Why Pop Culture is No Longer Popular

What? Pop culture is no longer popular? That might seem like a bit of a stretch coming from me. After all, I just published a book this spring, and if you made it all the way to page fifty-three, you found a chapter titled, “Why Pop Culture is So Popular.” Is this the time when I admit being wrong? Did I change my mind? Is this a colossal flip-flop?

Let me see if I can convince you that pop culture is both popular and unpopular.  After all, Bill Clinton did a great job of convincing us he smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale. And John Kerry said he voted against the war before he voted for it. I think I’m up for the challenge of the flip-flop.

Why Pop Culture is Popular. As a broad category, pop culture is as popular as ever. Whatever you look at, read, listen to, surf, buy, play with, drive past, browse, eat or touch…it is likely inundated with the influence of pop culture. Nothing has changed since I wrote these words in Pop Goes The Church:

"Recognizing the pervasiveness and influence of pop culture requires us to accept that we live in a new day. It is not the industrial age. It is not the modern generation. We live squarely in the middle of a media-driven, entertainment-crazed world. People around us are not only watching and listening—they are actually shaping their values through the movies, books, songs, and TV shows that fill their world. We can get angry about that. We can throw a tantrum, sign a petition, and support a boycott. That’s all fine and dandy. But it won’t change the facts. The influence of pop culture is here, and it is here to stay."

Why Pop Culture is No Longer Popular. At the same time, I resonate with an article written in the Boston Globe by Don Aucoin. He led with the title, “The Rise and Fall of Popular Culture,” and made a good case for the splintering of the American pop culture. Don writes:

“Popular culture, with its assumptions of a mass audience, once provided at least the illusion of common ground. Its foundation was a large but essentially knowable range of movies, music, TV shows, and fads that most people were assumed to be familiar with. But that foundation is buckling under the sheer weight of all the things that now qualify as pop culture -- and all the new technologies that deliver them to finely calibrated consumer niches. Today the national water cooler bubbles with competing monologues rather than inclusive dialogues.”

Pop culture is here, and is here to stay, but it is so diverse right now that you find very few examples of a specific element that has mass appeal. Not too long ago, it was pretty much guaranteed that everyone had watched Johnny Carson the night before. Shows like MASH were huge hits with national appeal, as were more recent sitcoms such as Friends or Cheers. Yet today, we have hundreds of channels to choose from. Shows such as Deadwood, Weeds, Battlestar Galactica and The Closer are considered huge fan favorites, yet have very small niche audiences.

With sites like YouTube, the possibility of creating new art for the world to see is accessible to anyone at any time. Entire categories of art are being added to pop culture at an exponential rate. And more people are accessing their favorite show or movie through alternative sources, such as online webisodes, digital downloads, or mobile streaming.

I’m still as convinced as ever that pop culture is the language of our culture. If you want to reach people who didn’t grow up in the church culture, then you should look for the spiritual conversations they are already having. A lot of those conversations center around music, movies, shows or books. That is still true, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

What is also true, though, is that they are not all talking about the same thing. Pop culture is splintered in ten thousand different directions with new ones arriving every day. This has an impact on how we do church. At Granger Community Church, it means…

  1. We will do fewer message series around a specific cultural element. For example, several years ago we did a series called Survivor. It worked great. Everyone watched the show or knew about it. More recently we did a series called The Office. On television, it is a fan favorite. But in reality, probably 90% of our people don’t watch it. The series wasn’t as effective because pop culture isn’t so widely popular anymore.
  2. We will continue to leverage the culture every week. If there is a secular song that can raise an issue, we will use it. If there is a movie clip that illustrates a point, we will show it. But our series will be packaged less around a specific element in pop culture and more around a topic or need that it addresses.

Pop culture continues to be the language of the community, because it is popular. But if you try to figure out what has everyone’s attention, you’ll find that pop culture might not be as popular as you think.

This article was published in the July/August 2008 issue of Collide Magazine.

Tim Stevens10 Comments