Monday, February 11, 2013

Style and Substance: When Church is Like a Dunk Contest

Unnecessary, but also kind of awesome
by Ben Howard

There is nothing truly like a dunk contest.

I don't mean the style or the artistry or the excitement. Certainly, a dunk contest has those in droves, but so do plenty of other events. I mean the sheer, unadulterated absurdity of it's existence.

There is no football equivalent. No baseball equivalent. No hockey, or tennis, or racquetball, or rugby equivalent. A dunk contest is the equivalent of a trick field goal kicking competition or the intentional combination of ice dancing and hockey (which did happen in Mighty Ducks 2).

It's a celebration of someone doing their job successfully while simultaneously making it as difficult as possible. It's like having a competition to see who can write the best paper the night before it's due. There's a certain rush and sense of accomplishment when you can write a 10 page paper in 4 hours while tweaking on energy drinks, but, much like dunking a basketball blindfolded while jumping over a Kia, it's reckless and ultimately unnecessary.

Even more, the players who participate in the dunk contest, much like the student who participates in the all-nighter, isn't really a better all-around player because of their ability to acrobatically overcome self-imposed obstacles. They're certainly talented in a non-traditional way, but that doesn't correlate to real skill or ability.

Style is no replacement for substance.

A few years ago, right around the time I graduated from high school, there was a phenomenon in the basketball world called the And1 Mixtape tour. It was made up of a bunch of playground basketball legends that toured the country showcasing their brand of highlight-reel style dribbling, dunking, and general creative mayhem.

Surprisingly, this is not the cover of a video game.
I had a friend who watched them all the time on their ESPN show and he was absolutely convinced that any one of the players could play in the NBA. He was convinced that they were all future stars even though that belief overlooked the simple fact that most future NBA stars don't spend their prime years on ESPN reality shows.

One member of the tour, a crafty ballhandler named Rafer Alston, did play in the NBA for a few years, but he was little more than a serviceable backup point guard for a few mid-level playoff teams. Nothing special.

Style is no replacement for substance.

When I was in college in Oklahoma I spent most of one year attending what my friends derisively referred to as a “dot tv” church. The named derived from the fact that the church broadcast its services online with a web address that looked something like “”.

There are a lot of these churches. They've become the new medium of evangelicalism. You know the church I'm talking about. The name is one word that's vaguely spiritual enough that it could be an album title from a Christian rock band. There's a drum set on stage behind a plexiglass shield. The “teaching pastor” (because that's his technical name) wears jeans and talks about “this great guy I met, his name is Jesus.”

These churches have a tendency to be wildly successful, assuming of course that you define success in terms of getting people into a building for an hour a week.

As with a dunk contest or the streetball stylings of the And1 tour, these churches take an entertaining aspect of what it means to be a church/basketball player, and place it at the forefront of the event. It's a show full of charisma, flair, emotion, and it draws in the crowds by the thousands.

But consider this: No one in professional basketball views a dunk contest or fancy trick moves on a playground as anything more than an entertaining showcase. However, in the Christian world I have read article after article telling churches that the best way to “attract” new members is to copy the model of having an entertaining church with innovative worship.

Laser Light Shows for Jesus!
Certainly, a dunk is a useful thing for a basketball player to do, and a good handle of the ball is invaluable on the court, but it is not the entirety of what it means to be a basketball player. It is only one aspect of an all-around game. It will not matter how much style a player has if they do not have the style to be good at basketball.

In the same way, the most important aspect of a church is not how innovative, creative, or entertaining it can be. Nor is it whether the church is charismatic or appealing. Those things can be useful certainly, but they are not a replacement for compassion, love, and thoughtful, disciplined theology.

This is not an indictment of these kinds of churches, it's an acknowledgment that flair is not enough on its own. No one denigrates LeBron James for the spectacular athletic feats he can achieve on a basketball court, but high-flying dunks and a wicked crossover are not the things that make him a great basketball player. He's a great basketball player because he plays defense, passes well, shoots well, doesn't turn the ball over and has the discernment to know whether or not a spectacular athletic dunk is necessary or if he should just make a simple lay-up.

That's what I want to see from these churches. Yes, have an innovative, creative worship service, but let that service flow from the love of your people, let it flow from a desire to see the world redeemed, let it be the natural outpouring of faith instead of the marketing tool utilized to market the church to outsiders.

Style can be a wonderful thing, but style is no replacement for substance.


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  1. Well stated, Ben.

    I had a related take in a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago:

    It seems the entertainment gimmicks, among other gimmicks, are designed as attractors. To get people in the doors. But then oddly those same attractors, those gimmicks, become the thing. And in the end, the whole service and the entire objective of the "program" becomes one, big noise-filled exercise of totally missing the point.

    1. Thanks R. Jay. I read your piece and I feel the same way about church plants as gimmicks.

      I'm certain that there are necessary church plants, and I'm certain that the people involved feel they are doing a good thing, but at the same time there's a certain bitter taste in my mouth about it.

      I think underlying all of this is the assumption that what came before was wrong and needs to be disposed of, it belies a certain level of arrogance when we argue that "Now, we're going to do church, and we're going to get it right."