The 2012 Summer Olympics in London came to a close last night, giving us a chance to reflect on the pageantry and athleticism that is the Olympics. And churches handing out bacon sandwiches. How tasty is that? Churches in Jamaica even rescheduled worship services and brought in TVs so parishioners could watch the men’s 100 meter finals, featuring Jamaican gold-medalist Usain Bolt (too bad Bolt wasn’t so eager to return the favor).
But the Olympics do offer three lessons for churches:
1. Tell a Story
First and foremost, the Olympics is about story. Some people complain that ‘story’ is too much of a buzz word lately, but the fact remains that story matters. Despite complaints about NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, the stories of the athletes continued to be a major draw. That might be why NBC’s ratings are better than ever even though there were more viewing alternatives than ever before (to those who could get them).
Whether it’s the story of Gabby Douglas carrying the U.S. to the team all-around gold and then winning the individual all-around herself, or even stories that didn’t feature medals, like Oscar Pistorius, the first paraplegic runner to compete against able-bodied athletes, or John Orozco, the U.S. men’s gymnast from the Bronx. It’s watching history happen, like Michael Phelps winning more medals than anybody ever or watching the youngest member of the U.S. team—15-year-old Katie Ledecky—destroy the field in the 800 meter freestyle, winning by more than four seconds. Or the runner without a country, Guor Marial, or the Lost Boy Lopez Lomong.
These stories drip with emotion and hope, forging connections and making people care. If your church wants to connect with people, tell stories.
2. Be a Good Sport
While the official Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger” (and should maybe be a Daft Punk song), there’s a second unofficial motto: “The most important thing is not the winning but the taking part.” This informal motto came in a sermon by Ethelbert Talbot during the 1908 London Olympics in response to allegations of cheating between the British and American teams. Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin embraced this second motto as part of the Olympic ideal.
While there were plenty of humble and gracious Olympic athletes, like Missy Franklin (“I don’t think fourth at the Olympics is a disappointing swim at all.”), there were also a few athletes not content to simply take part. From Russia’s silver medalist Victoria Komova who couldn’t bear to wear the silver to U.S.’s silver medalist McKayla Maroney, whose disappointment showed on the podium, spawning the McKayla is Not Impressed meme (thankfully Maroney is a good sport).
Now it’s understandable for an athlete to be disappointed when they fail to reach their goals. After years of hard work, knowing you missed out on the gold by the smallest of fractions is tough. But perspective is important. You’re at the Olympics. In a world of 7 billion people, you’re number two.
This lesson is less obvious for the church, but it’s about having perspective and being gracious. The world is not always a friendly place for Christians. Declaring persecution at every turn is like a child (or athlete’s) tantrum. There are real world persecutions that deserve our attention. Making fun of other people’s beliefs isn’t OK on the playground, much less the church yard. Yet somehow posting funny graphics on Facebook that mock our friends has become acceptable.
Jesus didn’t call us to be whiners. We’re to run the race with perseverance, not excuses, complaints or self pity.
3. You’re Not in Control
NBC has been buried in abuse over their coverage of this year’s Olympics. People are complaining about all kinds of things, from tape delay to squashing criticism to spoilers. What NBC hasn’t really figured out this year is that despite their official broadcaster status, they’re not in control. Thanks to the platform of social media, being the official channel doesn’t mean so much anymore. People can find results and voice their critique like never before. Rather than fight it, NBC should have embraced it.
There’s mountains of ink about the #NBCfail tag, but the lesson for churches is pretty simple: You’re not in control. People will always find a way to criticize what you’re doing and you can’t stop them. Don’t try. Instead, find a way to move forward that’s positive. Engaging critics isn’t always wise, but sometimes there’s room to listen to complaints. In the end though, you want to be able to walk tall, not stooping like NBC did when it reverted to censorship.
Bonus: Church Date
And the 30th Olympiad also gave us what’s perhaps the best way to invite someone to church: On a date. Lolo Jones, who finished 4th for the U.S. in the 100 meter hurtles and has received a wealth of attention for her abstinence stand and her desperation to get a date, told Jay Leno that she was just going to invite Tim Tebow to church:
“I’m pretty sure I’m just going to invite (Tim) Tebow to church,” Jones said. “It’s a 100% way not to get rejected.”
The 2012 Olympics are now over, but it’s never too early to get ready for the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Churches already are.