The infamous tag for any television show is when it "jumps the shark."
The story line becomes tired. Characters that once compelled viewers to consider their own existence become caricatures of well-worn societal generalizations (the lovable loser father, the control freak mother, the driven urban professional). Writers resort to outlandish gimmicks in order to keep eyes on the show (which generally leads to advertising dollars). The Arthur Fonzarelli character on Happy Days executed a water ski jump over shark-infested waters. The gimmick signaled the end of the show, and become an idiom for the end of other production runs.
The Simpsons series has lasted well over 20 seasons, not necessarily because its characters remain compelling, but their interactions provide a context for good social commentary. The Simpsons is not as edgy as it used to be, but it doesn't have to be; the social commentary remains sharp to this day. It is possible that the characters are not capable of delivering the edge that they once did. It's not exactly revolutionary to have a smart-mouthed boy deliver insight anymore. South Park raised the smart-mouthed boy insight bar by staying off of major networks and by staying more current in its commentary.
I've found myself more attracted to shows these days with tighter story lines that can take more risks. Breaking Bad is a great example of a tight story line that will end without jumping the shark. Breaking Bad will end after 5 seasons with its fans wanting more. I love how this show has wrestled with death, human nature, vocation, and societal veneer. I'm sure some copycats will emerge, much like the new show Pan Am is related to Mad Men.
It's hard for me as a pastor to not look for links between life in my vocation and what I see in many kinds of cultural expression. I come away from the issue of longevity and television wondering if it's a good thing for a congregation to last hundreds of years. I can't deny that there's something about a church spire that pierces the skyline from a majestic building that communicates the transcendance of God--a place where truth and beauty meet. These builidings and congregations sometimes have longstanding trust with their communities. However, it's hard to avoid the downside of these institutions; they often become museums, albatrosses to living faith.
I think it would take great courage for a congregation to end its ministry after 20 years; it would take great courage to say--it's been a good run, we've proclaimed Christ, we've served our neighbor. Let's break this up before we jump the shark. Let's take the assets and gifts, and provide the fertilizer for something else to grow. It's not about our legacy, but about Jesus. It was hard not to think about this as Paul regarded all of his privilege, pedigree and accomplishment as rubbish in last week's reading from Philippians 3. How much of our desire for our congregations is about maintaining our own legacy and dodging mortality rather than sharing Christ?
How long must our own show go on?