Sesame Street turns forty this week. And, if you're under forty, I'll bet just seeing those words in type means a theme song is now running through your head. That's because the children's educational television show has worked itself through an entire generation of American popular culture. There's something here I think the church can learn from the Children's Television Workshop.
Now, as I soon as I mention Sesame Street, I know some of you will balk about its educational value. You'll point me to studies suggesting that learning the alphabet from singing puppets actually shortens kids' attention spans. No argument here. But simply learning facts was never the primary goal of the program.
As the New York Times puts it, this was a "messianic show," with a "mission" to remake the way children envisioned the world.
Yes, Big Bird and Bert and Ernie and Grover and Oscar the Grouch and their human co-stars would teach you about letters and numbers and safety tips. But, more than that, they would show you, by the characters they featured and the plot lines they put forward, a new way of seeing things on issues ranging from racial equality to obesity prevention to the global fight against AIDS.
I know that some immediately will conclude that I'm saying simply that churches should contextualize in their teaching and mission.
Yes, Sesame Street did contextualize. The writers and producers picked up on familiar themes such as advertising commercials ("This broadcast is brought to you by the letter 'C.'"). They built their segments around a typical child's attention span. They featured songs that were easy-to-sing and memorable (pop quiz: can you hum the tune of Ernie's "Rubber Ducky" song? Of course you can).
And, yes, of course, churches should contextualize the gospel, addressing people in a language that can be heard and understood. But contextualization itself is not enough. Some of the most self-consciously contextualized churches are faddish and hyper-consumerist. They're more like the mass-marketed latter years of Sesame Street, and less like the early, innovative, culture-shaping times. And we've got all the "Tickle Me Elmo" kinds of Christian ministries we can stand.
Sesame Street was effective because the program didn't just contextualize to the present; it contextualized to the future.
Remember, after all, when the show started. It was in 1969, the era of George Wallace and the Black Panther Party and campus race riots and the Richard Nixon "Southern Strategy." From the very start, the program showed kids what few of them had ever seen before: a racially integrated neighborhood.
Now, Sesame Street could have done this with preachy didactic dialogue (kind of like Norman Lear's Maude series). But instead, they showed kids racial equality, and made it normal for them, without ever saying much about it in the process.
As I read that, it struck me that, years before my Mississippi elementary school was integrated via busing, I'd seen African-American and Latino characters (such as "Gordon" and "Maria") functioning as equal members of a society, on the television screen of my home.
"It's almost too perfect that the first African-American president of the United States was elected in time for the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street," the New York Times says. "The world is finally beginning to look the way that PBS show always made it out to be."
What would happen if, whenever our culture saw love or reconciliation or peace, our neighbors said, "This is exactly the way that church always made life out to be?"
I wonder what would happen if our churches were to recognize our role in showing people the future, not just in our teaching and in our going but in our being? What kind of witness could we be to our communities, as fragmented as they are by race and class and economics and politics, if the very makeup of our congregations signaled the "manifold wisdom of God" (Eph. 3:10) in which "here there is no Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Schythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all" (Col. 3:11)?
What if our children were accustomed to seeing black pastors of majority white churches, and vice-versa? What if a hotel janitor were named chairman of deacons in a wealthy suburban megachurch, because all recognized his spiritual maturity and nothing else mattered? What if our churches pioneered tort reform, not by arbitration alone, but by Christians agreeing cheerfully to be defrauded (1 Cor. 6)?
And what if all that started to seem normal to us?
The New York Times speaks of the "messianic mission" of Sesame Street and that's, of course, tongue-in-cheek. But we really do, as the Body of Christ, have a mission that is, quite literally, messianic.
We'd still offend a lot of people. Jesus always does. But we'd offend them the way he did, with them peering over their shoulder in wonder on the way.
And some would come back, even if by cover of night, to ask us what we're up to. Some of them would love our songs and listen to our teaching even before they believe it's true, just because they would hope it would be true. They'd see a picture of the universe as it could be. As deeply as their sinful natures would draw back, the image of God within them would resonate with the beauty of a cosmos at peace.
It seems to me if this were the case, we'd have less abstract theology and fewer "faddish" principles to teach. We'd be announcing to the outside culture and to those who've taken refuge with us in Christ, "Welcome to the future, to the kingdom of Christ in miniature."
Mission will always be difficult, as long as we're fallen and there are demonic powers out there. Still, we can wonder what we might be able to get across to our neighbors if we market-tested the future (by faith), and not just the present (by sight).
The Sesame Street idea was a product of its time, a Great Society-era Utopian project rooted in an understanding of history as "progressive." The people of Christ know better. If our congregations are workshops of kingdom righteousness, we'll have to make it clear that this isn't natural, and it isn't due to history or to progress or to us. We'll have to say something like, "This church has been brought to you by the letters 'Alpha' and 'Omega.'"