When Church Jumps The Shark

Sometimes church jumps the shark.

What’s that mean?

From Wikipedia:

“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…

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These types of  gimmicks, antics, and tricks aren’t new. They’ve been going on for years. There’s even a “Top 12 Pastor Stunts” list by David Gibson.

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).

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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:

When we:

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?



I am a husband, father, pastor, leader & reader. I love God, love people & love life.

11 Comments to When Church Jumps The Shark

  1. I do recall this one time we mentioned something about a certain football player being at the church…

    Great post PB. I agree that gimmicks can be fun but it’s not worth it if the attention is taken off of Jesus.

    I think it’s important to think of ways to keep church fresh, fun and exciting. No one wants to attend a boring church, but I do think it needs to be done in a way that keeps the focus on the real Star of the show.

    • Oh, wow. How’d I forget our SPECIAL GUEST SPEAKER TIM TEBOW on Sunday, April 1? Thanks for the reminder Angela! Definitely jumped the shark on that one (and am still rather unrepentant about it).

  2. Bryan Stanton

    I love this post, PB. I’ve seen a lot of gimmicks over the years. Some were actually quite thought provoking and seemed to hit the point that was targeted, but most were either humorous or silly at best, or over-the-top manipulation at worst. I think most Americans have, at least, an appreciation for the dramatic. We get bored easily, and we like it when someone does something to spice things up or shock us a little. But there is that line where it ceases to be a simple wake up call and becomes something else.

    I hate to be manipulated. I think most people do. Some times I can see it when it is happening, and the smart aleck in me will do everything I can to confuse the manipulator – or I will just call them out for it. Most of the time however, I don’t realize I’ve been manipulated until after the fact, and it makes me angry – angry with the manipulator for not being honest with their agenda and angry with myself for being naive and used for something I don’t believe or support.

    I like how you strive to keep the main thing the main thing – Jesus is the hero, it’s all about Him and all He said and did.

  3. Danielle P.

    I love this post! I can definitely think of times when I’ve heard gimmicks & tricks at church. The really over the top things don’t get to me so much as the subtle gimmicks do though. Like the big events, with fancy advertising slogans, and free food, those don’t bother me much at all. I think they can be useful in getting different people interested. It’s the subtle ‘jumping the shark’ that really drives me nuts.

    I’ll give an example. So the pastor preaches an amazing sermon, many people feel like it applies to their own lives, and they start feeling interested in learning more… well there are altar calls, and ‘eyes closed, hands raised’ moments for those people. And it’s like clockwork that the gimmicky ineffective advertising slogans start popping up around that time. I don’t understand the need to hype the gospel into some type of infomercial, which promises quick results & a no-worry guarantee. “Accept Jesus Now, it’s a limited time offer folks. If you let Jesus into your heart now, the price is free, and the rewards are spectacular. Don’t walk out the door today without your own certified relationship with Jesus… He will heal your heart, erase your sins, change your life, you will never be the same person from this moment on! Take a moment to stop by our booth on your way out so you can sign up, and sign the contract without reading the fine print.”….. haha, ok so it’s not exactly like that, but it’s kinda like that… We promise extraordinary results, and require a low level of commitment.

    Maybe it’s effective at getting people out of their shell, by making them excited enough to raise their hand in a room of strangers. But it’s also extremely false advertising. When I got saved, nothing in my life changed. I mean, I did join the church, and over a short amount of time I changed my friends, and my social
    engagements. But all of my problems were still there, and everyone else in my life was exactly the same. So, over time I think I formed a really unhealthy personal belief system about who Jesus was, why He was there, and what He could do for me. And Jesus didn’t really come through for me on that level. He didn’t seem to show an interest in instantly fixing my problems. He didn’t make me super successful & take away every semblance of my f**ked up family life lol.

    I think we need to have an alter call that’s not geared toward the super Christians in the room, and instead geared toward the ‘still not quite sure I believe, but I’m interested in learning more’ people in the room. Maybe less of Jesus Magic, more of Jesus Normal? So people know what they’re getting into. “Sign up after the service so we can stay in contact with you. We have a lot of resources for you to learn what it means, scripturally, to be in close relationship with God. We welcome people of all kinds, and whether you’re looking for a place to belong and create relationships, or if you’re just looking for a place to boost your faith once per week, we can help you out. Whether you want to find people with good character who you can play basketball with on the weekends, or if you’re just looking to make friends with other people who like to discuss spiritual ideas and have existential conversations. Whether you’re a single dad who wants to provide an environment to teach your child about values, or if you’re a teenager who’s just sick and tired of being bullied, and spending every afternoon alone in your bedroom- we want to welcome you to come back and spend some time with us. This is a place to belong, to find healing, and most importantly to learn how real God is, and how much God loves you. This is a place to learn what it means to be loved individually by God- regardless of where you have been, where you are, or where you will go. God wants to be with you, and living your life with you everyday, and we’re all about finding ways to help you achieve that.” It seems simple enough for me, and there’s no false promises based on hype and quick results. Just real life Jesus stuff. Whaddaya think?

    • Ha! Yes – “I’m going to count to three – and when I say ‘three,’ hands will go up all around this room… Are you ready? Some of your hearts are already beginning to beat faster. That’s God. His Spirit is speaking to you right now. Here we go… ONE. Some of you are hesitating. Don’t hold back. Don’t miss out on this opportunity. TWO. You can feel it. Today is your day. This is the moment it all changes. Are you ready? All across the room. From the right to the left, the front to the back…. ONE, TWO, THREE!!!!! Hands are shooting up! There’s more. I sense it in my spirit. At least 5 more. There’s one. And another. Where’s the third? There! Now there’s four. Come on, don’t hold back on God. This is it. FIVE! Thank you young man for raising your hand. I’m glad we waited for you…”

      It’s like a high pressure auction combined with an infomercial.
      But wait… there’s more! If you respond in the next 2 minutes, we’re gonna throw in a FREE Holy Spirit baptism. That’s right! Tongues and interpretation will be yours for FREE if you hurry.

      • Danielle P.

        Hahahah! Exactly!! I’m cracking up now, cause that’s seriously what it sounds like some times. A high pressure auction/ infomercial combo. Jesus didn’t really do those while he was standing around the lake being a rebel With a cause lol… Jesus doing a high-pressure alter call in the slums with a portable fog machine & keyboard for added ambiance ;-)

        … I have a question that’s kinda related to the topic of our church lingo/culture… Do you ever wonder if Christianity has forgotten that it’s based on an ancient belief system from halfway across the world? I ask that because it seems to me that in our country Christians can tend to worship “Christianity” more than Christ. Or at least they promote “the Christian lifestyle”, rather than “promote” the gospel, and message of Christ. It’s so sooo weird!! I’m like, “Christianity, go take a look at your family photo album.. I think you may have forgotten where you came from. You’re not a white American.. You’re Not a symbol of Capitalism.” Our religion is so detached from what it actually is. It’s not like The Bible is actually about living as a profitable churchgoing Christian. It’s so much waaaayy deeper than that. It’s so completely on a different level than that.

        Lmao, but oh well, I’m still thankful that every single day I am seeing more people who are trying to help us all find our way back to our religions basic truths. Like the people you link on your Sunday Shout Outs. Love reading all the interesting ideas in these progressive Christian blogs nowadays! People are getting a lot better at conveying the more important points about salvation. It’s fun to see that changing, and it makes me think there’s hope for the rest of us Christians, the weird & misunderstood ones & all the other ones too!!!

        • Yeah – the language & really the practices of Christianity today are much more of a 21st century white American thing (unless you include Catholics, especially of the Italian variety). We do need to look at the family photo album.

          I think there is a difference between Christianity (what we call it – the brand) and being a follower of Jesus. More and more, I’m convinced that following Jesus has to do with participating in an alternative system, a different Kingdom – one where God’s ways are becoming our priority. It’s less of a belief system or “faith,” and more of a subversive way of life. But maybe I’m all wrong and confused.

          I do wonder if Jesus was on the earth today, would anyone recognize Him? Especially Christians? I know this bit by comedian John Fugelsang is exaggerated (to make a point), but I think it does make a point – lots of Christians would freaked out by Jesus.

          For the “bit” I’m talking about, skip ahead to 4:35 (it’s just under a minute long). The whole video is funny and interesting though. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJXtCUBwBCI

  4. Danielle, wow. If you come live this side of the mountains, please come to our church. We need your voice! It’s amazing and right on. Love the conversation here! So genuine.

    • Danielle P.

      Thanks for the invite Shari! If I ever end up on that side of the mountains, I can’t think of any other church that I would rather call home :-)

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