If you missed it, there’s a new movie in first place on the United States box office chart. It’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As a life-long Star Wars fan, I’m excited by this. Even knowing the similarities between this one and the original Star Wars, I’m still excited by this.
Except, perhaps it’s not the first place movie. If you adjust for inflation or try to figure based on an estimate of ticket sale numbers, then The Force Awakens is closing on the top ten, but lags behind the original Star Wars, Avatar, Titanic, and the first: Gone with the Wind. (The source for all this info is BoxOfficeMojo.com.)
So, maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the number one movie of all time. And maybe it isn’t.
Meanwhile, over at the University of Alabama, Coach Nick Saban has won another football National Championship. The discussions in sports media since then have centered on just how great of a coach he might be. Is he the greatest football coach of all time? Or just the greatest college coach of all time?
Then again, though, Bear Bryant coached in a time when practice and school requirements were different. Goodness, I think he coached before there was Gatorade. There have certainly been more coaches in the past that did amazing things, with far smaller budgets and far smaller players.
Perhaps Saban is the greatest, but then again, Vince Dooley or Bear Bryant or Knute Rockne might have something to say about that.
Where is this going?
These are examples of the mistake of trying to draw full comparisons across lines of history and generations. Consider this: Gone with the Wind came out in an era where you had to see movies in the theater, and if you wanted to see it again, you went to the theater. Again. For entertainment, you had live events, a few movies (and rarely more than 2 in one place,) and the radio. Is it fair, then, to compare the pull a movie of the 1930s had on people with a movie in the era of Netflix, DirecTV, and the multiplex? (Even admitting that 4 screens had Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was 4 out of 20.)
Likewise, when we compare the present success of the University of Alabama to prior eras of football. True, just as good storytelling (except maybe Titanic) is the key to the great movies of any era, hard work is the key to any football team’s success. And Saban, Rockne, Dooley, Bryant, etc., all had teams that worked hard. Yet is a team with millions of dollars of specialized workout equipment better than a team with a broken down fieldhouse and standard free weights?
Into this, throw one more comparison. Look at the average of church attendance and involvement in American society. We spend a great deal of time, especially churchy-people, critiquing and lamenting that our numbers have not kept pace with the growth of population. Even now, we see churches that were once tremendous in size and cultural influence are fading in their connection.
Gone are the days when the words from one or two pulpits truly thundered across the nation and people listened. Gone are the days when Sunday morning found the vast majority of the population filling a pew in their Sunday finery. Gone are the days when a candidate had to do more than just claim a religious belief to get elected. Gone are the days when everyone knew the pastors, and everyone respected them.
Alongside this, though, we should see another reality. Gone are the days when one needed to join a church just to get a job in town. Coming are the days when one no longer gets elected by paying lip-service to Christianity. Gone should be the days where “church membership” helped one evade criminal prosecution or responsibility for your actions.
In short, the era of culture enhancing church statistics is drawing to a close. After all, there were days that attending church brought benefits that have almost nothing to do with Christianity. Can we truly compare how much people participate now, when the only benefit (only?) is honoring Christ by participating with the local body of believers?
Just as the eras of movies and football have shifted, the era of churches has shifted as well. There are many other ways people spend their time, and that results in a normal, cultural life that does not require, and barely encourages, worship participation.
Now, there has to be a valuable takeaway from this. What continues to make good movies? Storytelling, acting, and cameras. What makes great football teams? Hard work, good coaching, and sure hands. The externals have changed, but the core remains the same.
What, then, makes for strong churches? Jesus Christ is always Lord of the Church. The first requirement is that the church acknowledges Him as the Lord of all. The next two things are critical right behind that: commitment to the Word and relationships within the Body. Take away the smoke and mirrors, or the pews and organs, and you find this: A church that honors Jesus as Lord, knows His Word, and serves one another faithfully will be successful before God in any era.