Despite a short roster of popular sitcoms aimed at younger audiences, there is a reason TV network CBS has carved out a niche among older viewers. Owing largely to the success of forensic procedurals like the various iterations of “CSI” and “NCIS,” the network has become known as a staple of prime-time viewing for the older generation, who also enjoy on the same network shows like “Blue Bloods” and “Criminal Minds.”
Why are older folks drawn to these kinds of shows? And what do those connections mean for ministry to older folks? It may seem like an arbitrary connection, and I’m largely thinking out loud here, but here are some reflections on the former question with application to the latter.
1. Older folks don’t really want to retire from “their prime.”
Actually, every generation has its own love affair with nostalgia for its youth, but this becomes especially concentrated the older one gets. For instance, one thing most of these shows have in common is the casting of an older male lead who first hit it big 20-30 years ago, when seniors were young too. Thus familiar faces like Tom Selleck (on “Blue Bloods”), Mark Harmon (on “NCIS”), Ted Danson (on “CSI”), and Joe Mantegna (on “Criminal Minds”) were all stars in their prime when seniors were in their prime. But further, the familiarity of these older anchors with older viewers is a touchpoint of trust and comfortability.
Older folks like seeing the stars of their yesteryear as stars today because deep down they too want to believe they have more to contribute, that their best years aren’t behind them. This is why nostalgia is so appealing to every generation, really – because it brings the resonance of our memories into significance today. Vital ministry to senior adults, then, will include reminding them that they have something vital to contribute to the church in the here and now, that they can be “stars” in the ministry of the local church, and that nobody ever retires from the Christian life until their time here is mortally over.
2. Older folks treasure the clarity of truth.
This is a different genre of course, but recently I was watching an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with guest Norm MacDonald. Over said coffee in an old-fashioned diner, MacDonald (who is 59) asked Seinfeld (64) what he thought of the relatively new trend of the “conflicted hero,” the anti-hero who was ambiguously good. “You don’t really like that, do you?” MacDonald asked. “You like the good guys good and the bad guys bad.” Seinfeld agreed, yes. He preferred the “old” way of traditional good vs. evil, and not so much the muddling of the two.
One reason the shows on CBS (and others like them) are so popular among older folks, I think, is because they mostly operate as self-contained straight-forward stories where good beats bad and resolution is reached, if not by the end of the episode, shortly thereafter. Most episodes indeed tell a single story with a short but full arc, where tension is resolved, the good guys capture or kill the bad guys, and order is restored.
Similarly, preaching and other ministry to older folks will remember the biblical clarity of truth. And while so much in our world – and in the Bible! – calls for nuance and some unresolved tension, the key tenets of our faith are settled. Good really is good. Evil really is evil. There really is a God who is perfect and an Enemy who will be defeated. It’s not just older folks who need this teaching, but every person tempted in a morally confused world. But if you want to contextualize well to older folks, saved and unsaved, remembering the clarity and simplicity of truth without lots of hemming and hawing and spiritual ambiguity will go a long ways.
3. Rehearsing the old, old story is a sweet comfort.
When the first “CSI” came out 19 years ago (with older male anchor William Petersen), my wife and I were faithful viewers. After a couple of seasons we gave it up. Why? Well, for the same reason I think older TV viewers not only kept going but have supported two spin-offs (“CSI: Miami” and “CSI: New York,” each with its own older male anchor)—it was too repetitive. Every episode followed the same basic formula. The characters, circumstances, and plot points just seemed dropped into pre-arranged slots that played out in each installment. We felt like that once we’d seen 30 episodes or so, we’d basically seen them all.
This is to a large extent the genius of the procedural and plays out in all kinds of cop, lawyer, doctor, and military shows on any network. The formula is comfortable and familiar. For older folks, especially, living in a rapidly-changing world which they increasingly feel is alien to their own experience and ability to keep up, television shows that repeat the same formula each week can be a strange form of “comfort food” entertainment. (I think older folks like the old standby game shows like “Family Feud” and “Wheel of Fortune” for the same reason.)
There are aspects of this familiarity that Christian ministers ought not try to replicate. We are not in the job of shaving off the rough or challenging edges of Christianity or creating a “safe space” from the missional realities of a world in need of Christ. And yet, there is something applicable in the rehearsing of the same story. For that is what gospel-centrality essentially is. We are beating the same drum, playing the same song, rehearsing the “old, old story” all the time. Older folks may prefer hymns because of nostalgic familiarity, but they need the truths most classic hymns highlight because of their life-giving nourishment to the soul.
Old folks may feel disenfranchised from the church for many reasons, some of them likely of their own making, but many feel disenfranchised from the church because the church of their older years has started telling a different story than the church of their youth. I’m not old (yet), but I feel disconnected in church services that do not center on the grace of God in Christ. Let’s take a cue from the old lions of procedural television and engage in shameless gospel repetition. Unlike “NCIS,” it will not truly get old.