Big churches, big screens, big game

FBC Pic1385x258I wish I knew where I heard the statistic claiming that 85 percent of the growing churches in America have added large-screen video technology to their worship centers (the large rooms that once were called “sanctuaries”). As a religion columnist, I receive so many letters and emails making so many claims and it’s hard to keep track of it all.

So handle that with a grain of salt. However, if you click around a bit in this Google search, you will get a sense of what’s happening out there.

I bring this up because large-screen video systems in churches are at the heart of the IT story this year as the hours tick down to that football game today. Here is a typical lede from Alexandra Alter at the Wall Street Journal:

One unlikely match-up Sunday pits two powerhouse opponents against each other: the National Football League and the Christian church.

On one side are church-sponsored Super Bowl parties with big-screen TVs, soft drinks and some soul-saving talk at halftime. On the other are NFL lawyers threatening to crack down on unauthorized use of the game. The league, which owns both the Super Bowl name and the broadcast, has restrictions that limit TV screens to 55 inches at public viewings, except at venues like bars and restaurants that regularly broadcast sporting events. Airing the game at events that promote a message, including a religious message, is forbidden.

All of the elements are in there, including a major mistake.

This is not a showdown between the NFL and the whole church or all kinds of churches. It’s a battle between the NFL and those large, growing churches that can turn almost any kind of social event or trend into a form of evangelism and outreach. And evangelism tends to happen in evangelistic churches, which usually means evangelical churches. I doubt there will be many fellowship halls in oldline, liberal Protestant churches full of crowds — older baby boomers and up — watching football today.

Hey, here’s a news angle. Since many liberal mainline churches serve alcohol, could an Episcopal parish legally host a giant-screen Super Bowl party under a kind of “wherever you find four Episcopalians you will always find a fifth” clause?

No, me thinks that this NFL vs. the pews story is not about “churches” in general. This is about those conservative “megachurches” with all of that high-end video equipment in those large auditoriums that look like movie theaters. That means that if people — think politicians — try to “solve” this problem it will quickly turn into a left vs. right thing.

The only hope (I am smiling as I type that) is that North Carolina Democratic congressman Heath Shuler — a former NFL quarterback — continues to carry the ball on this issue. Then again, he is a pro-life Democrat who is popular in evangelical churches, so you may end up with a culture war dynamic no matter what.

large Bar SPORTSYou think I am kidding? Check out this section of the Washington Post report on the topic.

The league bans public exhibitions of its games on TV sets or screens larger than 55 inches because smaller sets limit the audience size. The section of federal copyright law giving the NFL protection over the content of its programming exempts sports bars, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

The issue came to a head last year after the NFL sent a letter to Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, warning the church not show the Super Bowl on a giant video screen. For years, the church had held a Super Bowl party in its auditorium, attracting about 400 people and showing the game on a big screen usually reserved for hymn lyrics. …

The policy has prompted some drastic downscaling. Last year, Vienna Presbyterian Church planned a party in its fellowship hall for its middle school and high school students, airing the game on its 12-foot video screen. Church leaders had hoped to use the game to draw in the teenagers, often a tough crowd to get through church doors.

“We thought we had found our magic bullet,” said Barb Jones, the church’s director of communication. The event was canceled, however, after the church heard about the Indianapolis case.

Now this is where the plot thickens, a bit. If you hit the website of Vienna Presbyterian Church, you find out that it is part of the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But the language used at the site is very, very evangelical. It would be interesting to see if there are Super Bowl parties going on today in PCUSA churches on the more liberal side of the denomination. Meanwhile, I would bet the bank that there are more parties of this kind going on in Evangelical Presbyterian and Presbyterian Church in America congregations.

You have to ask: Why is the NFL so worried about football parties in these growing, thriving churches? Why is evangelism more “dangerous” than alcohol? Why are large crowds of people doing what they do in bars, “preying” even, good for advertisers and groups of people praying in churches bad for advertisers? I wonder. Is the alcohol lobby involved in this?

Stay tuned.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Why is the NFL so worried about football parties in these growing, thriving churches?

    As a wild guess, the NFL’s religion, money, must be involved somehow.

  • Jerry

    A followup: One other blog on my daily list is “Techdirt” – a geeky view of technology. I thought readers here might be interested in their viewpoint: Super Bowl Intellectual Property Insanity: No Big Screen Super Bowl Parties, Trademarking 19-0

    Last year, we had a story that got tremendous attention about the NFL stopping churches from having Super Bowl parties, if they had a TV that was bigger than 55″. There was a lot of fuss about it, and you would think that, perhaps, the NFL would let it slide this year. Not so. Ethan Bauley writes in to let us know that, once again, the NFL has been going around stopping churches from holding Super Bowl… er… The Big Game… er… “Best Commercials Of The Year, Interrupted By Some Game” parties, for having TVs that are too big.

    There are a few not very surprising religion-oriented posts commenting on the article. One comment I thought was apt:

    I think what the NFL is worried about, in the case of churches, they will shut of the TV during Half time and commercials as well as hold prayers in their place

    Maybe churches should show the Puppy Bowl on the Animal Planet channel instead. I’m sure there would not be any objections to gigantic pictures of cute puppies wandering around.

  • danr

    Jerry hit it: it’s (mostly) about money. NFL spokesman McCarthy was referenced elsewhere in the article as saying “Large Super Bowl gatherings around big-screen sets outside of homes shrink TV ratings and can affect advertising revenue,” and he was speaking NFL-gospel truth.
    The NFL doesn’t care whether its fans are religious, athiest, or from Jupiter. More individual sets tuned in = higher Nielsen ratings = higher ad revenue = more money in NFL execs (and lawyers’) pockets.
    As frustrating as the league’s policy is, they undeniably have a legal right to enforce it. However, equally undeniable is the double-standard with allowing bars/restaurants large-screen showings, and here’s hoping for a legislative touchdown pass for Shuler.

    One other idea for churches in the meantime: buy a bunch of 50” TVs and put them close together, forming one big “screen” that’s actually lots of smaller “legal” screens. Just a thought.

  • Mattk

    that last question is a really good one. BTW, who’s playing in th superbowl this year?

  • Julia

    Our Catholic parish had a big Super Bowl party (even had alcoholic beverages) in the school cafeteria. Why do you think this is only limited to Evangelicals? Catholics only like soccer? Wrong.

  • tmatt


    I did not say it was ONLY evangelicals. I said that was the issue that was driving the conflict — the evangelistic churches with the giant facilities and giant screens.

    Hey, maybe Catholics are OK because they serve alcohol, too. The same semi-sports bar exemption.

  • Pastor K

    Question 1. Is it the serving of alcohol that makes the exception or the payment of a commercial fee to broadcast? Sports bars and other places with the big-screens pay more for their satellite/cable access than private homes. When our church explored cable tv for the youth room, I was asked which rate we wanted. Paying the higher rate meant unlimited audience size (and I assume unlimited screen size), while the lower rate limited us t a 40-or-less audience. (I didn’t ask about screen size limits.) Since our regular youth gatherings were less than 40, I opted for the lower rate.

    Question #2. Commenting on the day-after-the-game, the commercials were not worth watching, but the game was terrific. Who knew the Giants could pull of the greatest upset since Joe Namath’s other NY team? I think I’ll make this the subject of my weekly column in the local paper. Something along the lines of “all have sinned and fallen short…” ;-)

  • Just Pete

    The other piece of this story that doesn’t seem to get much play is the inalienable right some evangelical churches seem to feel in violating copyright and other legal niceties if it serves the Lord’s work. I wonder how many of these churches knowingly went ahead with the parties on 55+=inch screens versus humbly submitting to the law of the land and “giving unto Caesar what is Caesars.”

    I see it a lot with use of movies as a “movie ministry” and other uses of popular music/culture. I think the Church could utilize this as a witnessing opportunity to humbly submit instead of being horribly disappointed and wronged. Again, seems like the media gets right up to the line, but doesn’t want to get deeper into theological implications of a faith.

  • Peggy

    I believe it’s about money, too. Some commenters pointed out the ad dollars at stake in ratings. That’s one aspect. Is it also an issue of whether an admission fee is charged by the church (or “voluntary donation”) to attend? I would think in generally consistent with Video copyright that showing a video for a fee would violate that. Otherwise, thw NFL has sounded very stingy about copyrights of its broadcasts as well as interview time w coaches & players.

  • Julia

    I said that was the issue that was driving the conflict — the evangelistic churches with the giant facilities and giant screens.

    I guess I missed the critical distinction – the games are being shown on huge screens in the same part of the mega-churches where religious services are held. The photo illustrating the story led me to think the parties were in another part of the mega-church complex – a cafeteria or gym which Catholic churches also have. [AFAIK in the Catholic Church you only see jumbotrons in St Peter's Square]

  • Glen Davis

    My best guess is that churches tend to change the channel during risque advertisements and also to block out the halftime show in order to present an evangelistic message.

    That means some advertisers aren’t getting benefit from the programming that they are paying ridiculously high prices for.

  • Jonathan

    Interestingly, today I saw the Vanderbilt student newspaper with a picture of a large group of people watching the Super Bowl in the student life center on a big screen TV that appeared to be larger than 55″. I bet this happened at colleges and universities around the country. I wonder if the NFL sent their lawyers after them. Is there a clause that exempts academic institutions? Or does this add an additional wrinkle to the story of why churches were targeted?

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