The Madison Avenue Driven Church

Some 77 years ago, America saw its first television commercial.

The date was July 1, 1941. The program was a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies.

The short, simple spot was for the Bulova Watch Company, which focused on a watch as the second hand ticked, and a voice-over told viewers what time it was. It cost the company just $9: $4 in air charges and $5 in station charges.

Since then, the commercial has become ingrained into the American conscious and morphed into a type of art form. Some ads are funny, others serious. Some blow our minds and some leave us scratching our heads.

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is how it has become fairly common for an ad to spend little or no time talking about the merits of the product. Sometimes we never even see the productInstead, the strategy behind the ad campaign is this: the more creative and entertaining the ad might be, the more we should believe the product is worth our time and money. In essence, companies and advertisers are saying, “Don’t judge us on the quality or performance of our product. Judge us on our ability to entertain you.”

It seems the Super Bowl is a big reason advertisers started talking less about the product, spending more time trying to make us laugh, cry or simply say, “Wow!”

At the end of the day, the advertising business exists to make money and sell products. It’s up to them to figure out the best ways to accomplish their goals.

Here’s my concern. In some cases, I’ve wondered if the strategy of the advertisers has crept into the practice of our churches.

Sometimes I wonder if we are spending too much time trying to be creative and entertaining, rather than focusing on delivering the vital, necessary content Christians need.

The Bible calls on church leaders to equip, not entertain.

Yet, I wonder if Madison Avenue has become too much of an influence upon us.

Are we burning our energy trying to make the function of the church more palatable to our tastes, rather than profitable to our souls?

The truth is, keeping believers engaged has always been a challenge. Just like in our 21st century, the world of the first century church was filled with distractions and diversions.

It appears that one challenge the early church faced was keeping engaged when it came to preaching. I say this because Paul gave his protege Timothy this admonition found in 2 Timothy 4:2:

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. (NLT)

Some Bible versions translate it like this: “preach the word in season and out of season.”

Meaning, even if people don’t seem amenable to preaching, preach anyways!

Look, I am certainly not against creativity. And as church leaders and communicators, we have to give some thought about how we are presenting the things of God.

But, when it comes to the time we stand before the Lord and give an account of our ministry, will we be able to tell God that we faithfully prepared and equipped people, or will we have to admit we spent more time and energy keeping them entertained?

One verse that I believe is meant to keep us sober about our service to the Lord is James 3:1:

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. (NLT)

Here’s my last thought:

Rather than mimic the ad agencies of Madison Avenue, I think churches should think more like a restaurant.

Think about it: what matters most in a restaurant? It’s the food! If the meal isn’t up to snuff, nothing else really matters. The waiter might be super engaging and the decor absolutely stunning. But if the food is lousy, we feel like we’ve been let down.

I’ve eaten at some places that didn’t look like much, or had slow service, or maybe even cost too much…but the quality of the food overcame these shortcomings. Enough that I would return time and time again!

My prayer:

May the leaders and teachers of our churches focus on quality content, not peripheral fluff.

May we feel confident that the people of our churches are being readied for the challenges of the Christian life, rather than simply keeping them amused.

And may we as God’s ministers always make sure we are giving the people what they need, not just what they want.

And, in time, those two may just become one in the same.

Maintaining Integrity in a Media-Crazed World

Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. ~ Psalm 86:11 ESV

Every once in a while a news story makes its way into the press and onto social media. Something happens that grabs everyone’s attention and gets them talking (or more likely, typing).

I usually find out about it because everyone is piling on opinions in my Facebook news feed.

And much to my dismay, people begin spouting their perspectives about a matter without having taken the time – or having the opportunity – to understand all the facts of the matter.

What’s really sad to me is that in some situations things get so heated, people who know very little about an issue or incident become highly aggressive or deeply defensive.

You’ve likely seen that Facebook comment thread where people become more combative and entrenched. Pretty soon the name calling begins, the accusations start flying and feelings get hurt.

A big problem is many people see the world from their particular viewpoint. So, whatever happens in the world, they are already predisposed to see matters from their own bent, whether it be politically, socially or religiously.

Last Sunday evening’s AFC championship game between the Chiefs and the Patriots provided an illustration of what I’m talking about.

At one point in the game, the Chiefs punted the ball to the Patriots. The ball bounced on the turf just before kick returner Julian Edelman could reach it. The ball bounced past him and was picked up by a Chiefs player who summarily waltzed in for a supposed touchdown.

But Edelman claimed he never touched the ball, meaning the ball would still belong to the Patriots at the point where the Chiefs player first touched it. The Patriots challenged the play, meaning the referees would review it and make a determination.

Now, if you were a Patriots you were hoping that the video review would show that the ball never touched Edelman. But if you were cheering for the Chiefs, you likely were praying that the review revealed the ball did indeed touch Edelman, and the Chiefs would hold on to the six points.

NBC, the network broadcasting the game, played the clip over and over again. It was so hard to determine if the ball was touched or not! But in the end, after looking at the play from a multitude of angles, it truly appeared that Edelman’s complaint was valid. (By the way, I was cheering for the Chiefs and so wanted the Chiefs to have that touchdown!) By a distance of less than an inch, the ball passed by his hand, and then nearly scraped his arm.

Yet even with clear video evidence, some Chiefs fans were convinced that the ball did in fact touch Edelman. Or maybe I should say, they wanted to be convinced. Why? Because their hearts and hopes were invested in a Chiefs victory.

It’s hard to admit we are wrong, especially when it includes a person or a group we don’t care much for.

But we should care more about truth above anything else. Even if that truth hurts, or goes in a way that makes our side look bad. Or their side look good.

Think about it: if we find it in our heart to want to conceal truth, what does that say about us?

George Washington said this:

“Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light.”

That should be our attitude. To take pains to see that truth would rise and prevail in every situation. Our feelings may be a bit bruised, but (hopefully) our conscience will be clear.

As to these matters that pop up in our Facebook news feeds time to time, we may want to take a step back and take a deep breath before we offer an opinion on something we are not yet fully informed. Consider this nugget of wisdom from Proverbs 18:13:

Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish. (NLT)

And James offers this wise counsel that is often challenging to employ:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20 NIV)

Let’s be honest. Sometimes we get drawn into a scrum we really have no business joining. We’re anxious to get in the mix, but in the end we’re just mixed up.

I’m glad that we live in a time where more individuals are able to add their voice to the pressing conversations of our times.

But something tells me that doesn’t mean we should engage in every conversation.

May we have the wisdom to speak as ones who are informed, not just opinionated.

Does the Church have an Identity Crisis?

From my perspective, the church’s grip on it’s compass has a tendency to become a bit wobbly.

Call it a church identity crisis.

Who are we and what are we supposed to be about?

To help us regain our sense of identity, I think we ought to revisit a simple question:

What is the calling of the church?

Here’s what I excavate from the Word:

-Exalt God through Individual and Corporate Worship
-Equip the Saints for Love and Service
-Make Disciples
-Declare the Gospel through Love and Deed
-Practice the Ordinances
-Engage in Congregational Care
-Promote and Practice Prayer
-Preach, Teach and Do the Word
-Depend on the Spirit

In a nutshell, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 tells us what we ought to be spending a lot of our time doing:

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 

These are our God-prescribed activities.

Along with our activities, the proper attitude of the church is summed up well by Micah 6:8: Walk humbly, do justice, love mercy.

These points of focus help me define my charge as a church leader. They give me clarity, and make it more obvious where my energy is not best spent. And within these points I find plenty to keep me busy!

So, what do I see happening in the church (at least from my very small vantage point)?

As of late, I’ve been keenly aware of some downplaying the role of preaching and the importance of direct engagement with the Word.

I hear some people quoting books and bloggers much more than they refer to the Bible.

In the place of preaching and teaching. some would rather gather in a group and share each other’s opinions than allow God’s Word to take a primary place of influence and authority.

For others, there is a pursuit of what I call “hip church,” or “cool church.” Energy is poured into brand, design, special effects and so on. Creativity is king, even it doesn’t really lend much to the church’s primary purposes. This speaks much to our current culture that is easily bored and needs fresh stimulation all the time.

Some churches struggle with wanting to be liked at all costs. The greatest offense is to hear someone say, “I don’t like church,” so they bend over backwards trying to make church more likable. But at some point (hopefully) the Gospel has to be communicated, which means offense is unavoidable. I fear some people may see very little of what the church is supposed to be about, because fear of not being liked has us pushing our God-prescribed practices into a closet.

I’m praying we will leave our state of delirium, but my fear is the church is going to come to realize – through failure – that by our own creativity and ingenuity, we will simply suck most of the power out of God’s primary tool to generate worship, ministry and witness.

As churches, I pray that we will gladly find our identity in who God says we are and what He says we are to do.