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 product. Instead, 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!
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.