In any single sermon or shared experience of worship, many of us are leading and speaking to five different and distinct demographics at the same time. Each of these generations has their own unique traits and style of storytelling, their preferred way to study Scripture, and their own lens through which see the world around them. Whenever possible, every preacher should at the very least become aware of these distinctions and ask the Lord to help him or her develop an increased sensitivity and ability to speak to all generations through story and Scripture.
As part of this development, or perhaps as a launching point, in this series we have been reflecting on the common cultural experience of watching popular sitcoms–specifically three sitcoms from the last twenty-five years that have something to say about three of the largest generations in our congregations. We began with the Boomers (born approximately between 1946-1965) and their hit sitcom, Seinfeld (1989-1998). Not unlike the stand up comedy Seinfeld was based on, we began to appreciate the Boomer’s preference for topical and observational storytelling. By taking a step back and dissecting and discussing what they see and experience, our brothers and sisters from this generation start to have a better understanding of Scripture and the world around them; a world that is changing ever so rapidly.
Then we moved on to Generation X (born approximately between 1966-1980) and their hit sitcom, Friends (1994-2004). At times our friends from this generation feel left out, overlooked, and outnumbered, so it makes perfect sense that their generation would produce a show that is anchored in a societal diversity (of sorts) with the hope and promise of inclusivity. Every style, preference and personality type is represented together in every scene on this show; everyone all together on one stage, one couch, or in one apartment. The overarching question in the show is this: How will this decision or turn in the story affect the group as a whole? Gen-Xers are often ready and willing to see the story of Scripture as something that applies to everyone everywhere, for they know we truly can all find our commonality in Christ.
Which brings us to our third and final generation: the Millennials (born approximately between 1981-1995) and their hit sitcom, How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). Now I must confess that this is my generation and I am one of the earliest manifestations of the Millennials (born in 1983). That’s why when I first watched How I Met Your Mother (hereafter referred to as HIMYM), there was something about the structure and style of storytelling that spoke to me in a big way. The Millennials were the first generation to grow up in front of a screen, even if that screen was a large box on the floor or on a shelf. We are the Nintendo generation; we were the children who were first introduced to the internet; and yes, we still remember dial up. When we were kids, we had cassettes; when we were in high school we bought CDs (we were the last generation to make mix-tapes); and when we were in college we downloaded mp3s. The Millennial mind is a myriad of experiences and developments. We can follow along, catch on and learn quickly because we’ve had to all our lives. Some might characterize our motto as “adapt or die.” With this perpetual cultural evolution and technological development, however, Millennials have reacted with a sense of ease, leisure and have opted for a laid-back approach to life. Millennials are playful, ironic, and the only generation who has embraced and adopted the concept of ‘meta’ (short for Meta-Narrative).
How I Met Your Mother spoke to us because even the basic concept of this sitcom is meta–a story within a story. HIMYM is about a father telling his young children his life story about how he met their mother, and the suspense and mystery of that story was sustained over the course of nine years. Millennials can appreciate topical and linear storytelling, but we also like to structure our stories in three or four dimensions (winking at the audience while we do it). On any given episode of HIMYM the story could have flashbacks, flash-forwards, sidebars or even daydreams. It’s as if the writers are telling us, “We’ve got an inside joke and we want to let you in on it.” There’s an assumed knowledge and understanding with every episode. It’s hard to just jump right in anywhere because, well, we’ve been through so much already, so you might as well go back and start from the beginning. That’s why Millennials may very well have an appreciation for John Wesley’s approach to doctrine involving “the whole tenor of scripture.”
Within HIMYM there are storylines and sub-plots, like the ongoing adventures of ‘Slapsgiving,’ that reappear and disappear throughout the nine seasons. One episode might end in song just because it’s fun, and because some of us know that actor Jason Segel is musically talented and Neil Patrick Harris has a background in Broadway. In one episode we’re told that Robin’s new boyfriend is older but, even though he’s only 41, the producers cast a 70-year-old actor because all the other characters think of him as being a senior citizen. Basically, when it comes right down to it, HIMYM shows us that Millennials put no limit to how or in what way you can tell a story or find a joke. We tell stories in this way because it allows the storyteller to be authentic, and it makes the experience of narrative immersive, allowing the listeners to see themselves in it.
When it comes to Scripture, preaching and storytelling, this is the number one concern for Millennials: Can we see ourselves in it? Are you telling the story well? Are the specifics in every scene coming alive? Yes, such expectations might seem like intellectual jumping jacks, but that’s only because we want the story to come alive. We want a word made flesh. As long as you tell the story well, you don’t have to worry about giving this generation an application or concluding with a take-away–that will become evident and the Holy Spirit will make it clear to us. Over the course of any given sermon all you have to do is change the pronouns progressively. Start telling the story about “them” (in the first century) and then halfway through the sermon you can continue to share the same story about “us” (in the 21st Century). It’s not unlike John’s Gospel. The Gospel of John was the last written of the four, and it is the most poetic, theological and picturesque. John’s Gospel begins with bold symbolic imagery, creating a multi-dimensional narrative, and then the entire account is tied together with a specific story structure and themes, like the Seven Miraculous Signs (Jn 2:1-11; 4:46-53; 5:1-16; 6:1-14; 6:16-25; 9:1-41; 11:1-46).
Even Jesus himself when he preached, would often speak in parables, which are the ultimate example of immersive storytelling; always leaving the responsibility of application in the hands of the listener. Ultimately, the lesson all preachers can learn from a Millennial style of storytelling is to relax and have fun with it. I know that sounds silly or naïve, but the fact of the matter is that if we allow the scene or passage of Scripture to speak for itself, and if we strive to simply, and yet authentically see ourselves in it, God will move and the Spirit will speak. The responsibility of preaching is not all on your shoulders; there is a greater storyteller who wants to move through you.