By Derik Hamby
When does a church “jump the shark?” That phrase refers to the time Fonzi, the star of the TV comedy “Happy Days,” jumped a shark (literally) and has served as an example of a TV show that tries something strange to boost sagging ratings.
I wonder if many churches are trying to “pack the house” by doing the same thing? I’m reminded of the story from the life of fundamentalist Baptist preacher J. Frank Norris about the time he baptized a rodeo cowboy and had the man’s horse stand in the back of the church to watch. Personally I believe he jumped the shark long before the cowboy baptism, but today it seems many churches — in the desire to be innovative and creative — are jumping their own sharks.
Ed Young Jr. recently hosted a “Car give away extravaganza.” Young gave away 13 cars on Mother’s Day. Some were for the needy and others were random drawings. I’m not against the idea of helping women in this way, but listening to the clip it sounded just like an episode of Oprah Winfrey. He announced it with the excitement of a talk show and the crowd (congregation) responded with cheers.
This is the same man who preached on sex with a bed on stage and gave a daily sex challenge to couples. I recently saw a video of him doing a rap song for a preachers’ conference called “UBU.” I really do believe Young has jumped the shark so many times I’ve lost count.
Young isn’t the only one. Preachers are preaching with tanks, cars, entire stage sets. Some mega-churches constantly bring in celebrities and script their services in ways that are slick and polished like an episode of “American Idol.” I know one church that designed its children’s department to model a kids’ show and baptized children with a cannon shooting confetti over the crowd. So much shark jumping I can’t keep up.
I watched a video clip of Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, when he rode – dressed like General Patton — into the chapel on a Hummer with guns. Blank machine guns were firing. He got off, took off his helmet, pointed around and said, “We are going to take the Hill!” The Hill is the neighborhood where the seminary sits and he was announcing a new evangelism effort to visit homes in the area. The crowd went wild. Even schools are jumping sharks.
I’m not bitter over mega-churches or big churches. Smaller churches can jump the shark just as easily. Some smaller churches do their own gimmicks and many try to model what they see the “big” churches do. Many small-town churches jump baby sharks.
Have I ever jumped the shark? I have to say yes. There are times I can worry more about how things “look” or whether people “liked” worship. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for quality and the best in what we do. But the best/quality I do is not for me, but for God.
I do want to be relevant so folks can connect and so that real needs and real people are brought to a real God. This very article used many cultural references and I see no problem with that. There just comes a time when we cross a line that makes us look very fake and quite silly. This isn’t a call to any style of worship because this happens in all styles. As worship leaders and churches we are going to have to work hard to help our folks understand worship and strive to experience a holy God who can transform lives.
It’s only a matter of time before some preacher out there literally does try to water ski over a shark to boost attendance. I just wonder if he’ll look as cool as the Fonz when he does!