Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Progressive Christianity in America. Read other perspectives beginning this evening here.
With the release and success of each new blockbuster film, a certain niche of the filmmaking community mourns the death of original (read smaller, indie) film content. They lament a future of theatrical releases that will be dominated by endless comic book adaptations and sequels. The concern is understandable but misplaced. These fears parallel those of the faithful, who complain about the decline of church attendance and religious affiliation in the United States. Perhaps they can turn to one another for consolation, because declining church attendance seems to have predicted the changes taking place in the film and television industry, which might ironically give us hope for the church’s future.
In thinking about the future of the church, it might be helpful to draw a loose correlation between church attendance and media (film and television) consumption. There’s a segment of church-goers that might be defined as blockbuster attendees that only darken the doors on Easter and Christmas. A large segment of theater-goers only buy tickets for the biggest releases, so industry insiders speak of the necessity of “eventizing” theatrical releases to draw bigger audiences. People don’t go to see a film for the story as much as they do to participate in an event. Nothing feels more like an event than the recent Jurassic World release or the upcoming Star Wars sequel (hurry up already!). Everyone’s going and everyone’s talking about it. Ok, not everyone, but loads of people. Same with Christmas and Easter. You can’t look like you’re the only person in your Twitter feed not wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
Paralleling this declining church and theatrical attendance, however, is the rise in high-quality scripted series on broadcast, cable, and streaming networks. There’s so much new content that dedicated viewers can hardly keep up. Content creators and content consumers revel in the freedom (both in terms of subject matter and length) that television increasingly provides. Almost every major network has at least one great (or really good) series, and the boundaries are slipping as networks once dedicated to documentary content are now producing scripted series. Living in Los Angeles, I’m constantly in conversation with writers and producers that are either working on or looking for the next great pilot or series, not the next great film script (indie or otherwise).
With all this new content, the ways of consuming it continue to diversify. No longer do viewers subscribe to a single doctrine—I mean, cable package—as they piece together the series they watch from a variety of sources. Netflix memberships continue to skyrocket, and countless viewers augment this membership with dozens of apps and platforms that allow them to cut the cord. In a recent conversation with a friend who works at a leading cable network, she told me that their target demographic doesn’t even watch content on televisions anymore…at all.
Just because viewers are consuming content in diverse ways, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a communal element to it. They’re most often engaging in multi-screen experiences as they participate in live blogs or post and/or tweet about what they’re watching. Conversations take place around these series, and their tone might surprise some observers. Along with the very best series now, many of the upcoming Fall TV pilots reflect deep spiritual themes.
So what does this mean for the church and those currently devoted to it? I don’t know that I’m bold enough to assume, but there are a couple of things worth noting. Churches are trying to adapt and re-orient themselves at a fevered pitch. The rise in popularity of small or home groups help organize people where they already are, rather than expecting them to make the journey to church. These have become so effective that it’s hard to tell if Sunday morning is an extension of these gatherings or vice versa.
One final thought to finish this reflection. The people that we might need to turn to for a vision of how the church could operate in the future might not be ministers, theologians, or academics, but the good folks at Marvel Studios, who seem to be perfecting a new model of crossover appeal. Their blockbuster releases like Iron Man, The Avengers, and The Guardians of the Galaxy break box office records as they pack theaters on opening weekend and beyond. But they continue to feed their disciples with long form series at home with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, and the upcoming Jessica Jones, all of which tie into the bigger narratives of those theatrical releases.
In what ways can (or will) the church Netflix-ize the events of Christmas, Easter, and normal Sunday gatherings?
J. Ryan Parker lives in Los Angeles, where he works in film and television development and marketing. With a PhD in film and religion from the Graduate Theological Union, he is the creator of Pop Theology (www.poptheology.com) and is the author of a number of books and articles on the intersections of religion/theology and film. You can follow him on Twitter at @jryanparker.