by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, or you don’t do the ‘socials,’ or you don’t go to movies, you may have missed the media phenomenon which is happening this weekend called the Barbenheimer.  On the same day, two highly anticipated but thematically opposite movies are premiering in theaters across North America: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, one a comedy musical featuring the infamous plastic heroine, the other a deadly serious biopic about the man who fathered the atomic bomb.  This unlikely confluence of cultural touchstones has taken on a life of its own.  It’s enough to get a ministry consultant wondering, as he sometimes does, if the church is staying relevant by riding on the coattails of meaningful moments and trendy topics?

In any given summer there are plenty of opportunities to “surf the zeitgeist,” responding to the headlines and trending subjects on social media.  These are usually significant historical anniversaries, news events (of the non-political variety), sports events, cultural trends, popular entertainment, and what everybody is talking about and trading memes about.  In addition to the Barbenheimer this summer, here are some other things happening right now:

  • The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament.
  • The Tour de France (which happens every year at this time, as do lots of other annual sports events from Wimbledon to the MLB All-Star game).
  • The Misson Impossible Or the return of Indiana Jones.  Or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the Spiderverse.  Or the Sound of Freedom movie, if you want to pick this or a similar movie that focuses explicitly on a social justice topic.
  • The Air Guitar World Championships (in September).
  • The 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death.
  • It’s the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party in December!
  • National hot dog day (that was July 19th). There are lots of goofy anniversary days to choose from.
  • The rise of artificial intelligence!
  • The heat.   And the floods.

We can interact with many of these trending topics by playfully working in references (or not so playfully when there are serious topics worthy of responding to) on our social media feeds and with references on Sunday mornings.  The most common form of “surfing the zeitgeist” that shows up in local churches is a reference during the sermon.  That’s a good usage – it shows we are at least reading the news – but it’s not interactive, and interactivity is the next step, because these are news items, sports happenings, and memes online that people are talking about and reacting to in their own family, work, and social circles.  And that’s the point I’m making here: people who report that they want church to be relevant to their lives are talking about the ways that their faith interacts with their day-to-day experiences and concerns.  Frequently a topic that is in the news lends itself to a deeper exploration of a faith-based theme.

Something as silly as a Barbie movie can be the jumping-off topic to much deeper discussions on materialism, self-image, gender roles, and escaping cultural expectations.  Something as serious as Oppenheimer easily lends itself to a discussion about making difficult moral choices and the age-old conflict of good versus evil.  Such topical references can be a quick mention, or they can be extended interactive online activities, or a six-week small group study (which if you have a topic inspired by this blog that you’d like to try out in this fashion, reach out to me directly, and I’ll help you write it).

People are talking about this stuff anyway.  People are intersecting with these cultural moments, buying these movie tickets, streaming these popular shows, reading news and feature articles on their smartphones at all hours of the day.  Their faith community should not be a silo which is separate from the attention-grabbing topics of their ‘normal’ lives.  People are energized by overlap, when they have a sense of how the practice of their faith helps them interpret and respond to their journey through the culture and society.  There is, of course, a vein of thought that our local church should absolutely do the opposite of engaging popular headlines: it should be the place we go to escape the foolishness and noise of the world, the place where we instead aspire to something more peaceful and higher in purpose.  We indeed seek to build a community that offers a higher plane of existence than ‘the world’ can offer, but I think the balance is to acknowledge and engage the world’s concerns (serious and frivolous) providing our additional sacred insight on what these things mean for children of God who understand the difference between “this is what the world says is important” and “this is what God says is important.”

A note here on politics, the hot-buttonest of hot buttons, which I would advise heartily to stay away from.  But what I really when I write that is to stay away from specific arguments about particular “choose what side you are on” issues and to think instead about the larger moral issues under consideration.  These are certainly worthy of exploration from a spiritual, biblical perspective.  It’s not “this is exactly how you should feel on this divisive topic of the moment,” but “these are the Godly principles that our faith teaches us to honor.”

As for knowing what topics are trending, as public-facing leaders we have a responsibility to keep up with the news and to a lesser extent popular culture (if we truly want to be ‘relevant’).  We should know what is currently on the minds and in the hearts of the people we serve.  I know this is difficult for some of us, because as spiritual leaders we are hunkered down in a holy cave, exposing ourselves exclusively to holy, edifying tomes and wholesome influences.  Plus, lots of us are, let’s face it, older.  The Andy Griffith Show is not trending.  But that’s why we have teams.  And that’s why we are blessed with younger people in our lives, whether they are related to us or are just kids we know from the Children’s Ministry and the Youth Group.  We should ask around.  (I had a good time just this week hearing a 17-year-old talking about his Youth Group’s current study based on the Bluey cartoon series for kids and the robust discussion it produced in his small group – keep in mind, this is a cartoon series for small kids that they were tongue-in-cheek using with teenagers – a clever hack!)  We should engage the younger folks in conversation and sincerely take an interest in the things that are interesting them.  What are they doing on those ubiquitous and ever-present phone screens anyway?

If we want to know what’s ‘hot’ right now and what is likely to be one everyone’s mind a month from now or three months from now or six months from now, and we’re not into researching those trends ourselves, we should ask for help.  By the way, the person who is into those sorts of things. whom we reach out to for help, is going to say yes without hesitation.  They will be thrilled to help us in this manner!  They’ll also be excited about helping us think up some fun ways to engage and interact with these pending, trending topics.

There is, of course, the issue of scheduling.  We do lot of advising of churches at Excellence in Ministry Coaching that they should plan, plan, plan in advance for worship and programming.  Detailed advance planning is one of the keys to empowering creative teams and building excellence in all that we offer.  But there is a downside to a formulaic rigidity in planning.  It can feel out of synch with the vibe of the moment.  In a perfect world (which, after all, John Wesley stressed we should always be striving towards), we will have a balance of steady planning and creative flexibility.  That means we have solid plans that are so good that we can alter them without undue anxiety.  We can mix in pieces of other well-timed zeitgeist considerations.  We can even move things around if a brilliant idea bursts forth that’s perfect and appropriate for the moment.

One of the things we can do institutionally to allow space for popular, trending topics is to leave some holes in the schedule.  Sure, we want to do a massive and important 10-week emphasis on DISCIPLESHIP, but on either side of that we might leave a three-week unplanned hole into which we can insert a series that feels right for the moment as we approach that moment.  These fill-in series can be fresh for the vibe, but they can also be looser and more flexibly creative in a way that takes the pressure off such extensive, meticulous planning.  It’s great to be organized.  It’s also great not to get too locked in to ONE WAY of doing things all the time.

How have you and your team done when it comes to engaging popular trending topics of the moment?  Did you post about the Barbenheimer?  Do you feel like such engagement is something you do naturally, or is the prospect something that feels forced and produces anxiety?  How might you get help to think up new and current ideas and figure out how to make those ideas interactive and fun?  How might you use the headlines to relate deep spiritual truths to day-to-day water cooler topics?  Share your thoughts below!