What churches can learn from the Olympics

As the Olympics got underway, the whole world seemed abuzz with excitement. Much of that excitement, though, quickly turned to complaints on the internet. Almost immediately the hashtag #NBCFail had cropped up on Twitter and became a trending topic. The source of the complaints was the fact that NBC had decided to tape-delay many of the more popular events so that they could show them in primetime. This is an understandable move and it’s nothing new to Olympic coverage (tape-delay or complaining about tape-delay).

Despite all of the complaining, NBC’s Olympic ratings have consistently been beating its Beijing ratings. NBC, however, did a few things that made a common annoyance much worse. For starters, they actively participated in “spoiling” some of the results by airing a commercial about teenage swimmer Missy Franklin winning gold immediately before they showed the race in which she won gold. With this move, complaints quickly moved out of the social media realm and began gaining traction with larger audiences. This, again, is an understandable mistake that was fixed quickly.

There are two instances, though, where NBC did not learn their lesson. First, they got Twitter to shut down the account of a journalist for the Guardian newspaper who criticized their coverage during the opening ceremony. The reason given was that he published a private email address of an NBC executive, though the email is one that is publicly available via a quick Google search. Second, NBC has used its increased ratings from four years ago to assume that the complaining group is small enough that it deserves no attention.

I see a few lessons for churches in how all of this went down. First, working to silence voices of dissent is never the right move. We are Baptists, after all. Our very existence is predicated on resistance. Moreover, voices of dissent, while rarely enjoyable, can often be a source of growth and learning. Voltaire said, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” We must always be open to change in our understandings of God and how we do church. Though many of us have been at this church thing for a long time, there is always room for improvement, room for change, room for growth. And I believe it is our responsibility as Baptists to welcome dissent as that which can sharpen us (Proverbs 27.17).

Second, the perspective that NBC’s coverage must not be that bad since so many people are watching is a silly one. It is the only choice the vast majority of American viewers have. So, NBC can continue on its track ignoring what is admittedly a minority voice with very few repercussions. Churches, however, do not have that luxury. For our congregants, for our visitors, for our staff, there is always another choice out there. For some it may be another church, for others it may be no church at all. Now, I do not think this means that we should become too “seeker sensitive” by any means, but if all we do is listen to the voices of the majority, it seems as if we have missed the central theme of the message that Jesus shared.

Finally, this Olympics has been billed as the most social Olympics in history as social media has made the world more connected than ever before. NBC is streaming every event online for some cable customers to access. NBC has tried to capitalize on the recent explosion of social media, though it has certainly left a lot of room for growth. Churches, though, are even further behind the ball than NBC. A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that while 45 percent of Americans use Facebook multiple times a week, only 11 percent report posting status updates on their Facebook page or other social networking site about being in church. Beyond this, even fewer follow a religious leader on Twitter or Facebook (5 percent).

I’ve given multiple presentations about how churches and other religious organizations can use social media to make their work and experience more meaningful, but there is often little done because it seems like too much work or doesn’t seem to be “worth it.” We have a responsibility to better educate ourselves on social media and to learn to implement it. Doing this is not a one size fits all proposition, but rather each church and organization needs to find out what fits their needs best. This may mean Twitter and Facebook posts of weekly prayer requests or having a hashtag that people can use to “talk” virtually about the service during the service (they can ask questions, share what was particularly meaningful to them, etc.).

I am a bit of an Olympics junky and have watched most of the coverage since the opening ceremony (it helps that I’ve been confined to a bed or couch for the past week or so because of back surgery). I think there’s a lot that we can learn from the Olympics from good sportsmanship to the spirit of togetherness displayed to how not to react to criticism. I hope you’ve been able to enjoy the Olympics as well, but I also hope that you’re able to step back a bit and see what lessons we can learn to better be the people of God.

Thomas Whitley

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Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at thomaswhitley.com.

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