It has been said that in our workplaces and in our churches four generations are gathering under one roof. Four different and distinct generations are gathering together for a singular and shared service of worship and Scriptural storytelling. That’s what was said to me when I started out in pastoral ministry eleven years ago, but now the scenario has expanded and evolved, now we’re five generations under one roof gathering for a singular and shared experience of worship, five! I think any pastor would be terribly remiss to ignore this reality and to not, at the very least, become somewhat educated and informed about the multi-generational (or better yet, inter-generational) opportunities before them.
Much has been written and researched on multi-generational or inter-generational ministry, and the identifiers for each generation are not used with uniformity by sociologists and scholars, but for the sake of simplicity let’s just say that most of our congregations consist of at least some representation from the Silent Generation (born approximately between 1925-1945), the Boomer Generation (born approximately between 1946-1965), from Generation X (born approximately between 1966-1980), the Millennial Generation (born approximately between 1981-1995), and now the Digital Generation or Generation Z (born approximately between 1996 – 2010). For the average preacher, that’s at least ninety years of culture and generational distinction represented in your listening audience each and every Sunday! I think the Holy Spirit might be working overtime in order for these humble vessels to be heard and understood by such a diverse body of believers; which is why contemplating and considering some of the differences and distinctions in generational storytelling may be well worth our time.
Take, for example, three hugely popular sitcoms from the last 25 years: Seinfeld (1989-1998), Friends (1994-2004), and How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). As I discussed a few weeks ago on the Preaching Collective Podcast, I believe it can be beneficial to think of these three sitcoms as examples of generational storytelling and how their humor is shared. While these are admittedly broad generalizations, it is helpful to look at Seinfeld as an example of how Boomers tell stories, to look at Friends as an example of how Gen-Xers tell stories, and to look at How I Met Your Mother as an example of how Millennials tell stories. For these three generations many cultural and storytelling distinctions can be found in the some of the most popular shows for each generation. That being said, let me just put a disclaimer here that while these three shows were all successful television series and attracted huge audiences, they were all shows about young white people living in New York, filmed on sound stages in L.A.. Therefore, we must appreciate the fact that these are mere windows, and only reveal a portion of the broad, complex and mosaic cultural make-up of each North American generation.
To begin let us consider Seinfeld’s relationship to the Boomers. Not unlike the stand up comedy this popular sitcom was based on, Seinfeld’s style of storytelling was, more often than not, topical. While every episode had a structured and overarching narrative, the focus of the events and dialogue as the characters moved from the apartment, to the street, to the restaurant, was typically centered around a singular theme or topic. Whenever one of the characters were wronged or encountered something strange or foreign to their experience, they became obsessed (to hilarious ends of course), and thus became the focus of their thought process and engagement in every scene. In many ways, the topics of Seinfeld had to do with an ever-changing world, and not unlike the Boomers (the show’s primary audience), with every new and foreign experience Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, were attempting to understand this strange new world with a somewhat detached and observational approach. Labels, names, and stereotypes are helpful for the Boomers because they provide, at the very least, a cognitive footing–a way of beginning to engage and understand something or someone outside themselves. Ironically, using labels and stereotypes to discuss certain subjects is sometimes the very thing that makes Gen-Xers or Millennials uncomfortable when talking with Boomers. Sometimes we feel the need to stop or correct them and, of course, that’s not always a bad thing; but what we younger generations need to understand is that our Boomer family members and friends are attempting to expand their understanding of the world around them through whatever language or rhetoric they know.
Seinfeld can help us appreciate this because while almost every episode might be topical, the engagement of the characters in these strange and new encounters is never meant to be mean. The responsibility and response is always focused in on the protagonist. Whether it’s the girlfriend who got a nose job, or visiting the bubble boy, or George talking to Steinbrenner, in every one of these encounters the camera never shows us the face of the victim. It’s always shot from behind their head so that we can only see (and laugh at) the awkward and uncomfortable responses of the main characters. In the end, Seinfeld is about our detachment and depravity. It’s about attempting to understand the world around us through detached observational storytelling, and it is a humble recognition that our response to a strange new world is not often kind, generous, or even mature. Sometimes the only way we can see this within ourselves is to laugh at it first.
This is why topical storytelling and topical preaching may not be easy for every preacher, but it is necessary. There are times and seasons when we need to allow the narrative to take a back seat so that we can really focus in on a specific area in our lives or need in our world. I know for myself topical preaching is not always easy; it’s often uncomfortable and awkward, but when certain world events can no longer remain just points of prayer, or when your congregation is in crisis, or you know they are uninformed (or misinformed) about topics such as giving or social justice, we must set the expanse of the biblical narrative aside for a few weeks and just talk about this. When we consider the way in which the Gospel of Matthew was written and structured we might find some similarities there. The Gospel of Matthew, which was written primarily to a Jewish audience, is quite topical in nature, and when Jesus is confronted by, or needs to confront the Pharisees, he speaks to them about subjects one item at a time (consider the Seven Woes of Matthew 23 for example).
As preachers, we too must know the needs of our audience. We must start to recognize and understand the diversity and distinctions of every generation and see that the ways in which storytelling can speak to the needs of every season. So, let us not just attempt to include every generation in our preaching, but let us allow the Holy Spirit to show us how the stories (and sitcoms) of every generation can teach us something about ourselves and the world around us.