This is, as millions already know, Super Bowl week. Nothing is hyped all across America quite like the Super Bowl. This game has reached amazing proportions when it comes to the viewing audience and massive commercialization. It is a stunning piece of popular culture and one doesn’t know whether to weep about it or celebrate. Some pietistic folk see this as clear evidence that there is little real difference between us and the ancient Romans in the Coliseum. Others think this is the greatest day of the whole year with the biggest event of all time at 5 p.m. Everything, so it seems, virtually comes to a halt for the Super Bowl.
Here in Chicago the event is, of course, really big with the Bears in the game. So, how important are the Bears this Lord’s Day? Well, big enough to alter many churches and their plans for the day. What few churches still have services of any sort on Sunday evening will cancel them this week, with only a few exceptions. One priest, whose parish does have an evening Mass (as several Chicago area Catholic congregations do) noted, “To tell you the truth, I don’t think we’ll have a lot of people show up. About the only ones I expect to see here praying are the Colts fans.” Another priest announced last week that there would be no Mass this coming Sunday evening and people wildly applauded. (His staff was less excited about the decision.) One priest noted that in 1985, the last time the Bears played in a Super Bowl, a congregation that normally numbered 500 was only 46!
All of this prompted Ed Fanselow, a staff writer for my local paper, to conclude, tongue in cheek I hope: “The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it seems, are simply no match for Lovie, Rex and Brian Urlacher.”
What should we make of all this? First, only those of a rigid Sabbath-keeping persuasion see this watching this game as overt sin. I am not so persuaded.
Second, most Christians are not sure what to do with pop culture and this game is pop culture of the most obvious sort. We either embrace it uncritically or damn it as totally ungodly. Neither approach is healthy, at least in my view. What makes “high culture” OK and pop culture trash? Who are the people who determine the differences? A certain elitism still plagues the church at this point, as does an uncritical embrace of all things consumed by the general public and made popular. Older Christians are especially prone to trash the pop cultural forms of youth culture. This actually harms the mission of the church in some important ways by increasing the generational disconnect.
Third, some churches use the Super Bowl to stage evangelistic parties. When they turn these gatherings into “slick evangelistic sales techniques” I have a real problem. If you want to have a big party to view the game with your friends then have a big party. But please don’t do “bait and switch” evangelism with pop culture. It just cheapens the significance of the incarnation and the good news and turns many away. If people come to see the game they do not come to hear you preach!
Fourth, enjoy the day if your conscience allows it. Worship with fellow Christians and keep your priorities straight. This is your central priority this Sunday. But remember that Christian freedom allows you to enjoy this day for the glory of God.
I for one will watch the game and enjoy it, especially if the Bears win. But my life will be fundamentally no different next Monday regardless of what happens in this game. This is where the world misses the mark, placing ultimate meaning, in some sense, upon a football game. And if you hate football then ignore the hype and the game. While millions are watching think of all the time you have for something else that you might enjoy. Use your freedom to serve Christ and to love people. That is the purpose of the law, not to bind you to a particular set of (man-made) rules about this day.
About twenty years ago I was in India on Super Bowl Sunday. I remember preaching that day and then saying to myself, and in my journal: “While millions watched the big game today I had the greater joy, preaching to hundreds of people who had never heard the name of Jesus and seeing some of them enter the kingdom of God.” If this is kept in mind by serious Christians we can survive another day of pop cultural hype and maybe even enjoy it.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.”