March means the madness of college basketball is upon us. Each year this is a glorious time in my life as I’m a fanatic and comfortable proclaiming it. Since the conference tournaments ended and Selection Sunday commenced my mind focuses on potential cinderella stories, bracket busters and final four picks all while the song, “One Shining Moment” plays on repeat. With all the T.V. and internet coverage (not to mention the heightened awareness of this tournament because of Warren Buffet’s Billion Dollar Challenge) one can quickly find themselves swimming in mountains of superfluous information all geared towards helping you better understand the players, coaches, teams and potential match ups (did you know Tulsa University wanted their mascot to be the “Golden Tornados” but the name was already taken so they went with the “Golden Hurricanes” despite being landlocked in Oklahoma?—you’re welcome for that information!)
Much of this information holds no bearing on the outcomes of the games, but it does generate buzz about a sport and the individuals involved. What if the church had such a venue to generate buzz? That thought came to me this morning. Here’s what might transpire.
Church Buzz Words Would Go Mainstream:
Imagine if Gus Johnson (the greatest March Madness announcer!) or Dick Vitale offered play-by-play of a worship service? Sitting in the balcony they’d begin to rattle off sentences like, “The preacher was predestined to craft a super sermon, baby!” or “This service creates a buzz, strangely warming the hearts of all those gathered here.” “This church is a hotbed for missional-minded people; the pastor knows how to make everyone a P-T-Player (prime-time player).”
The ESPN production trucks would descend upon a church campus and people would flock to see the announcers and public figures. For those who couldn’t be here they’d learn more about the church, its leaders and its history. How many of us have watched a story on College GameDay or a behind-the-scenes story that tugged at our heartstrings and made us more sympathetic to that school and/or its players and coaches?
More Visibility for Everyone:
March Madness makes people aware of schools most people didn’t know existed. Story lines emerge as coaches, schools and players enter the big stage. Most of us remember a cinderella story more than we remember who won the last ten championships. Last year’s tournament brought us Florida Gulf Coast University a school no one—outside of the students and staff—knew anything about. Instead of only hearing about Menlo Park or First Pres., Houston the world would know of the smaller churches.
Equal Playing Field:
Starting today with the opening round, everyone in the tournament has the same goal: win six games in a row. Records are thrown out, school budgets and name recognition mean little at this point; sure they may have helped you get to this point, but the only thing that matters is that you have more points on the board than the other team at the end of forty minutes.
These aren’t the only realities of March Madness and I’ve chosen to focus on the idealism of connecting the church and March Madness. In reality, there is more to this tournament than the superfluous information shared by the T.V. and internet pundits. Once one begins to dive deep into these connections – the waters muddy. Notoriety and publicity forces one to consider deeper questions: how would churches evaluate success? In basketball it is based upon wins and losses, RPI rankings and signature wins—those simply don’t exist in the church (thank the Good Lord!). Also, the phrases “on the hot-seat” and “on the rise” are tagged to coaches as they wonder if their success (or failure) in the tournament means they’ll be fired or hired by another school. Pastors would be riddled with anxiety wondering if the difference between a decent or brilliant Easter sermon meant another year or a pink slip.
At its core I believe March Madness is about those four subheadings above. Various factors transformed it into the spectacle it is today. Truthfully, if the church was more like March Madness we’d become a spectacle focused on something other than our core mission and call: glorifying the Triune God through worship, education and service. Maybe the church would do well to call attention to the bloated nature of the tournament? As an institution called to speak truth to power maybe we should discover the conversations bubbling below the surface. (One great article to consider is Taylor Branch’s from The Atlantic.) Christ called us to love our neighbors as ourselves—often that’s as simple as understanding someone’s story. As we come to learn, March Madness is full of stories.