In yesterday’s post, I introduced the idea that it can be beneficial to think about generational storytelling through the lens of three different sitcoms and how preachers can think about using different approaches to the biblical story to engage the various generations sitting in the pews. We began with the Boomer generation and Seinfeld’s approach to topical storytelling.
Today we continue with Friends and it’s relationship to Generation X. In the 90’s there was a noticeable shift in our culture in terms of how we digested and anticipated our favorite stories and television shows. While the final episode of shows such as Cheers and Seinfeld were significant events watched by tens of millions of people, when Friends came on the scene and started it’s ten year run, suddenly we found ourselves anticipating storylines and experiencing cliffhangers like never before. In years gone by, television had been truly episodic with every episode each week being self-contained. Storylines were rarely, if ever, broken up into parts one and two and seasons were never expected to conclude with cliffhangers that forced audiences to wait through the summer for closure or a conclusion.
That all changed, however, in the 90’s with Friends and its primary audience, the Gen-Xers. All of a sudden audiences found themselves caring about what Ross and Rachel were up to week-to-week and in 1997, between the months of May and September, many were left wondering whose room Ross had entered late at night in the beach house! This was a significant change in our cultural experience of storytelling, and I believe it also has something to say about how many Gen-Xers encounter Scripture and process our preaching.
For Generation X and Friends, stories are best told in a linear fashion. Like Rachel and Monica’s apartment across the hall from Joey and Chandler’s apartment, the camera (and the story) follows the action and dialogue from room to room, rarely jumping around or providing flashbacks without some sort of transition. These stories are anchored in the experience of the group, even when the focus is on a single relationship like Ross and Rachel or Monica and Chandler. Almost all of the twists and turns in the plot take place in the presence of, or are related to, the group of friends as a whole. The prevailing question is always, “How will this affect us?” If Chandler is going to move in with Monica, who is going to live with Joey? And if not one of us, will Joey’s new roommate gel with our group of friends or not? The story of Friends, and often the focus for Gen-Xers is: How will this affect the collective as a whole? Are we considering and including everyone?
This is essentially the basis of the sitcom itself. Friends is a story centered on six individuals who would likely never be a close-knit group of friends in real life. There’s the popular girl, the control freak, the hippy, the nerd, the dumb handsome one, and the sarcastic outsider. There they are all together in one coffee shop, representing a societal diversity of sorts, with the hope and promise of inclusivity. It’s admirable and sincere and most of the best comedic situations come out of the group’s differences. They can make fun of each other and still share a sense of belonging, which some might say is apropos to the feelings Gen-Xers might have about being left out or under-represented. Nevertheless, the aim is the same. Within the story of Friends you can find everyone and everything in one place, in one apartment, or on one couch.
When applying this to preaching, we might find a parallel to this kind storytelling in the Gospel of Luke. Luke, which was written primarily to a Gentile audience, is quite comprehensive in nature. From its opening birth stories and genealogy, to its concluding resurrection and ascension story and sequel (the Book of Acts), the Gospel of Luke tells a linear story that includes everything and everyone. Even when Jesus is giving his longest and most comprehensive teaching, instead of it being like the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matt. 5-7), Luke has Jesus preaching “on a level place” (Lk 6:17) where people have gathered from many far reaching regions. This is a story for anyone and everyone!
Preachers would be wise to learn such lessons from the style and structure of Luke’s Gospel and Generation X’s hit sitcom, Friends. We can’t always speak to everyone’s need or circumstance, but in prayerful consultation with the Holy Spirit, we can be considerate. We can tell straightforward and sincere stories that create a common ground, and speak to the universal needs of the human heart and soul.