in small ways, there are things I can do to promote the sport, which are strikingly similar to much of the evangelism that I think is most effective in Australia. 

Handing out fliers about rollerblading, holding public exhibition events about rollerblading, or doing walkup rollerblading evangelism at the skatepark wouldn't do much. And could well just irritate

  • Be active: keep skating (keep going to church, reading your Bible, participating in the parachurch group) 
  • Be public about it: Facebook sharing, instagramming, incorporating rollerblading into a blog post on a church planting site. Even just being public as a rollerblader, rather than keeping it to yourself makes it more visible to those around you (the equivalent for Christianity is clear, right?)
  • Be alert to those who express interest: holding forth about rollerblading to someone who is not interested won't do much good. But also be prepared to talk about rollerblading to anyone who asks you. Be ready to engage and woo those who show some keenness ('I used to rollerblade in high school!'). Perhaps bring it up again and draw them in a little more with a cool YouTube clip?
  • Have free stuff: if I weren't a Christian, if rollerblading were a higher priority, I'd definitely keep a swag bag of rollerblades to give to kids at the skatepark who express some interest (so with Christianity: invites to church/Christianity courses, giveaway books, fliers etc?)
  • Set a good example: scooter kids can be absolute twits, and it doesn't really affect the sport because it's in a good place at the moment. But if the only rollerblader in town is an idiot at the skatepark that can really do some damage. So in addition to actually skating well, if I can be Mr Good Vibes at the park, encouraging others with their successes, being friendly and following park etiquette, I won't win people over to rollerblading, but at least I won't turn them off.
  • Invest in the next generation: What's the future of rollerblading? The kids of those who started skating in the 1990s. So me getting me kids on wheels is one of the best things I can do for rollerblading. So also with Christianity: Christian parenting, Sunday schools, youth and AFES ministries are very important.

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