Sometimes church jumps the shark.
What’s that mean?
“Jumping the shark is an idiom created by Jon Hein that was used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality, which is usually a particular scene, episode, or aspect of a show in which the writers use some type of ‘gimmick’ in an attempt to keep viewers’ interest. Its name is taken from a scene from a fifth season episode of the sit-com Happy Days when the character Fonzie jumps over a shark on water-skis.”
Related to church, I want focus on this aspect of jumping the shark…
“Using some type of gimmick in an attempt to keep viewers’ interest.”
I started thinking about this last week when I read a post by John Blase about his attempts to energize the small country church he pastored right after graduating from seminary. Here’s a quote from that post:
“What I sensed I needed to do was… bring them into the new things God was obviously doing but they lacked the eyes to see. The kickoff of this innovation attempt was delivering a sermon sitting cross-legged atop the communion table. I didn’t prepare the people at all for that moment, just climbed up where the juice and crackers usually sat and, well, sat. If you don’t have a small town evangelical background, you must understand this was the equivalent of dropping my Dockers in front of the faithful and said faithful discovering I was going, as they say, commando. If memory serves me, the sermon was about how new wine simply cannot exist in old wineskins, yackity, yack… something I’d gotten all hot’n’bothered about at a conference I’d attended.”
Ha! As I read this, I pictured that scene in my mind. It was probably easy for me to visualize, because I’ve used my fair share of gimmicks, antics, and tricks in ministry over the years.
Yeah, I’ve done my share of shark jumping. It’s all rather embarrassing, really.
When I bought my new 1999 VW Beetle (after being on a waiting list for 6 months), I had “Beetle Night” at our youth ministry – and parked my car under the lights in the entryway of the church. Oh the hype and pageantry of it all.
A few years later, my pastor rode his Harley into the church during a Sunday service. I followed him in on my fake Vespa scooter. Because I was a rookie scooter driver, I confused the brake with the gas and nearly crashed into the stage. At the very last second, I got it under control.
Unfortunately, this poor fella didn’t get it under control…
Gibson’s list is pretty good. If I made a list, I would include motorcycle crash guy and the pastor in a coffin (this one is a classic).
I wonder, what makes us think we need more surprise, shock, and awe? Is it an underlying feeling that there’s just not enough buzz in and about the church? Do we believe God needs to be spiced up a bit?
And did Jesus do this?
Do gimmicks, tricks, and antics look like Him at all?
Sure, the making a whip and overturning money changers’ tables in the temple could seem a little jump-the-sharkish, but He wasn’t doing it to entertain an audience or get more Twitter and YouTube hits. I don’t think it had anything to do with buzz or hype.
In my upcoming book, I have a chapter called “Churchified.” Here’s a snippet:
Get all churchified
Keep up a frantic pace
Are addicted to the “lights, camera, action” show
Build on the cult of personality, creating Christian celebrities
Struggle to get excited over the simple and little things
Get starry-eyed over experts and gurus
Take ourselves seriously
Strain and strive…
The hero has been chosen. It’s not Him, the hero is us.
This is when things get really funky in the church. It kind of reminds me of the story of the prophets of Baal in a showdown with Elijah. They wanted their god to respond to their prayers, so they prayed and prayed for hours. They increased their volume and intensity. They danced and sweat and even bled a little. These guys were having some serious “church.”
But with all their intensity and spiritual fervor what actually happened? Not a thing.
They used every religious trick and strategy they knew to make something happen on the altar, but nothing happened—not so much as a whisper, not a flicker of response. —I Kings 18.29 MSG
I wonder how often this describes our attempts to make things happen? Every religious trick and strategy, every gimmick and marketing method invented…
Sadly, I think it happens a lot.
* * * * *
I’m certain I will have a sermon illustration tip into the “jumping the shark” territory again. In fact, I just started advertising that our church is giving free DangeRuss Dogs on Super Bowl Sunday to everyone who attends. I don’t think I will ever be completely free of gimmicks, antics, and tricks – or the desire for buzz and attention. But I do hope to be aware of it and its consequences.
Just what are the consequences?
Well, sometimes you crash a motorcycle in the church. Or nearly die in a coffin during a sermon illustration.
There’s another thing that happens though—something worse than botched illustrations and church blooper-reel material…
The spotlight moves from Jesus to the individual performing the antics.
The gimmicks, antics, and tricks – and the person behind them – become the buzz.
And Jesus is no longer the star of the “show.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: What do you think about church and jumping the shark?