When the Church “Jumps the Shark.”

I’m old enough to remember the origin of the pejorative axiom “Jumping the shark.” It happened on the third part of the fifth season premiere of Happy Days on September 20,1977. Fonzi, a leather jacket clad biker rebel, shed his jeans (but not his jacket) and donned a pair of water skis to actually jump a shark. This was the genesis of the saying that now applies to any television show, brand, or organization attempting to utilize gimmicks to attract a new audience but end up irretrievably straying from tried and true methods or original purposes. This can apply to all kinds of organization and creative endeavors, but increasingly it is apropos to the Church. And when I say “Church” I speaking specifically of the 21st Century American iteration that is being exported around the world as the template for doing ministry in modern times. The Church in too many places has replaced the gospel with gimmicks.

Gimmicks can take the form of all kinds of shenanigans in the name of relevance. And in the interest of full disclosure, in my nearly three decades of ministry I’ve engaged in few of my own. I’ve tossed footballs around the auditorium, waved “Jesus flags,” worn hard hats while preaching, and lit firecrackers, and passed out plastic forks, (stick a fork in Satan he’s done) while these are cheesy and embarrassing they woefully miss the point of the gospel. And while illustrations can be helpful in making a point, the ridiculous can also redirect people away from the simplicity of the gospel. And among the most egregious, are the ministries and organizations that import systems that value pragmatic efficiencies over gospel effectiveness, where churches end up resembling fast food franchises instead of the community of believers they were intended to become.

Sociologist George Ritzer published the “McDonaldization thesis” in 1993. “According to Ritzer McDonaldization is simply the ‘processes by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.’ Ritzer observed that “efficiency keeps us from stopping to reflect or ask serious questions of others or ourselves. Efficiency leaves no room for the enchanted. Anything that is magical, mysterious, fantastic, dream, and so on is apt to be inefficient. Furthermore, enchanted systems are often complex, and involve highly convoluted means to whatever ends are involved. And they may very well have no obvious ends at all. By definition, efficient systems don’t allow meanderings. Thus, designers of efficient systems try to eliminate as many of the preconditions for enchantment as possible.” 

There is the idea of “effective” vs. “efficient.” Of course, in an ideal world we would have both. But when effective and efficient are in conflict, I believe the world is much more beautiful and better when the Church is effectively meeting the purposes for which it was designed, rather than merely meeting the demands of modern people’s desires for efficient systems that keep them “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” True health, wealth, and wisdom isn’t found in the trivial and trite but rather in the profound and purposeful pursuits of the enchanted. 

Jesus stated that His reason for being in the world was “to seek and to save the lost.” But how He went about accomplishing these goals is worthy of note. For instance, He told His disciples that it was necessary or needful for Him to travel through Samaria. Now, if Christ was going to be efficient in meeting the culture’s expectations of a “Messiah” this was not how to accomplish those ends. Samaria was off limits to religious Jews, and would certainly have been off limits to the Jewish Messiah. But Jesus wasn’t as interested in efficiency as He was in effectiveness. He went through the segregated region, and purposefully spoke to a woman. No ordinary woman, but a woman forced to the well at the height of the heat of the day, due to her marginalized status. The marginalized always have to work twice as hard to achieve the same as the rest of the community. In this woman’s case, she had to endure the heat, by herself, alone. But it was in this marginalized condition that she had an encounter with the Christ. All because Christ was effective in his mission. 

Contrasting the methods of Jesus with the methods that are often employed in His name in recent years tells us a great deal about just how far we are removed from the original intent of Christ for the Church. But I think things are beginning to change. Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “When the Church “Jumps the Shark.”

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