Big churches, big screens, big game

FBC Pic1385x258I wish I knew where I heard the statistic claiming that 85 percent of the growing churches in America have added large-screen video technology to their worship centers (the large rooms that once were called "sanctuaries"). As a religion columnist, I receive so many letters and emails making so many claims and it's hard to keep track of it all. So handle that with a grain of salt. However, if you click around a bit in this Google search, you will get a sense of what's happening out there.

I bring this up because large-screen video systems in churches are at the heart of the IT story this year as the hours tick down to that football game today. Here is a typical lede from Alexandra Alter at the Wall Street Journal:

One unlikely match-up Sunday pits two powerhouse opponents against each other: the National Football League and the Christian church.

On one side are church-sponsored Super Bowl parties with big-screen TVs, soft drinks and some soul-saving talk at halftime. On the other are NFL lawyers threatening to crack down on unauthorized use of the game. The league, which owns both the Super Bowl name and the broadcast, has restrictions that limit TV screens to 55 inches at public viewings, except at venues like bars and restaurants that regularly broadcast sporting events. Airing the game at events that promote a message, including a religious message, is forbidden.

All of the elements are in there, including a major mistake.

This is not a showdown between the NFL and the whole church or all kinds of churches. It's a battle between the NFL and those large, growing churches that can turn almost any kind of social event or trend into a form of evangelism and outreach. And evangelism tends to happen in evangelistic churches, which usually means evangelical churches. I doubt there will be many fellowship halls in oldline, liberal Protestant churches full of crowds -- older baby boomers and up -- watching football today.

Hey, here's a news angle. Since many liberal mainline churches serve alcohol, could an Episcopal parish legally host a giant-screen Super Bowl party under a kind of "wherever you find four Episcopalians you will always find a fifth" clause?

No, me thinks that this NFL vs. the pews story is not about "churches" in general. This is about those conservative "megachurches" with all of that high-end video equipment in those large auditoriums that look like movie theaters. That means that if people -- think politicians -- try to "solve" this problem it will quickly turn into a left vs. right thing.

The only hope (I am smiling as I type that) is that North Carolina Democratic congressman Heath Shuler -- a former NFL quarterback -- continues to carry the ball on this issue. Then again, he is a pro-life Democrat who is popular in evangelical churches, so you may end up with a culture war dynamic no matter what.

large Bar SPORTSYou think I am kidding? Check out this section of the Washington Post report on the topic.

The league bans public exhibitions of its games on TV sets or screens larger than 55 inches because smaller sets limit the audience size. The section of federal copyright law giving the NFL protection over the content of its programming exempts sports bars, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

The issue came to a head last year after the NFL sent a letter to Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, warning the church not show the Super Bowl on a giant video screen. For years, the church had held a Super Bowl party in its auditorium, attracting about 400 people and showing the game on a big screen usually reserved for hymn lyrics. ...

The policy has prompted some drastic downscaling. Last year, Vienna Presbyterian Church planned a party in its fellowship hall for its middle school and high school students, airing the game on its 12-foot video screen. Church leaders had hoped to use the game to draw in the teenagers, often a tough crowd to get through church doors.

"We thought we had found our magic bullet," said Barb Jones, the church's director of communication. The event was canceled, however, after the church heard about the Indianapolis case.

Now this is where the plot thickens, a bit. If you hit the website of Vienna Presbyterian Church, you find out that it is part of the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But the language used at the site is very, very evangelical. It would be interesting to see if there are Super Bowl parties going on today in PCUSA churches on the more liberal side of the denomination. Meanwhile, I would bet the bank that there are more parties of this kind going on in Evangelical Presbyterian and Presbyterian Church in America congregations.

You have to ask: Why is the NFL so worried about football parties in these growing, thriving churches? Why is evangelism more "dangerous" than alcohol? Why are large crowds of people doing what they do in bars, "preying" even, good for advertisers and groups of people praying in churches bad for advertisers? I wonder. Is the alcohol lobby involved in this?

Stay tuned.

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