Namath- Remix

Posted on July 22, 2010

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If I could go back in time to anywhere in history, I know exactly where I’d go. 

I don’t want to see Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone, or witness the very first attempt at bungee jumping (“It’s a 30 foot garden hose, I think this is going to work!”), or even the moment where the protein bar was first invented (“Look, all I’m saying is, if we put ground up rocks inside a Milky Way and tell people it has 30 grams of protein including ScorchBlaster ions, we can buy the Sacramento Kings.  That’s all I’m saying”.)

No, I want to go to 1969, when the New York Jets played the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.  I want to hide in the press conference where an upstart Jets quarterback named Joe Namath is addressing the media.  I want to wait until the precise moment where he says “We’re going to win this game.  I guarantee it.”  Then, flush with the excitement of knowing that I am in the presence of a Super Bowl champion, a Hall of Famer, and a Madison Avenue icon, I want to rush the stage and smother him into unconsciousness with a Snuggie. 

And as I hurdle trash cans in the street during my getaway, knowing that I’ve altered the space-time continuum irrevocably and now there’s a possibility that neither I nor the girl from ‘Secret World of Alex Mack’ will ever be born, I will still have peace of mind. I’ve saved humanity from ever listening to another athlete guarantee victory in a big game, ever again.

The problem with doing awesome stuff is that once it happens, other people want to do it too.  All the time.  Ask anybody who wrote a spy thriller after Tom Clancy, or made a crime movie after Quentin Tarantino, or committed securities fraud after Martha Stewart.  When Joe Namath guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III, a media firestorm erupted- no other athlete had ever said something so cocksure on a stage that big before.  And because of that, Joe Namath’s guarantee also guaranteed something else: that many, many other athletes would later try the same thing.

Now, 40 years later, the lame “I guarantee a victory!” quote is practically a Super Bowl tradition. It happens every year.  You get the feeling these guys guarantee victory at everything, including exact change toll booths.  The worst is when players from both teams make the guarantee. Then it’s like someone threw a guarantee rock at an “I know somebody famous!” nest. Friends of each player swarm out to guarantee the original guarantee, and then the players’ mothers, and personal trainers, and then their Call of Duty teams, and so it escalates until finally the Secretary General of the U.N. calls a press conference to guarantee victory for whoever can spell ‘Hammarskjold’ first.

I did some street evangelism the other day.  This happened, in part, because someone asked me to do it, and I’m a people pleaser. I didn’t want to look at him and say, “I really want to go share the Gospel, but I can’t.  Thursday night is when I do Hip Hop Abs.  Maybe next time.”  I also didn’t want to admit that I was nervous about doing this; in my mind I saw my friend shouting at me, “What do you mean, you don’t want to go up to a group of total strangers, interrupt their conversation and ask if any of them want a tract?  Are you ashamed of the Gospel?  Are you??!!  ANSWER ME!!!”  But I went anyway, partially because I’ve never done anything like that before, and I live my life based on the idea that whatever Kirk Cameron can do, I also can do, which is why I have fourteen children.

I’m not sure what I expected, but what didn’t happen was revival breaking out.  Whatever the recipe is for revival to occur, we were short a few ingredients.  I think it works like Voltron. First you summon the essences of history’s great preachers: St. John Chrysostom, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon. Then they merge bodies to form a street evangelist the size of an airplane hangar, who proclaims the Gospel while sitting on a bus like a park bench.  And that did not happen.

What did happen is that nobody got saved.  The reaction to our Gospel presentation varied wildly. Most people were friendly but guarded, but some were hostile. One man genuinely engaged us, eager to share his own religious viewpoints and hear ours. But another yelled “Dang it!” when he saw he’d been handed Christian reading material and spit in it as he threw it away 10 steps later.

I didn’t understand.  Of course, Jesus said that people would hate Christians, and virtually promised that many people would be openly antagonistic to the Gospel.  That’s a fact.  But, fundamentally, when you share Christ, you’re telling people that you believe that they’re unique creations of God, died for out of love by God Himself, so that they could know him personally.  Even when you add in the parts about sin and our rebelliousness, it’s still a great message.  So how come people hate to hear Christians talk about it?

The reason is hype.  Hype is a word about decibels.  It relates to sound and noise.  “Did you hear all the hype about that movie?” ”Everyone’s talking about this Super Bowl.” “People are buzzing about his speech tonight.”   Hype is an atmosphere of interference, created by words, that surrounds the core of a real event like a magnetic field around an electron.  Experience has taught us to distrust any situation where there’s a lot of talk going on, because we know that words are cheap.  Hype comes easy- reality is another matter.

When we present the Gospel, people respond, not just to the propositional truth, but also to the “truth” they see lived out in the world.  That’s why sharing the Gospel relationally works well.  People don’t just hear the words of truth we share, they also anchor them to something tangible that they’ve seen us do- hopefully, the Jesus life lived out intentionally in front of them. 

And that’s precisely what makes street evangelism is so difficult.  Absent a relationship with the person sharing the Gospel, the hearer substitutes in the actions of “Christians” as a group.  And sadly, that involves all our hype- our multi-million dollar churches, our private schools, our Lexuses with Jesus fish on them, and any other parts of the American Christian life that don’t jive with the life Jesus lived.  People hear “radical transformation”, but what they see is “money grab.”  People hear, “absolute truth” but what they see is “lifestyle choice.”  It looks like we as Christians are all talk.  Hype. 

Christianity is a seamless garment.  Evangelism can’t be divorced from the life that we lead as Jesus followers. When we forget that, we lose our credibility as proclaimers of truth, and become just talkers.  Hype men. 

When Joe Namath guaranteed victory, he was just having fun with the media spectacle that surrounded the Super Bowl.  There’s no harm in that.  But in doing so, he created a template that many others follow.  Hype is the ultimate goal.  Talk is king.  Unfortunately, Christians in American learned that lesson all too well.  Our priorities revolve around getting on talk radio and having hip magazines and voting the right politicians into office who can “speak” for us.  But that hype will always lead to losing the ability to share the Gospel well.  I guarantee it.

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