SBC Life Articles

The Elmo Enigma

Funny how the law of supply and demand works at Christmas time. Take for instance this past Christmas. Michelle and I caught the Christmas movie Jingle All The Way. In case you missed it, the movie concerned something all parents have faced: finding the most popular toy all the kids want, but none of the stores seem to have. The storyline centered on Christmas Eve, where actors Arnold Swartzeneggar and Sinbad trekked from store to store across Minneapolis, stalking the toy superhero "Turboman."

From Cabbage Patch Kids to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the craze which leads parents to bypass thousands of perfectly fine toys, simply to get one because of a current craze, seems to be a part of our societal framework. Conspiracy theorists believe these mad rushes for hard-to-find toys are the sinister work of toy companies, but I'm skeptical. With all due respect to toy producers, I don't think they have a clue as to why or when Barbie will make a comeback, or if their hot gizmo next Christmas season will be "Megazords."

A case in point is the movie I mentioned. The toy of interest in the flick, Turboman, with his kid-enthralling, Rambo-sounding cry: "It's Turbotime!" looked like the perfect toy for karate-swinging, Nintendo-battling kids so prevalent today. When Michelle rushed to the store the week following our moviegoing, she was convinced there would be a shortage of Turbomen generated by the movie. But nooooo! They could hardly give the things away at the area Wal-Mart.

Instead, if you were alive and breathing Christmas past, you know the craze of the year. Who coulda thunk it? Tickle Me Elmo was no laughing matter for scores of parents frantically searching the malls for the little monsters. Fortunately, my family was not culturally relevant enough to pick up on this craze, so Michelle survived Christmas with hardly a scratch. It was unbelievable to see what people gave for the Elmo dolls: five hundred, even a thousand dollars. One guy swapped two Green Bay Packers playoff tickets for a doll — obviously not a true Packer fan!

Perhaps we in the church can learn a lesson or two from the Elmo craze. A mad rush for "Turboman" spawned by the movie never materialized. Inexplicably, everyone wanted a Tickle Me Elmo. Now, how could a fuzzy, big-eyed, goofy-sounding creature outrank a superhero? Why a doll that chuckles instead of an action figure filled with such virtuous sayings as: "You can always count on me!"? Is this further evidence of our culture's moral rot? I don't think so. Rather, I'm convinced the erupting Elmo enthrallment could not have been predicted simply because it demonstrates a common feature of any society: when people are involved, logic rarely prevails. That's why the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars beat Dallas and Denver in the NFL playoffs. Go figure.

The toy marketers, spending billions, don't know future trends with any certainty. For every Elmo that is a hit, hundreds of toys miserably fail to sell. But there is something we in the church can learn from the Tickle Me Elmo craze. What the toy marketers do know is toys will be in demand as long as there are kids, and that some toys will be a hit. What we know is the gospel will answer deepest needs as long as there are people, and some people will believe the gospel. We also know the gospel is far more than a toy; it is the greatest gift one could receive.

Let's give the toy marketers some credit. When the craze for Elmo began, they made the most of it. Perhaps church growth leaders, and I hope I fit that category, should spend more time prescribing biblical answers to the spiritual Elmo-fascinations in our day. Yes, we constantly need to search for effective ways to communicate the gospel in a manner that contextualizes the timeless message of salvation to a changing culture. I am constantly trying new approaches myself. I'm grateful for every book on reaching boomers, busters, benders, bridgers, bouncers, er, …

What the Elmo-craze can tell us is that confidence in the gospel as "the power of God to salvation" should guide all our innovations, even more than the Christmas toy rush remains a constant for toy marketers.

We must take care in our Elmo-esque pursuit of evangelistic innovations. Otherwise, we may inadvertently move from applying Scripture to culture and permit fads to drive our ministry. If we do so, we may end up with a Turboman tool which reaches no one. Or even worse, in our desire to find an Elmo, we may instead deliver to people something more akin to those gnawing Cabbage Patch Dolls of Christmas past. You know, the ones that chewed up the hair and even fingers of kids to the point that the manufacturer had to recall them.

Here's my point: Paul said we're to know the times, which literally means we should have an intimate understanding of the society in which we minister (Romans 13:11). Cultures change and demand innovative, contextualized approaches to reach lost people. That being said, our understanding of culture should lead us to address societal needs with a Christ-centered, versus a culture-driven solution (Romans 13:12-13). Let the Elmo fads come and go; let's keep the gospel paramount in our ministries. After all, toys will come and toys will go, but eternity is for keeps.

    About the Author

  • Alvin L. Reid