The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday in May with some 170,507 people on hand broke another attendance record. In addition to the staggering attendance, television ratings were high and total wagering for the day was at an all time high; up 1.4% over last year. Arguably, the best horse in the field won, American Pharaoh, who, if he goes on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, should be crowned as the next “American Idol.”
So what does this mean? The longest continuously run sporting event in America shows no signs of declining interest; although, admittedly, interest in the sport itself has waned with the advent of lotteries and other forms of gambling. Seventy seven miles to the east of Louisville sits Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Its recently retired President Nick Nicholson, having built upon the success of his predecessors in making Keeneland racing’s premier attraction in the spring and the fall, hits the nail on the head. In his own words, “One of the secrets of success at Keeneland is that we’ve remained true to our traditions but also haven’t been afraid to innovate. You can be traditional and innovative if you are true to your core values.”
We’re all familiar with the traditions surrounding the Derby – the fashions, the mint juleps, the celebrities, the cuisine, the singing of My Old Kentucky Home, all of which are an important part of this great American occasion. However, most don’t know that thoroughbred racing, despite its somewhat intransigent character, was the first sport to introduce instant replay (i.e., photo finish) in the late ‘30’s and has long regulated the use of steroids and race day medications, particularly pain relievers. Professional Baseball executives, “Are you listening?” Even “Astro Turf” was originally developed as a racing surface for summer racing in South Florida.
Attendance this year at the Derby proved the critics wrong again. But, cynics in both the racing industry and in the Church rightly ask, “Where is everyone the week after the Derby (or Easter Sunday?) What does it take to lure them back?” For those of us in the Church, it’s quality worship and engaging activities and ministries that make a difference in the lives of people who serve and are served. Borrowing Nicholson’s principle of tradition and innovation, ask ourselves, “What works, and what doesn’t?” How many Episcopal churches have tried to emulate the Roman Catholic Church with an added Saturday night service, but with no consistent support? Or staging “power point liturgies” with rock bands in hopes of attracting a younger crowd. Conversely, so called “community churches” have siphoned off members from traditional denominations or those with no affiliation at all. We cannot compete with them at their own game but we can learn much from them, particularly the ministry of hospitality and incorporation of new members.
As long as we are serious about the Great Commission to go out and evangelize the world and the Great Commandment to love one another, God will not let His Church be deficient of the gifts necessary to do what He asks us to do. In past generations, The Episcopal Church used to leave it to the Baptists to evangelize people, while we did a pretty fair job of “sacramentalizing” them. But, today it’s a different world out there, and it’s now up to every Church to evangelize the world around them. However, if we’re sloppy about our worship and ambiguous about our basic core beliefs then our ancient rituals will have little impact on the people that need them the most.
Finding creative and effective ways of spreading the good news in a rapidly changing environment might mean survival of the fittest. Not unlike some race tracks these days that are adding casinos, retail and entertainment centers to boost revenue: this is only a short term solution. This is not a call for doing the “same old things in the same old ways.” Certainly one must adapt and be flexible, but trying to be something we are not won’t be effective in the long run. It’s been said, “Ministry is not a fifty yard dash, but a long distance relay race,” with successive generations picking up the baton and carrying forth with the same grace and power which ignited disciples both past and present. We can enrich the heritage of the past while adapting to our technologically advanced world.