by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Dee from Pixabay

Even if you don’t watch pro football, and even if you don’t follow pop music, you may have been unable to avoid one of the stories that dominated national newsfeeds last week: Taylor Swift’s visit to MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands to watch her new boyfriend, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs play in a Sunday night game.  The Internet exploded.  It was a collision of culture and sports that spawned a thousand memes, and one of the best was “Seemingly Ranch,” a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) that speculated on Swift’s condiment choices for her chicken nuggets.  A post that spawned countless variations and allowed even old-school companies like Heinz to get it on the fun.  It was a masterclass in seizing the moment to ride the wave of what everyone is talking about.

Ministry leaders are not great at this.

They will do their best in a worship transition or a sermon introduction, maybe even a blog entry, to toss out a reference to a culturally relevant topic.  They might even work it into a kinda dad joke, usually of the variety that “Look, even unhip old dudes know who Taylor Swift is.”  Or Barbie.  Or the Roman Empire (I lost some of you on that one, I bet).  Some of you are clever enough to seize such moments in your social media space, or if you are clever and an excellent manager and delegator, you had your communications teams do this on your behalf.  I have written before about the power of “riding the zeitgeist” by integrating culturally relevant topics.  It makes us seem like we are paying attention to real people’s lives (the serious parts and the silly parts) and not just on some isolated holy island.  (See the blog, The Barbenheimer Effect, from earlier this very summer of 2023.)

But really what this week’s blog is about is recognizing when something fun and interactive is happening in your own backyard (or front yard or worship stage or virtual yard space) and celebrating it.  The TV network was certainly paying attention when the most popular musician in America showed up; they knew she was great for ratings.  The NFL, already the most popular sport in America, was paying attention; they knew her attendance was a feel-good story that would lead to even more eyeballs, including new fans who don’t normally watch football games.  And two staid and stately food manufacturing operations got in on the fun, Hidden Valley Ranch (from the 1950s) and Heinz (all the way back to 1876).

When have you been involved in something fun, silly, unexpected, chaotic, random, or inspiringly surprising that the people who were there when it happened talked about afterwards?  And did you seize that opportunity to share that special and unexpected moment with others or make it a focal point for the next time you got together with those who originally experienced it?

Here are some examples:

  • A great musical performance. You know those weeks when everything is rolling along kind of ‘meh’ and then your Praise Team or a gifted soloist breaks out a song that brings down the house or has everyone reaching for their hankies.  These moments are great “room where it happened” moments, and we should share them both for the impact that they have as beautiful, magical episodes on their own, but also as a kind of marketing to let people know what they’re missing out on by not joining you in person.  Every church, post-pandemic, is streaming its worship services, but few take the time to edit out specific content and share that through social media.  This is a missed opportunity.  You could even do a “best of worship from this past weekend segment”; personally, I watch a lot of condensed versions of football games on YouTube.  You could do a similar thing with Sunday morning worship – people are wired to look for such time-saving opportunities to sample what they couldn’t give their full attention to.
  • A powerful witness. Similar in concept to the musical performance discussed above, but in this case it’s someone’s faith story, personal example, or a really powerful and inspirational challenge to get involved in a ministry or to see what impact ministry has been having.  Edit it selectively from your full-service recording and package it as its own thing, then share it on as many platforms as possible.  These moments also lend themselves to re-staging in a perhaps more friendly filming environment.
  • A unique artistic perspective. Maybe you are lucky enough to have specially designed stage sets to support your worship themes or a lovingly decorated communion table.  Maybe you integrated the visual arts into your campus space in creative ways.  Document these expressions of faith and share them.  Include a little interview with the artist.
  • Straight-up surprises. Once, when on a Sunday morning in my little C&MA church in Macon, Georgia, a raccoon got into the choir loft.  I am not making this up!  And I wish, oh how I wish, there would have been video recordings in those days.  We could have put that church on the viral social media map!  Animal interactions and all other manner of surprises are great sources for sharing.
  • Special guests. If you have a special guest show up (in your worship space or in your office on a Tuesday morning), celebrate them and share the visit.  This principle works even if you know the special guest is coming, but it’s especially great when it’s a surprise visitor.  I’m not talking only about big-wigs or celebrities; I’m thinking of recognizable community members, homecomings of church members from a former generation, and folks who are just interesting or entertaining or possess a fresh perspective in some way.
  • Even a mistake. Sometimes the things we mess up can be the most memorable thing about an event.  Learn to laugh at yourself and use these moments as reflections on humility and the value of not being obsessed with perfection.  You can reference back to a mistake from earlier in an event; you can reference back to it the next week in a playful way; you can puckishly reference it in social media and even add a related question to the audience that gets some interaction going.  Once while leading a worship service, I blanked out on the words to the Lord’s Prayer.  This was a profoundly embarrassing moment for me, but I could have been humble and self-effacing about it and used it as a great opportunity to talk about the Lord’s Prayer and what the words mean: there might even have been a t-shirt to be made (you know, so we could wear it to never forget the words and what they mean – I can imagine it being printed upside-down for convenient reading by the wearer.)  I certainly could have played this clip on social media and asked people to share what the hardest things are for them to remember, religiously speaking (The Ten Commandments?  John 3:16? The words to the Doxology? The names of the Disciples?).  It would have been a great opportunity to relieve people of some of the pressure of feeling like they are spiritual lightweights just because they can’t remember important biblical touchstones verbatim.

Seizing on such moments are also the ways in which over time we build a culture and a reputation for who we are as a community.  Let’s say a kid wanders up to the altar during the sermon and unexpectedly grabs the communion loaf and takes a bite, and the pastor has the presence of mind to stop, walk down, save the rest of the loaf while having an adorable interaction and stressing how this is an example of how we are all God’s children invited to the table.  There are churches in which such a scene would be disparaged as out-of-control parenting, and there are churches in which such a scene would be celebrated as, “Yep, this is who we are: families and kids and all the chaos that comes with them.”

This is just another form of how some of us became “pumpkin patch churches” over time, the church known in the community as the place to find pumpkins and pumpkin-themed fun and festivals in October.  Even people who’ve never been inside our doors know our campus in this way.  We can expand beyond pumpkins though!  And, of course, the best way to be known reputationally beyond our campus is as a people who care about and serve that community.  Injecting some relational fun and playfulness into our community interactions can be a great way to communicate who we are.

Have you experienced any “seemingly ranch” moments in your ministry?  That is, has something unexpected happened that you then seized upon and amplified which captured the playful spirit (or even the serious side) of your congregation and projected it into the world?  Have you used such moments to reinforce connections within your congregation?  Share your stories.  Don’t be seemingly shy!