Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why the Super Bowl Matters for Churches (Part Two)

A couple of days ago I wrote about Why the Super Bowl Matters for Churches (Part One) and looked at three key areas. First was the sheer entertainment value of the Super Bowl. But in churches, we have to make a basic choice between entertainment and authenticity. Second, I tried to make a point about celebrity leadership and how the quarterback-driven NFL isn’t a great model for local churches, even though the trend is in that direction. And the third way the Super Bowl Matters for Churches that I talked about last week was in the dangers of branding as a means of promoting ourselves at the local church level.

Today I want to focus on two additional reasons Why the Super Bowl Matters for Churches.

The Super Bowl demonstrates the limits of our bubbles. The Super Bowl, all the way from Super Bowl I to Super Bowl XLVI and beyond (can you imagine the confusion in three years with Super Bowl L? Water cooler conversation for those without high school Latin will fixate on what the L stands for: Luscious? Ludicrous? Lovely?). Regardless of the particular year the game’s played, the obvious point is how the Super Bowl exists within its own bubble. The game stands alone; there’s nothing else like it. Commercials are made exclusively for the Super Bowl. Super Bowl Parties are held in homes everywhere. Reputations are won or lost according to how players and coaches perform in it. The Super Bowl has its own language; its own set of expectations; even its own date (the weekend of the game is a de facto national holiday).  The Super Bowl is a sub-culture all to itself, with images, vocabulary and behavior used nowhere else. It’s a bubble where what goes on inside fully engages the people in the bubble with it but without any impact on what’s going on in the world outside the bubble. While the Giants were defeating the Patriots this year, the country was conducting the most important presidential campaign in the last generation, innocent Syrian civilians were being massacred by their government, Iran and Israel were rushing toward war, a young high school student’s family in our community was shattered when he was struck and killed by a car as he stopped to help a broken down vehicle along the highway—none mattered at all to the hundreds of millions of people safely inside the bubble.

Churches love to exist inside the bubble. We create our own culture that’s warm and inviting and gives us a sense of escape from the bad things that happen to us in the world. We use language no one outside the bubble understands; we behave in ways inside the bubble that have no resonance with anyone outside; and we provide tickets to people to enter our bubble only after they agree to adjust their own language, dress, habits and behavior to our own. We drift naturally into a Super Bowl mentality, with the result being, just as the big game itself has no real impact on the world around it, neither do we.

We can’t stay here. Our bubble mentality has rendered us so irrelevant to actual human need that our ministries make little difference in anyone’s life. The greatest challenge churches today face is how to make ourselves available to people on the outside of the bubble.

The Super Bowl proves how great activity often accomplishes nothing of value. I know I’m sounding like a cranky old preacher by now, but one other reason why the Super Bowl Matters to Churches is hanging out there.

The planning and execution that goes into the Super Bowl production every year is astonishing. Thousands of people, tens of thousands of man-hours, tens of millions of dollars, millions of emails, organizational charts, untold numbers of meetings—and all this well before the two teams take the field. While I don’t have any numbers to prove the point, I can’t imagine any production on a similar scale, except maybe for a presidential inauguration. Only there no one paints their bodies with the colors of their favorite team.

And all this for what? A trophy? A banner hung on a stadium wall? Bragging rights with friends who cheered for the losing team? A million dollar raise for a quarterback who already has more money than he’ll ever spend?  The real goal of the Super Bowl, of course, isn’t even who won or lost the game. It’s to make sure that next year, there will be even more hoopla than there was this year. Across the country, football teams of every level, from Pop Warner to the BCS Championship, aspire to Super Bowl-like standards in their own arena. It’s the gold standard.

Over the last few decades American churches have adopted a Super Bowl approach to ministry. We’ve decided that what we do is so important that we have to do more of it. Many churches today define themselves by the numbers of programs they run and the quality of those programs. Churches that do more stuff better are seen as superior to those that do less stuff worse. You can see this demonic value system in place most clearly at denominational meetings where churches with notable programmatic achievements are highly publicized so churches without the same level of achievements can be moved to envy. The aim of many churches, then, becomes to grow large enough to put more programs into place so they can get even more people involved in more programs.

That approach is as empty and meaningless for churches as it is for the Super Bowl. The truth is that church ministry can only be defined in any meaningful way by faithfulness in preaching and teaching the gospel and love. Martin Luther, when asked to define the church, said it is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly observed. The programmatic approach to church ministry has reached its limit, and many churches are starting to see it as the empty shell it really is.

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