On the Eagles, the Super Bowl, and the Idols in All Our Cities

This week, the city of Philadelphia is electric. The beloved Eagles are slated to appear in Super Bowl 52 against the New England Patriots this Sunday. It’s only the third time in franchise history the Birds have been to the Big Game – the first time in 13 years – and the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl.

I’ve lived in the Greater Philadelphia Area for twelve years; ten years ago, I planted a church. One of the things I quickly noticed when I moved to Philadelphia was the intense zeal for the Eagles. If you could summarize Eagles fans in one word, it would be passionate. Sure, every city has its pocket of passionate fans, but Philly is markedly different. Fans want a Super Bowl ring so badly that for years people have worn t-shirts that read “Just One Before I Die.” Philly is passionate about the Eagles. Sometimes a bit too passionate.

I’ve always loved sports. I am thrilled Philadelphia is on the brink of winning their first Super Bowl. But I have a complicated relationship with the Eagles, one that leaves me uneasy and concerned.

I root for the Eagles, but I’m not a passionate Eagles fan. I love Philadelphia, but this undeniable angst I feel is not for reasons related to sports; it’s a theological one. To be direct, the Eagles are an idol in Philadelphia.

On Sunday mornings, people gather in church buildings across the city; Sunday afternoons, in the fall, people gather in South Philly for the worship service, which often begins at 1pm. This coming Sunday adherents will gather in Minneapolis for the most significant of all worship services.

This is the essence of eagolatry.

It’s All of Us

If you’re not a sports fan, don’t move on yet.

Idolatry is not limited to the Eagles or the people of Philadelphia. Idols are in every city and in every context because they reside in every human heart. We all have loves and longings, many of them errantly placed. Calvin wrote that our hearts are idol factories. The question, of course, is not if we worship, but what or whom do we worship.

The object of our worship and affection can often and easily stray from our Creator. Augustine wrote that an idol is anything we use that should be worshipped and anything we worship that should be used. Tim Keller described an idol as a good thing that becomes the ultimate thing.

The Eagles can be a good thing (as can the Patriots, as difficult as that is to admit). So can money, careers, family, technology and our stuff, among other things.

But making any of them the ultimate thing incarcerates our souls. When we make something ultimate, we will make it our very identity, willingly offering up sacrifices through the expression of our time, attention, hopes, imaginations, energy and money. Regardless of who of what we are worshipping, it always demands sacrifice.

Being faithful leaders in God’s mission requires inviting people into whole-hearted allegiance to Jesus Christ. To do so, we must call people out of the other enslaving allegiances prevalent in every context. We must proclaim the good news, speaking directly to these idols. But how might we courageously, compassionately and compellingly speak truth to the prominent and enticing idols in our contexts? Being faithful leaders in God’s mission requires inviting people into whole-hearted allegiance to Jesus Christ and out of the other enslaving allegiances. Here's how. Click To Tweet

5 Ways to Address the Idols in Your City

1. Look at the skyline

Leonardo de Chirico, a church planter in Northern Italy, wrote that our approach must be similar to Paul’s approach in Acts 17 at Mars Hill when he addressed the idols in Athens. 

The Apostle Paul walked around and observed the city. He interacted with and reasoned with the Athenians. He debated with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, quoting their own poets. He keenly noticed their idols of worship—and clearly and directly addressed them.

This makes me wonder: if Paul were to walk the streets of our context, what would he say? What idols would he identify? In our modern contexts, de Chirico writes, if we want to know the idols of our city, look at the skyline both physically and theologically. Take notice of the high-rise buildings, skyscrapers, towers, financial buildings and sports arenas, as well as the idol-inspired worldviews of your context. Notice what drives the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of your community. In doing so, we can begin to understand the loves and the longings in a particular place.

2. Help people understand their own participation in cultural liturgies

James K.A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, writes that because our hearts are designed for worship, we engage in cultural liturgies that shape our loves and longings—even more than we imagine.

These cultural liturgies takes place in malls, coffee shops, and yes, even sports arenas. Part of our calling is to think like a kingdom anthropologist by helping people identify and name these liturgies for what they are. They must be named if they are to be changed.

Philadelphians have the gods (athletes), a temple (Lincoln Financial Field), worship vestments (uniforms and other NFL sanctioned apparel), communion elements (tailgating with brats and Bud Light – dilly dilly) and worship songs, both local (“Fly Eagles Fly”) and national (the National Anthem). All of these elements shape who Philadelphians are and who they will become.

We must learn to ask incisive questions, such as:

  • What are the cultural liturgies in your context and how might you begin to help others identify them?
  • What alluring story of promise does this idol seek to tell to adherents?
  • And ultimately, how can these elements of worship be rechanneled away from created things and toward the Creator?

3. Address the effortless flow of people’s money

As Tim Keller said, “Money flows effortlessly to that which is its god.”

A few years ago, I had coffee with a young man who was complaining that our church always talked about money. I pressed in, asking him to clarify, as we’d only had one sermon on giving and generosity in the past two years. He shared he gave a little bit to the church on occasion, but felt the church was “too pushy.” Knowing he was an Eagles season ticket holder, I asked him if he’d ever complained to the Eagles front office about the thousands of dollars he paid each year for his tickets. Stunned, he told me he’d never even thought of doing so—and said he probably never would.

If we want to know what drives our loves and our longings, look at the effortless flow of our money. Our checkbooks are worship documents. How might we help people to see that their credit card statements, bank accounts, and checkbooks reveal their deepest loves and longings—and that many of them might be rooted in idols? If we want to know what idols drive our love and our longings, look at the effortless flow of our money. Click To Tweet

4. Call it what it is

In Acts 17, Paul begins by affirming the religious devotion of the Athenians, but he intentionally moved to more pointed communication: addressing the uselessness of their idols. Moved by an intense frustration and deep disturbance with what he saw, Paul was compelled to help people see and understand that what they worshiped was insufficient and untrue.

Just as Paul was moved by a Spirit-led paroxysm by the idols he saw in Athens, we too should be deeply disturbed by the idols we see in our contexts. If we claim Jesus is Lord, it means all other forces of power and authority are not. We must be people courageous enough to call out the idols in our culture, all the while expecting passionate pushback by adherents (that’s the nature of our idols; we will defend them at almost any cost).

But the haunting reality of idols is that they always disappoint. Always. Maybe not now or next season or even in a decade. But eventually, at some point, they most certainly will. Idols leave us disappointed and empty. It’s just a matter of time. And helping people get to that point can be a distinct gift in the long run.

5. Give hope

Paul moved from affirming their religious devotion to calling out the futility of their idols to offering something more alluring: a God who was known, a God who was near, and a God who wanted relationship with human beings.

Simply running around calling out cultural idols is insufficient; it must also be met with a vision of a better, more hope-filled reality. Being faithful to our calling is to give a clear and compelling picture of a God whose love was so large that He had to be close to His people. He is the One worthy of our allegiance and our worship because of His unfailing promises. No matter what, as leaders, we must give hope. That’s what is available to us—and what is for us to proclaim and make accessible to the world.

This coming Sunday, fans around the world will enjoy Super Bowl 52. I will, too. But as fans participate in these uniquely American cultural liturgies (many of them unknowingly) shaping their loves and longings, may we remember this is not just limited to football. We live in a world saturated with cultural liturgies that shape our allegiances and worldviews in a wide variety of alluring expressions and enticing promises every day of the week.

May we always be courageous, hope-filled leaders who proclaim our allegiance of the king and who also call others into that allegiance—because it is worth far more than a Super Bowl ring.