I have a confession to make.
Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have been ardent devotees of the Tonight Show. Every weeknight at 10:34 (CDT), we stop whatever we are doing and turn on the television to watch Jimmy Fallon host a 60 year old television variety show. We even watch the commercials.
This happened quite by accident. When we saw that Jay Leno’s tenure as the host of the Tonight Show was coming to an end, we decided to watch his final show and take a look at Fallon’s first outing. Though we were immediately entertained and impressed, we didn’t think it could last long. Surely Fallon’s habit of breaking or laughing at his own jokes would invariably torpedo the show. We continued watching, mostly for the sick thrill of watching the show crash and burn. But something weird happened: it didn’t fail. In fact, it seems to have returned to the glory days when it was hosted by Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show has only gotten better, to the point that I can say with some confidence that it is currently my favorite thing to watch on television.
How did this happen? How did a somewhat annoying television personality and his team revitalize a storied, yet struggling institution? It occurs to me that there are three things Jimmy Fallon does as the host of the Tonight Show. First, he has an enormous amount of respect, almost reverence for the institution that he has been tasked with stewarding. Fallon frequently makes reference to the Tonight Show’s storied past, celebrating the lives of those who have performed and been interviewed under its banner. Second, Fallon is willing to use new means to engage his audience. He is an avid user of social media and he encourages participation by the people watching at home. Even if you’ve never sent anything to the show, you get the sense that your opinion and your participation matters. Finally, Jimmy Fallon exhibits an infectious enthusiasm for his work. When he jokes with Higgins during his monologue or banters with The Roots during an interview or plays a silly game with his guest, he exudes a spirit of awe, a sense that he can’t believe he has the great privilege of doing what he does. All of these combine to create a Tonight Show that is engaging, innovative, and exciting to watch.
It occurs to me that these three elements of Jimmy Fallon’s hosting of the Tonight Show are really important when we think about revitalization in the Church. In some ways, the Church and the Tonight Show have been in similar places: both are storied institutions that have been struggling with questions of “relevance” over the past few decades. I think, however, that Jimmy Fallon shows us a few things we can do to breathe life into our church communities. First, we can have respect for the institution we have been called to steward, to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, from apostles and martyrs to church members of generations past. At the same time, we must be willing to try new ways of engaging with the people in our communities, whether that is through social media or other means. People should be able to look at our churches and feel as though they are connected to them, even if they’ve only visited once or twice before. Finally, and most importantly, we must recognize what a great privilege discipleship truly is. We have been given a wonderful inheritance and a wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus Christ in the world. I pray that each one of us will have grace to recognize this opportunity and embrace the community we have been called to serve.