What churches can learn from the Olympics

The Olympic Games demonstrate how the power of communication and engagement can help churches using four key components.

Look at the sport of curling for example.  You turn on your television and see a large rock sliding down what looks like a shuffleboard made of ice. In front of this rock are two people, sometimes in crazy pants, furiously brushing the ice with what looks like an industrial strength Swiffer.  Next thing you know, three hours have passed, and you’ve become a passionate fan of the winter olympic sport of curling.

How does this happen? How do you go from completely baffled to feeling like you know not only the rules but also the strategy? How do complete strangers become people you cheer for or against in as little as 10 minutes?

Broken into its simplest components, the situation is not unlike what local churches face: Engage and inspire a community while overcoming the challenge of quickly and simply communicating at times complicated information.

So, how do they do it? Here are four components of Olympic engagement:

1. Community

One of the Olympics’ biggest built-in advantages when it comes to engagement is national pride. Even if the athletes themselves are largely unknown, we can still cheer for our home country or other teams for which we have an affection — like the Jamaican national bobsled team.

And while the games are competition, and geopolitics inevitably creep in at times, the Olympics’ stated goals include seeking to “work on a daily basis to use sport to promote peace.” So, yes, we cheer for our home nations, but we are also rooting for humanity.

Churches put this component into practice by ensuring that they are plugged into and supportive of their local community. Participating in local events, showing community pride and building relationships with schools, organizations and businesses say that you want to be a part of the community that exists around you. Using your social media and other marketing tools to highlight these relationships can help build awareness of and trust in your church.

Where churches can get this wrong is when their understanding or practice of community is disconnected from the people who are around them. There is nothing wrong with loving your own church community or having events for members, but if everything you do is within the walls of your church, it will be difficult to engage your neighbors. If all of your social media and marketing messages are about you, people will wonder if you care about anyone else.

2. Stories

Have you ever noticed how quickly you can find yourself cheering for a particular team or athlete? There’s the swimmer who wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to train before she goes to class. There’s the guy who works at his local hardware store, but no one realizes he’s a gold medalist because his sport doesn’t get the attention that others receive. And summer or winter, there are always Olympians coming back from injury, underdogs who unexpectedly made the team, and athletes back for one last attempt at a medal.

Each of those examples, even though they are only one sentence or one phrase, contains three of the four core elements of a good story: character, desire and conflict or obstacle. All tell of athletes with the goal of winning a medal. The student and the hardware store employee have to balance school and work with their training. The others battle health issues, expectations and the passage of time.

The fourth element, the climax or resolution, will play out at the Olympics with all the world watching. You are hooked at the beginning by anticipating a good story. You have to engage to hear the end.

Notice two things about these stories. First, they’re compact. The video segments that introduce unknown athletes are usually 90 seconds to two minutes. They distill the story down to its essential parts. Second, they are rarely about the technical aspects of the sport. Occasionally there will be a story about something like an ice skater trying to master a particular jump, but most serve to connect with the person behind the performance.

The story of Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca Knierim, pair skaters for Team USA, is a great example. They are a married couple who frequently won medals until Alexa was crippled by a rare medical condition. After successful surgery that saved her life, they faced trying to recover normalcy in life and in their work.

You may not have Olympic figure skaters in your congregation, but you likely do have a story like this one — probably even many of them. This ultimately is the story of a couple that faced adversity and got through it by relying on their faith and one another.

When we learn to tell stories like this, whether about people in our congregation or the stories of Scripture, we make it easier for our communities to engage and connect with us.

3. Education

One of the greatest Olympic moments came when Kerri Strug landed her final vault on an injured ankle to win a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. You don’t have to have a deep knowledge of gymnastics to understand the gravity of that moment.

Big, dramatic moments like that stand out because they actually happen quite infrequently. And while we can find ourselves cheering for people who were complete strangers moments ago, it is difficult to fully engage with the Olympics if we don’t know what’s going on.

It might be easy to tell who wins a race or who jumps the farthest, but other sports face a learning curve of technical information. Curling is a great example of a sport that isn’t the easiest to understand yet is growing in popularity in the United States.

When you tune into a curling match, the announcers do not explain every rule. They focus first on the scoring so you can follow along, and then they explain the tools and techniques as the match progresses. Watch a short video on the basics of curling on the Olympic Channel, and notice that the part where they actually explain the sport is only a minute long. And much like how the broadcasts of football games only explain overtime rules if the game actually goes to overtime, the goal of the announcers in curling is to help you understand what is going on in the moment.

Obviously, church and theology are not the same as a game. Our understandings of God and the gospel have eternal implications. However, as with an unfamiliar sport, the detailed and technical aspects can be a barrier to engagement. During Olympic broadcasts, the announcers and commentators don’t shy away from complexity, terminology, strategy or history, but they teach it in context — bringing it alive and making it easier to engage. We can do the same in our marketing and within worship services.

4. Emotion

Emotion is in many aspects of the Olympics. Both the producers of the games and the sponsors know how to tap into these emotions to engage and inspire their audience.

The key is finding a relatable entry point that allows the viewer to connect with a world-class performer. In post-event interviews, the most common — and effective — reporters ask how the athletes felt, what they were thinking or what the moment means to them. Instead of eliciting answers about some technical aspect of the sport, we hear emotion and story. The question about meaning can really drive home the resolution, which was final element of good storytelling mentioned above.

When it comes to ads, the strategy is the same. Some ads feature well-known athletes, while others are built around the idea of an unknown athlete earning our attention. Still others are actually about us, the viewers. The common thread is that we all have a connection to the Olympic community.

One of the most recognizable Olympic campaigns is the award-winning “Thank you, Mom” series of commercials by P&G, which debuted in 2010. At each successive Olympics, winter and summer, we have seen a new version of the ad, highlighting the role moms have played in forming the competitors as athletes and as people. The 2018 “Thank you, Mom,” commercial focuses on the role moms play in helping their children overcome bias in the world. These ads identify an entry point into the lives and experiences of the athletes with which everyone can relate — their families.

When considering applying this in the church, we, too, need to look for points of connection between our lives as Christians and the lives of the community around us. What do we all struggle with? What sorts of things do we all value and celebrate? What experiences and emotions are common to all of us? Which of Christ’s teachings make sense, even if you aren’t a person of faith? Obviously, you will offer a deeper and richer discipleship path as part of your ministry, but the first step is making a connection and encouraging people in your community to engage with your church.

There can be, and rightfully so, discomfort with comparing church marketing and communications with corporate advertising — or even athletic competitions. Add emotion to the mix, and you open up the potential of straying into manipulation. However, when church marketing is done ethically, it can responsibly use emotion to create a connection that leads to real relationships.


This article was written by Dan Wunderlich and published by United Methodist Communications.  Rev. Dan Wunderlich is an extension minister focused on worship, communication, and creativity with the goal of helping ministries and their leaders better connect with their communities. Find out more about his work and his podcast “Art of the Sermon” at DefiningGrace.com.


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