Like many of my generation and younger, I bristle when I hear seniors talking about ‘What the Young People Want.’ That phrase seems to demand capitalization, since it has become the new Philosopher’s Stone for the Church these days: if we could only figure out What the Young People want, they’d all come flocking back to church, and we’d have no problem. People were asking that question when I was a ‘Young People’ and I’m not sure that my perspective was ever taken seriously. Now, as I settle into middle age, it’s hard not to be cynical when I hear people saying ‘No, this time we really need to listen to the Young People.’ Except I think I’ve finally hit on one of the biggest problems in trying to understand not just young people, but society in general today, and it starts with ‘I Love Lucy.’
In 1952, I Love Lucy was the single most popular series on American TV. It had a Nielsen rating of 67.3, which effectively meant that for every person who was watching something else, there were two people watching Lucy. It was a staggeringly popular TV show that helped define the sitcom as a genre. But fast forward 65 years. In 2017, the most popular TV series was ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ but it only had a Nielsen rating of 11.5. In other words, for every person watching that show, there were nearly eight people watching anything else! (And well they should, because The Big Bang Theory is an abysmally terrible show! 😆)
What changed? A big difference between 1952 and today is that there’s a lot more on TV than there was then. In 1952, you had a choice between watching ‘I Love Lucy’ and… static. TV was an exciting new medium, but there wasn’t a lot on yet. Shows like I Love Lucy and the Ed Sullivan show got massive audiences, in part because of their quality, but also because there was limited choice. Today, broadcast TV is only a tiny slice of the entertainment available to us. If you’re not watching The Big Bang Theory, you could be watching video clips on YouTube, binge-watching a whole series on Netflix, paying top dollar for premium shows on AMC or HBO (or pirating them online), or reliving old favourite through video on demand. There are so many possibilities that it only takes 10% of the total audience for a series to be considered a ‘smash hit’ and ‘wildly popular.’
So what does that have to do with the church? Everything. If someone points out that the kids they know like laser shows and smoke machines, people are quick to jump on the bandwagon and say ‘The Church should get a smoke machine!’ If someone else points out that their grandchildren are always on Snapchat, the answer is ‘The Church should be on Snapchat!’ Sometimes we like to combine the answers and say ‘The Church’s smoke machine should be on Snapchat!’ What we tend to forget is that we don’t live in an I Love Lucy world any more. The single most popular trend among a younger generation might still only represent a fairly small proportion of that generation. For every person who thinks the smoke machine is a great idea, there might be eight young people who thinks it’s an objectively terrible one. We can’t assume that the most popular approach will speak for a whole generation, let alone the majority.
When I was a Young Person, I loved traditional Anglican worship. My faith and vocation were formed by the Book of Common Prayer. I have developed broader tastes since then, and as a priest I can appreciate and offer a wider variety of Anglican expressions. But personally, these are the traditions that speak to me. I have known many other young people who responded to that particular flavour of religion, and there are many who still crave it today. We don’t crave it because it’s a throwback to ‘better days’ long gone, but because it still speaks, even to young people, in the world today. Worship at St. Michael’s has a profound symbolism of word and action. We use language that is at once familiar and uncommon, intelligible and yet otherworldly. Curls of incense draw our imaginations heavenward, mingling our prayers with the prayers of the saints, somehow taking us away from everyday life, but then the sharp ring of bells call our attention back to here and now, to the business of being the church in the world.
That spoke to me, and still does speak to many. But I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to assume that what appeals to me appeals to everyone. Even if I read a study that said it’s the most popular expression of Anglicanism, I wouldn’t assume that it would speak to most people. We don’t live in an I Love Lucy world any more. But we live in a church that’s starting to panic. We live in a church that is desperate to find one magic bullet that will solve all our problems, even if it means alienating those who won’t prefer that. If we’re going to be serious about responding to the reality of the world that we live in, we have to recognize that the days of assuming a single approach will appeal to most people are long gone. Of course we need to listen to young people. But we also need to recognize that there’s more than one answer to ‘What do they want?’
Fr. Jonathan Rowe is the Rector of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Kenmount Terrace and an Adjunct Faculty Member at Queen’s College. Despite their often wildly differing approaches to the world, he and Rev. Robert are often mistaken for each other.