Dr. Dennis Atwood
On my way to the church office this morning I listened to a report on NPR by Neda Ulaby entitled: “Show Abandonment: When Viewers Drop Popular TV Programs.” The tag line was: “What happens when fans stop talking about a show that used to be their favorite?” Take American Idol, for example. Last week's finale was down 8 million viewers from last year. Such are the problems of the first-world.
The NPR report focused on the fickle nature of television viewers and how American’s loyalty to a favorite show is weakening more and more. For example, at its peak over 8 million people tuned in to The Office each week during its nine-year run. Over the past few seasons, however, viewers have peeled away resulting in the show’s final season and series finale just last week.
“Show abandonment” apparently comes in stages. First, there is “denial.” The DVR episodes begin to pile up and you don’t have time to catch up on the ones you’ve missed. Next comes “delete.” You begin to delete the lost episodes because you just don’t care enough anymore to catch up. Then, there is “acceptance.” Finally you simply abandon the show altogether. You admit that your loyalty is gone and you move on to the next thing that catches your eye—until it doesn’t.
There is also another class of viewers besides these “abandoners.” They are known as “bitter-enders.” These folks stick with a show till the bitter end even as others are abandoning ship. I have to admit that I am one of those “bitter-enders” when it comes to The Office. Sure, the show may have weakened a bit over the past couple of years, but I’m glad to report the series finale was actually a perfect ending to a great run. I’m glad I stuck around—till the bitter end.
Wow. Where to begin when it comes to stretching this analogy of “show abandonment” into the realm of “church abandonment”? I don’t have enough time and space to make all the connections, and I don’t even think it’s even necessary.
We all know the story. Church attendance is down everywhere. People are busy. People are fickle. People are losing interest. Churches are in panic mode. Just look around and you’ll see churches bringing in a flashy program, new worship style, or exciting preacher. “We’ve got to get things back to where they once were!” But things are never going to “get back to where they once were.” New Wine requires new wineskins, said Jesus. We can’t capture time or new wine. The gospel keeps flowing and expanding. If containers become hard and brittle then… well, you end up with wine all over the floor.
In one sense, we Christians should be “bitter-enders” in that we don’t abandon ship and move on to another congregation just because we begin to lose interest in our existing one. The virtues of faithfulness and commitment to make things better are far more admirable than abandonment. On the other hand, there are churches that stubbornly refuse to consider the idea of any change whatsoever, and as a result they hasten their own bitter end—even though there doesn’t have to be a “bitter” end.
So draw your own conclusions about faithfulness and abandonment. The Church will be here until Jesus says it’s done, but that promise doesn’t give churches a green light to bury their heads in the sand. Healthy churches are able to distinguish between containers—which are useful, and New Wine—which is essential. Healthy churches have their collective eyes open and are always paying attention to the new winds of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said he would never leave or abandon us. Are we abandoning him?