Jumping the Shark

There’s a funny and popular website out there called Jump the Shark. The conceit of the thing is described by the creators as: ..” a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now on...it's all downhill. Some call it the climax. We call it jumping the shark"

The title derives from an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie actually did jump the shark – on water skis, marking the end of whatever questionable quality the show ever had in the first place.

If you go to the website, you’ll find ratings and comments regarding almost every program known to humanity, including countless which many of us would claim jumped the shark from episode one (The Facts of Life, Providence), and others which arguably never jumped – Thirtysomething , St.Elsewhere, The Larry Sanders Show for this writer.

Shows jump the shark when writers run out of ideas and fall into the arms of one of several instantly recognizable cliches – a Very Special Episode, a wedding, two people whose relationship is charged with sexual tension finally giving in (Cheers, Moonlighting), a death, a new actor playing an old character, a birth(Mad About You), and so on.

The discussions are passionate. Did – gawd forbid - The Sopranos actually jump the shark when Uncle Junior broke into a maudlin Italian ballad in the last episode? Or did it jump way back during the second episode of the this, the third season, a scintillating hour filled with FBI agents wiring the Soprano’s home?

What about Seinfeld? Does it fall into the select category of “Never Jumped?” Or did it, indeed, jump the shark when Susan, George’s fiancee, died from her poisoned wedding invitation envelopes? Or did it climb up the ramp earlier, when every entrance of Kramer on the scene was met with wild applause? Wise men differ. Saturday Night Live is an easy one. When the original cast left, it jumped. Did – again, heaven forbid for us fanatics - Once and Again jump the shark with Rick and Lily’s wedding? We’ll have to wait and see won’t we?

It’s a very entertaining site, a clever idea, and a good example of what the Internet is good for – creating a new hook for conversation about pop culture that’s about as illuminating as these things can get.

You can easily apply the metaphor to other aspects of life besides television – sports franchises, musical or acting careers, or even your own personal career or love life. Try it.

So here’s my question, related, but applied to another area of life completely.

How do you know when your parish jumped the shark? Or is about to?

If you don’t quite grasp what I mean, here’s a couple of examples to get you started:

One parish of which I was a part most definitely jumped the shark liturgically when they replaced the both piano and the organ with an electronic keyboard, giving our liturgies an atmosphere that ranged between circus carnival and Holiday Inn lounge act, depending on the music involved.

Are you getting it yet? How about this:

In my experience, the most common occasion for and entire parish shark-jumping is the last thing you could imagine – in fact, it’s something that would normally be perceived as a sign of a parish jumping to something close to glory, not the shark.

Getting a new church building.

I’ve seen it happen at least twice: a parish that was vibrant, close and enthusiastic works together for years to raise money for a church building, since they’re tired of meeting in a hall. Time goes on. Money’s raised. Plans drawn. Ground broken. Building Consecrated.

Shark jumped.

It’s strange, but maybe not so strange. Something about having to worship in close quarters and do a lot of makeshift classroom sharing builds community. Something about working towards that huge goal of building that church does the same thing. And what happens once the goal’s met and everything looks great there’s lots of space between us in the pews?

Silence. Retreat into individuality. That whole puzzle of what we’re here for in the first place, the same kind of question married couples face when the kids have all flown the nest.

I’m not making value judgments here, nor am I saying that building churches is a bad thing. I’m just telling you what I saw.

So what of it? Do you have any examples to share? Now, we have to be fair about this – judging whether a church has jumped the shark runs the risk of being an ideological one – we jumped the shark when they took the vigil candles out. Or – we jumped the shark when that young conservative priest came and put the vigil candles back in. Try to rise above that, if you can.

Also try to rise above personalities, although that’s tougher yet. It’s also a sad comment on a parish if its energy and identity is totally dependent on its leadership.

So send them in. I want to hear what you think. So far, this piece is only on the Internet, but if I get enough good responses that people are willing to expose to the outside world, I’ll wrap this up into a real live column (with contributor’s permission, of course.)

And yes, yes, I know – we don’t want to mean or petty about this. We don’t want to forget that Christ is present with us always, just as He promised, and we don’t want to fall into a trap of “judging” parishes based on the values of the world. And we don’t want to be too flip about serious stuff.

But it’s summer, and even church geeks have to loosen up and have just a little fun. Don’t we?