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The End of the Circus

Dr. James Emery White | Mecklenburg Community Church | Published: Jan 22, 2017

The End of the Circus

I saw the billboard on the interstate: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was coming to town. The dates coincided perfectly with two of my grandchildren visiting from Florida. Could there be a richer part of Americana to share, one more time, with the next generation?

Sadly, it will be the last.

News broke recently, literally racing around the world, that after 146 years the final curtain on the “greatest show on earth” will fall in May. 

Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, said there wasn’t any one thing that led to the circus’ demise: declining attendance, high operating costs, changing public tastes, ongoing battles with certain animal rights groups who feel that no animal should be trained to perform, etc.

No matter. The reality remains that an institution in place since the mid-1800s that combined the animals and human oddities gathered by Phineas Taylor Barnum and James A. Bailey – later joining with the five juggling Ringling brothers – will exit the stage. The trains that would arrive in town after town, the elephant walks down main street and the big-top tents, now replaced with movies, TV, video games and the internet.

“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Feld.

He’s right. 

An era has symbolically ended.

What does this have to do with church and culture?

I could draw parallels to the slow pace of change the circus seemed bound to. They missed the boat on product merchandising tie-ins and Saturday morning cartoons to bolster their image. 

They also missed the boat on the changing nature of interests and attention spans. In 1967, the show was just under three hours in length. Today it lasts 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment – a tiger act – lasting 12 minutes. 

“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” Feld said.

So churches, while eschewing the crasser marketing aspects, could gain a much needed wakeup call to at least observe the world moving around them and often past them so that they aren’t completely left behind in areas where they are biblically encouraged to stay current.

But I will confess that this is not the heart of this blog.

The heart of this blog is that in a few weeks, I will take my grandchildren to the circus; the last of the grandfathers to do so. We will have cotton candy and laugh at clowns, see tigers jump through hoops and acrobats sail through the air,

… and say goodbye to what used to be more than 12 minutes of attention.  

James Emery White


“Curtain Comes Down on Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth,” AP, The Telegraph, January 15, 2017, read online.

Amy B. Wang, “Animal Activists Finally Have Something to Applaud at Ringling Bros. Circus: Its Closure,” The Washington Post, January 15, 2017, read online.

Steph Solis, “Ringling Bros. Circus Closing after 146 Years,” USA Today, January 14, 2017, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His new book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The End of the Circus