The media event of last week was the airing of the final episode of the long running Australian soap opera Neighbours.
“Thanks for loving us/we loved you too” was the final message that flashed on the screen.
The show which has been finally axed after 37 years was a must watch TV programme when it started in the 1980s.
It launched the careers of stars like Guy Pierce, Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue. These stars and many others reprised their roles for this nostalgic finale.
There was always something reassuringly predictable and charming about a show that revolved around a suburban neighbourhood in Australia where neighbours become good friends. Most commentators have given the thumbs up to this walk down memory lane, not that this final episode was perfect.
“It was narratively all over the place, the editing was terrible, the directing was clunky and some of the acting is best forgotten.” (Ben Dowell)
Why did so many people watch it then?
There is power in nostalgia. Preachers do well to understand this.
People like familiar things. We are creatures of habit. Once we have made our choices in life, we are less likely to change them. Witness the amount of people who continue to pay their monthly gym membership long after they have stopped going to the gym.
People value safe places. Places that do not demand too much of us, that make us feel secure.
People like it kept simple. Some preachers don’t understand that it is possible to overthink a sermon and make it too complex.
People like a story line. Neighbours had a straightforward storyline, it was full of people like us, people in relationships who laughed and cried, struggled, failed and triumphed.
There is also weakness in nostalgia. Preachers need to understand that too.
People may like familiar things but they also like freshness and variety. Programme makers and preachers cannot trade on the goodwill of the listener forever. Somewhere along the line people started to drop Neighbours from their viewing routine. One of the knock-on effects of the pandemic is that the ability to change channels has now been embedded in most congregations. The familiar is not always compelling; the grass might look greener on the other side.
People may like simple things, but they can get bored by what appears to be simplistic and shallow. In the 1980s Neighbours had a certain youthful charm but by the 21st Century it had unwittingly slipped into a mid-life crisis. Preachers do not always notice this gradual lack of engagement until it is too late. Sometimes people only physically leave church years after they have stopped listening.
People may like stories but if they are going to be told the same story over and over again it does require a good measure of creativity and freshness.
I heard a sermon last week which spoke about the beginning of the Christian story. The imagined using a TV remote to flick between the four Gospels, each presenting the story of Jesus by a different director.
Now that is the genius of preaching: Telling the story in such a way that people keep listening as if they were, in the words of Marcus Borg, meeting Jesus again for the first time!