Monday, March 11, 2013

Megachurches and Victor the Wrestling Bear: Lessons from the ABA

basketball, ABA, red white blue ball
by Ben Howard

They used a red, white and blue ball. It was weird, and it was popular. This decision did not come about because of market testing, or intense analysis, or even any type of vigorous conversation. No, the guy in charge of the league had bad eyesight and couldn’t see the typical brown ball as it bounced around the poorly lit fieldhouses and gymnasiums that served as the home of basketball in the 1960s.

Also, America.

Those are the reasons that the American Basketball Association, better known as the ABA, used a red, white, and blue basketball. It’s the same ball that you’ll see if you ever watch the three point contest at the NBA All-Star Game. It’s called the money ball.

Unless you’re a diehard fan of basketball history, or have been an avid basketball fan since somewhere around 1970, you probably don’t know much about the ABA. So let’s start there.

The ABA was founded in 1967 as a competitor to the NBA. Even to say that it was “founded” is assigning the act much more planning and forethought than was actually the case. Better to say that the ABA “began to exist” in 1967. Their players were essentially NBA rejects, their games poorly attended, and their finances were…interesting.

Despite these limitations the ABA eventually found enough success to force a lucrative merger with the much larger and far more stable NBA. So why did the ABA exist for 10 years (arguably 9 ½ years longer than it should have)?

The red, white, and blue ball. Or, to be more specific, what the red, white, and blue ball symbolized: a willingness to be innovative.

In addition to the colorful basketball, the ABA also introduced the three point line, the slam dunk contest, and turned halftime entertainment into an art form (here's the story of Victor the Wrestling Bear).
Julius Erving, Dr. J., New York Nets, ABA, afro
We need more afros.

The ABA made itself the league of flash and flair. It made superstars out of creative, high-flying athletes like Julius Erving and David Thompson.

There are a lot of similarities between the ABA and the megachurch model of evangelical Christianity. Both have found popular success through a willingness to innovate, a willingness to modernize, and a willingness to try absolutely anything in a perennial quest for attention (one ABA team famously hosted halter top night in 1975).

If you've read my blog, it’s no surprise that I think the megachurch model of Christianity is ultimately flawed, much like the ABA. The movement has no historical roots, and combined with the quest for popularity, which very quickly turns into a shallow desire for aesthetic satisfaction, the model simply seems unhealthy and unsustainable.

However, the flaws don’t diminish the lessons that other traditions can learn from the megachurch model. This model of evangelical Christianity has re-imagined the aesthetic sensibility of the church with its use of artistry and media.

Traditionally, the church has been known as a great patron of the arts, however, in recent times that idea of the church as a locus of aesthetic sensibilities has been on the decline. Even when the church does value art now, it values high art, not the kind that is able to be enjoyed and discerned by the masses.

Megachurches have done fantastic work utilizing media, graphic design and modern music to re-engage the aesthetic sensibilities of the masses. Granted, the content of this art is sometimes vapid and shallow, but that does not diminish the form.

Additionally, megachurches have done an excellent job of energizing their congregations. Unfortunately, much of the time that energy is directed into growing the churches popularity and/or coffers, but the act of energizing a community to some mutual purpose is a noble act.

megachurch, music, dragon, fire sword
Awesome. Just awesome.
These are the things mainline churches can learn from the megachurch model in the same way that the NBA had lessons to learn from the ABA.

The ABA never had the ability to conquer the NBA. The NBA had history, financial stability, and a fan-base, but it did force the NBA to try something new. The NBA adopted the three point line, the slam dunk contest, and started doing more to entertain their fans. The NBA didn’t replace substance, but it added style because sometimes it’s necessary to have a bit of flash.

The ABA didn't make the NBA, but it made the NBA try. Sometimes all you need is someone to push you, to annoy you, to force you to think about things you forgot long ago.


You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at

Contact us at onpoptheology [at]

No comments:

Post a Comment