Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Jesus Christ Basketball Superstar

And other adventures in megachurch stunt Christianity
Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 9.30.40 PM

This really happened in Dallas today:


From the Fellowship Church website:

Here’s the social media promo:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqDY6qlHHpM]

Here’s how the pastor’s final sermon in the series ended this morning:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PoVAmEHgdc?start=2181]

Meanwhile, at the New Spring megachurch in Wichita, Kansas, a virtual Eucharist:

OK, you know that I don’t understand this kind of church culture. I don’t understand it, and I find it impossible to take seriously the God presented here. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the people who worship here. It’s simply that to me, if this is Christianity, it leaves me not only cold, but actively running the other way.

Yes, it’s a matter of theology — this is full-tilt Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — but I have significant theological differences with Protestants and Catholics alike. Still, I don’t have an aversion to their styles of worship. This stuff, though? It’s all showbiz. I mean, honestly: basketballs in church? Following Jesus as building “a championship life”? A “communion” service that involves you not being in church, but rather standing in your house, drinking Welch’s and eating crackers at home while watching images of people at church via an online connection? What does any of that have to do with the church of the fathers, the saints, and the martyrs? If the Martyrs of Lyon, if Augustine, if Gregory Palamas, if Martin Luther, walked in on that, would they even know it was Christian worship? I don’t deny that these folks are fellow Christians, but this kind of worship is a manifestation of liquid modernity, of radical contemporaneity, of the dissipation of historical Christianity. Something extremely important is being lost here. It’s being lost unintentionally, I’m sure, but twenty, thirty years from now, it’s going to be very, very clear.


To be fair, there are a heck of a lot more Americans that want what this kind of Christianity has to offer than what my kind of Christianity has to offer. What does that tell us about American Christianity? About Americans? I’m asking in a serious, non-snarky way. If you worship in a church like this, help me understand why.

UPDATE: A reader offers a helpful explanation:

I’ve worshipped in contemporary evangelical churches of various sizes for 30 years now. Never one with a basketball themed platform, but I understand the thinking behind it.

It comes from a belief that the unchanging message of Christ should be communicated in a creative and interesting way, and that by doing this non-Christians will be attracted to it, and some will come to Christ. So the charge that they are engaging in “radical contemporaneity” is something that Ed Young and those who think like him would wear as a badge of pride. They are trying to! But they would vehemently deny that doing so leads to “the dissipation of historical Christianity”. They would say that the message never changes, but the methods always do. That boring hymns have been binned should be celebrated not mourned. There is no command to use organs in Scripture. Why would God not want to hear his praises in music that is indigenous to the community that the gospel has reached? If the gospel has reached Texas in 2019 then that music will be guitars, keyboards and drums.

Less easy to defend is the teaching emphasis on leading a “championship life”. I suspect (and hope) that this is simply jargon for discipleship. In other words, a championship life is one of forgiveness, generosity, service, prayer and love. All that unchanging stuff!

The best articulation of this kind of thinking is Rick Warren’s book “Purpose Driven Church”.

I appreciate the insight. Thanks. I guess, then, that my fundamental objection to this is that I believe the medium is not neutral, that the medium (that is, the liturgy) is, to a great degree, the message.

Alex Wainer adds:

I attended a megachurch for years which used sports and movies to theatrically frame the message and decorate the stage. The founding pastor in fact had been a successful football coach so the heavy appropriation of sports themes (which Paul himself referenced at least once), came honestly. Because 21st century Americans know sports and movies far more than they know scripture, it’s not surprising that such services START with popular culture as an entree to the message (similar, again, to how Paul used pagan poetry to begin his sermon on Mars Hill.) Previous generations assumed a basic biblical literacy that, lacking the teaching in homes and churches, most contemporary Christians seem to lack. What Paul did a few times has now become the norm in megachurches, what was once a means to get attention by quoting a poem, statesman or story, now is becoming Show Business in the Sanctuary, the drama of the liturgy long overtaken by the values of the rock concert and pep rally. While well-intentioned, the new forms inevitably reshape the worship, and thus the worshippers, changing it and them into something I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, and whose fruit may be quite bitter.

Great comment from reader Hal:

Until very recently, my wife and I did attend a church with too many similarities to Fellowship. I do feel like I have something to say on the matter.

Al Mohler tells a story from when he was in seminary; his church history professor comes in on the first day and tells the class, “It’s my job to convince you that there were Christians before your grandmother, and they matter.” I tend to go a bit farther. I think for most of my fellow evangelicals, church history ended with Revelation and resumed with CS Lewis.

The point being that, like most of our countrymen, we are living in the eternal now. The past is irrelevant, and we must constantly be keeping up with the times in order to stay relevant.

This isn’t willfully malicious. It stems from a deep desire to evangelize. You know the statistics, how little most Americans understand Christianity anymore simply because of how it has fallen away as a cultural centerpiece. A great number of Americans have now never grown up being a part of a church, or they left early and simply have no interest in returning. “Church culture,” for lack of a better term, is completely alien to them, even in the less liturgical Protestant places.

You can see in that video exactly what happens when “relevancy” is the most important feature. It’s not just the entertainment showmanship on display, obnoxious as that might be. I haven’t listened to anything more than the last minute you offered, but note how the central message seems to be, “God wants you to have a great life.” The desire to reach the unchurched means, in so many cases, presenting a message that is affirming and unthreatening. Don’t mistake that for any sort of abandonment of the Bible; there’s still a tremendous respect for the scriptures. The choice is just to get people in the door, to show them the promises of Jesus without scaring them off. Bring up the hard stuff after they’re willing to stay.

Again, you can see how all of these good intentions were meant for bringing people in, but it goes wrong so easily. As I said above, my family left a church very much like this. One Sunday a guest preacher was doing bench presses on stage, for example. I’d argue with my family about this, too. “They preach from the scriptures!” my uncle would tell me. Yes, but the message is, at the very least, incomplete. Lots of preaching about how you need Jesus because of what Jesus can do for you. You’ll never hear sermons about sin, repentence, suffering, or sacrifice. Too “churchy.”

For so many Americans, living in the “eternal now” means never understanding that there’s anything wrong with this. Even mature Christians can be seduced by this culture for all kinds of reasons: The appearance of Biblical fidelity, the desire not to be judgmental of other believers, seeing the great numbers of people coming in and so thinking that God must be behind it, not wanting to put personal preferences above other considerations. But it’s spiritual junk food, so it has no ability to sustain.

UPDATE.2: This e-mail came in from a reader:

As an Evangelical, I would say that the justification for these kinds of expression is that the early church used the Jewish and pagan cultural expressions of their day for the communication of the gospel. The synagogue became a model for the church. Paul described Jesus as “The Unknown God” at Mars Hill. The winter solstice was re-purposed to celebrate the coming of the Son rather than the sun. If you try to view your own culture as though you are a missionary from another place far away, you begin to see what is meaningful for your culture and what might be used as a vehicle to communicate the gospel. As our culture becomes more secular, we face a greater challenge to find a shared “vocabulary” by which to express eternal truths. Whether we like it or not, ESPN rather than the church tells the “transcendent” stories of our culture. Referencing and subverting these false stories of transcendence is the job of the missionary of our day. That said, I personally think the March Madness court is a circus, and I cringed when I heard what sounded like undiluted MTD coming from Ed Young. One can think as a missionary and still not communicate the gospel.

I don’t think we know what the outward expressions of orthodox Christianity will look like in 100 years. Soon after reading The Benedict Option, I read Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age. Taylor helped me understand you (Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers) by describing the “enchanted world” in which the church developed before the Enlightenment. Taylor also helped me understand myself (Baptist/Evangelical) by describing how Protestantism developed both as cause for and later in response to the Enlightenment. Just as I am too much a person of the Enlightenment to understand real presence, the people of the coming age will be too much persons of the post-Enlightenment to understand the exegesis of the word (what my branch of Protestantism substituted for the Eucharist). What is coming is a post-Enlightenment Christianity which will both reach back to Christ and find a shared cultural vocabulary by which to communicate their faith. Perhaps that will look a little like your second example, friends and neighbors gathered around tables in their homes sharing what Christ has done for them, breaking bread together with other believers around the world via the internet. Neither of our faith backgrounds is comfortable with this either due to theological understandings of communion or a fear of false teaching. Just as the early church had to decide if a gentile had to enter the culture of a Jew through circumcision before he could follow Christ, we must decide how much modern or pre-modern culture a person must have before he or she can be a faithful Christian. If we can’t find a cultural vocabulary by which to express the gospel, however, we will not be able to transmit it even to our children let alone our neighbors. This terrifying because it feels like the best way to be faithful to Christ is to not take risks, to not change. I am reminded, however, that the unfaithful servant was the one who buried his talent. He was so afraid of loosing it that he forgot its purpose.

BTW, I willingly admit that this cultural relativity is much easier for me as a Protestant, but you asked by an evangelical response so that is what I can give you.

UPDATE.3: Reader Jonah R.:

I think I’d be less scornful of this nonsense if it were happening in an impoverished country where people with cleft palates, ringworm, and high infant mortality were just looking for a little bit of levity and joy in their hard, hopeless lives. But it’s happening in a country where we’re well-fed, lazy, and get grouchy when we’re not being condescendingly entertained.

Even if I put aside the vapidity of Basketball Jesus, I find it even more disheartening that this sort of empty spectacle doesn’t prepare people for the unknown, the difficult, the challenging. It offers no hard truths in seemingly good times, and no consolation in bad times. It says “you’re fine the way you are”—so if that’s the case, why even go? It’s not a necessity, it’s not soul-saving…it’s just another consumer entertainment option.

I’m skeptical of any claim that this stuff keeps people coming back to these “churches” in the long term. Members of my family who do megachurches get a kick out of this stuff for a short time, and then they move on. The turnover sustains the specific church, but it doesn’t sustain Christianity.

Houstonian wrote: “Still, if a hurricane hits your town, it’s a lot of these same folks who show up to help you.” That’s true, but that’s because of the influence of a Christian culture that long predates them, not this foolish nonsense.

Reader Matthew H.:

For those too busy to listen to the sermon, here’s the outline:
1.) The pastor was a college basketball player. He did cool stuff at Florida State, was a good player. He demonstrates his skills a bit. He gets invited back to talk to the players. (The purpose of this is to get non-Christians in the door -hey, come to this service with me, the Pastor is a former FSU basketball star.)
2.) Basketball is a metaphor for life. The particular metaphor today is submission to authority. In Basketball, this is the coach and the rules. In life, this is God.
3.) The sources of authority are placed above you by God. Let’s look at James, chapter 1.
4.) Not following the rules of Basketball destroys the game, makes everyone’s life worse, and turns a beautiful game into an ugly mess.
5.) In the same way, not submitting to the rules of God makes everyone’s life worse and turns a beautiful life into a mess. What did James say: every perfect gift comes from the Father. And he gave us the truth (holds up Bible) so that we could learn it, for our perfection. These rules are not a buzzkill -they are because God loves us. Example: Adultery damages not just you, but also your family, community, nation, and world, and is also a sacrilege because it defaces the relationship that is supposed to mimic God’s relationship with the church.
6.) We don’t want to submit, because we have an individualistic streak. That scatters us, like James says the 12 tribes of Israel were. We need to submit to the authority of God.
7.) Furthermore, we have a rebellious streak, which the Bible says (he had the cite, I forget it) is of the Devil. Our desire to rebel, to put ourselves above God, is evil and makes us like the devil.
8.) So how does this submission start? First, understand the rules are given out of love. Second, model your life on those who live by the rules. Third, get a relationship with Jesus.
9.) Extended metaphor about being recruited by the FSU coach. At the end of which, he gives the altar call: you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to clean up your life. Jesus wants you, He wants to coach you, He wants you to follow his commands, to perfect you, and save you from the downward spiral of rebellion.
10.) Practical applications of submission to authority.
11.) Conclusion.

Now, I could have some issues with this sermon -I think he’s underusing the doctrine of the Trinity, and there’s no discussion whatsoever about the case of improper authorities, or authorities abusing their power. I took a look at their statement of faith: they’re pretty orthodox trinitarians.

What I don’t see is MTD here. He’s not using the words -probably because no one he’s trying to reach would understand them -but he’s giving a pretty good sermon on how Christians ought to view the Law. I am rather surprised he is invoking James 1, rather than Romans 2. But this isn’t a self-help sermon, except in the last 5 minutes. It’s a sermon about obedience to the moral law, and submission to Jesus who will save you from your past errors, and will coach you to follow the moral law.

What, exactly, is the problem here if it isn’t the aesthetic revulsion to the basketball metaphor?