I hate it when I’m going in for a high-five and someone decides at the last minute to give me a fist bump. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that uncomfortable moment when you reach out to slap someone’s hand and they suddenly show you the fist. What do you do then? High-five their clenched hand? No, that would be weird. What if you decide at the last minute to close your hand and give them a first bump back? Then you run the risk of wrapping your palm around their fist and giving them a hand hug instead.
I still remember the last person who put me in a situation like this. Jimmy Fallon.
I have an affinity for late-night variety shows, and so on mine and my wife’s recent visit to New York, we decided to catch “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in person. At the end of the episode’s taping, Jimmy took off running through the crowd. As he was giving high-fives all around, I raised my hand to join the action. That’s when he did it. Jimmy went straight from hand slap high to awkward town in less than a second. After I fumbled around a bit I was finally able to fist bump the sly smiling host before he immediately took off backstage.
This interaction typifies Jimmy Fallon’s approach to television and teaches an important lesson to youth pastors everywhere. One thing I enjoy so much about Jimmy’s show (despite his lack of high-fiving abilities) is the opportunity he gives the crowd to be a part of the action. The wall between audience and talent is demolished into a heap of rubble. In a sense, he allows spectators to create “Late Night”‘s content. With “Late Night,” the viewers aren’t just viewers, but writers, actors and producers. Rarely is there a show that goes by without some sort of audience interaction involved.
One of my favorite bits on “Late Night” is the Hashtag Game. Jimmy will give his viewers a hashtag to use on Twitter (example: #MyParentsAreWeird) and ask them to send in their tweets for the next night’s show. This game is not only creative, but extremely resourceful. Jimmy has just expanded his writing team from a handful to hundreds or thousands of people (one of the chosen tweets: @forrestlisa: #MyParentsAreWeird: Favorite saying, “You got baked beans, you got a party.”).
Jimmy also will include the audience in absurd games such as Karate Piñata, Competitive Spit Takes (where participants are judged at how well they can spew water from their mouth at a partner), Celebrity Charades, and Wax On, Wax Off (Let’s just say this game involves a male’s chest being waxed).
The best example of Jimmy’s viewer participation occurred during a recent exchange on Twitter between the star and a fan. It went like this:
@jimmyfallon: Beard. Might shave it on the show tonight. In stages. What is your favorite facial hair looks? #beard
@jamesabarrynj: #beard you should come out of each break with a different facial hair style. That would be great!
Jimmy ended up using the fan’s advice and giving him credit on Twitter, consequently allowing a regular viewer the chance to write for a television show.
Other shows also are following this trend. Recently, Conan O’Brien asked viewers to send in clips of themselves recreating scenes from one of his past episodes. Conan’s team compiled these clips to compose an entirely viewer-created experience. During a recent episode, the television show “Hawaii Five-0” allowed the audience to choose who would be the criminal via a live online poll.
I’ve been rambling about Jimmy Fallon and TV shows. You might be thinking, “What does this have to do with youth ministry?” and “Wade needs a life.” My main point is: Gone are the days when audiences are content to be spectators; now they must be participants. Individuals are more willing to accept content to which they are emotionally connected.
What about those people who are not chosen to participate? In reality, only a handful of viewers ever will get their tweet on “Late Night.” I don’t think that’s really the point, though. It’s the possibility of getting their tweet on Late Night. It’s the feeling that their voices are needed and wanted. Their opinions are desired. That’s what teenagers want anyway, isn’t it—to know their thoughts, ideas and contributions are valued.
If the Jimmy Fallon Hypothesis is true, then we might be doing youth services all wrong. Are our worship experiences merely a performance put on by an exclusive group, or are they conglomerations of what God is doing in and through the community? Do attendees actively contribute to the content of their meetings? Are their voices and participation valued, utilized and empowered? The trend to have a polished, production-driven service often can pull youth pastors away from including student interaction.
Now don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating that pastors should ask their groups before making any decisions. If we did that, I think every youth leader in the country would be preaching next week about the evils of school attendance. Youth ministers also have to make sure that no matter how unpopular a biblical principle is among students, its truth still reigns supreme.
It’s important, though, that we look for contribution when we are planning and conducting worship experiences and ministries. The worst thing we can do is let creativity lie dormant in our seats—to say we care about people, yet not trust them to hear what they have to say. We must make church experiential, not just a spectacle. Personal participation is key. Get the teenagers’ tweets on the screen, let them suggest sermon topics online, use them in videos.
Technology allows us to do this. If I had to take a guess, I would predict that most of your students have a cell phone, access to the Internet, and at least one social media account. Find out what interests your group and use it.
Here are some ideas:
1. Have students submit a YouTube video explaining their favorite things about youth camp or some other youth event. You can play it during service and post it on Facebook. You can maximize participation by giving away an event scholarship to one teen who uploads a video.
2. Have students submit their favorite random Internet clip to be played at some point in the service.
3. Use live text messaging polls to ask students questions during service.
4. Have tweeters submit a funny sermon title for your next message. I did this once for a sermon about alcohol. My message title ended up being “Whiskey Business.”
5. Create a hashtag as Jimmy Fallon does and read the funniest submissions during your youth service. This could be a great introduction for your message or sermon series.
6. Play Wax On, Wax Off, using your senior pastor as a volunteer.
With technology, the opportunities are not limited by your creativity, but by the creativity of your group. This is something I have been wrestling with personally for some time now. As a youth pastor, I want attendees to feel that their participation, voices, creativity and needs are valued and utilized. How we apply this concept while not degrading the quality of one’s service or theology is a tension I like to live between. At times, it might be awkward, kind of like a fist bump approaching a high-five; but in the end, we will create something more meaningful and engaging for our students.