Monday, February 6, 2012

Why the Super Bowl Matters for Churches (Part One)

Super Bowl XLVI (I’ve no idea what this Roman numeral actually represents but neither does anyone else; it’s just so cool to use it) is in the books. Following last night’s New York Giants’ 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots, the NFL season is officially over, at least for a few months.


It was a pretty boring game. Both teams were cautious and seemed to play more to avoid losing than actively working to win. Little down-field passing. Few blitzes. Despite having two of the league’s elite quarterbacks, the focus was more on ball control than anything else. Only one turnover, and it didn’t matter. All in all, not much drama to keep your attention.

The other stuff, of course, was a different story. The commercials were great, especially the Dortio’s ad with the dog and the (missing) cat. Loved it, but that may reflect my personal values. And I thought Madonna’s half-time show was jaw-dropping. The Egyptian motif  for her entrance into the stadium was over the top. I pity whoever has to do next year’s show.

The Super Bowl is America’s premier event every year, and that includes non-sporting venues. What other event has created its own holiday? The weekend might as well be declared a national holiday.  A commercial pilot I know told me that the Super Bowl weekend in his company has the highest rate of sick absences of the entire year, including Christmas. Last night’s broadcast reached over 110 million Americans and had the potential of being viewed by 1 billion people world-wide.

While the size of the size of the Super Bowl’s audience probably doesn’t surprise us—after all, we’ve lived with it for years—it may surprise us to learn how much it has to teach us. Turns out that the Super Bowl really does matter to churches. Here’s why:

The Super Bowl exposes the true value of entertainment. This is the largest sporting event in the nation, but it’s less about football than it is about marketing. The NFL is the richest sports league in the world with the average franchise worth over $1 billion. The product that they sell is entertainment, and the league does an amazing job of doing that. The Super Bowl is just the annual celebration of what goes on all year. But the thing about entertainment is that there’s no lasting value for it. What entertains one year has to be improved on to achieve the same amount of entertainment value the next. It’s a never-ending cycle.

Churches that fall into the trap of adopting entertainment as their main attraction soon learn how the process works. How else to explain, for instance, the trajectory of someone like Joel Osteen, who continues to double-down on his positive-living message, when in fact it has no substance to it whatsoever? It’s entertainment with a Christian façade. Effective church ministry today has to choose authenticity over entertainment.

The Super Bowl shows the limitations of celebrity leadership. The NFL is a quarterback driven league. Teams rise or fall according to the ability of their quarterback, and more precisely, according to how their quarterback functions in any given game. Tom Brady, for instance, in last night’s game, didn’t do too well. He didn’t perform according to his normal standards. And as a result, his team lost.

Churches today are more and more driven by celebrity leaders. Of course, pastors are always the most visible leaders in a congregation because of our preaching responsibilities. But today’s church environment goes considerably farther. Today’s high-profile pastors don’t just serve their churches; many of them seem to actually define their churches. In other words, their churches rise or fall according to how the pastor performs. Can you imagine First Baptist, Atlanta without Charles Stanley? Or Potter’s House without TD Jakes? Both are incredibly gifted men, but the churches they lead are identified not by the ministries they do but by the talking head that leads them.  The problem comes, of course, when celebrity pastors fail or step aside or retire or die. What happens to their churches then? Leadership succession in today’s church environment is a huge issue that hasn’t been resolved. But that’s what happens when a single individual carries the entire weight of the success or failure of the church.

The Super Bowl proves how branding can steal your soul. Branding is the way companies identify their products. Coca-cola, for instance, has a brand image that is distinct. Another company, Apple, has made its brand the most valuable in the world. Defining your brand, marketing it and ultimately protecting it, is essential in today’s corporate environment. The NFL has been particularly good at that, with the result being that a lot of people have made a whole lot of money. A 30-second ad in last night’s game cost $3.5 million. The flip side to brand management is that the mission of the organization can become secondary to the brand itself. The corporation can lose its soul. In today's NFL, for instance, Commission Roger Goodell’s main task is to protect the brand.  Free spirits like former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis or players like Joe Namath would no longer fit in today’s NFL. They don't represent the brand image the corporation needs to protect.

In our modern churches, branding is fast becoming a beast every bit as hungry as in corporate America. Churches build their brands, manage their brands and protect their brands with as much tenacity as Roger Goodell does with his NFL. And to be fair, it’s easy to fall into that trap. Churches do need to be distinctive and focus on their particular areas of ministry. They’ve got to be able to carve out a niche for ministry that reflects their unique gifting and calling to their community. They can’t be just a building on some street, like all other buildings on the same street or in the same community. On the other hand, there are churches where their branding is greater than the gospel itself. They’ve become known not so much as centers for gospel ministry but as social or cultural phenomenon where the coolness of the brand is more attractive than the gospel. Here’s a video from Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, one of the fastest growing churches in the nation, where branding is taken very seriously:

But that’s a branding that doesn’t pay attention to the larger issues the gospel confronts us with. We in the church have to be very careful with how we position ourselves in our communities. The message we want to send is one not of branding but of Jesus, not of clever marketing but of grace lived out in human lives.

Tomorrow: Why the Super Bowl Matters for Churches (Part Two)

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