by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I viewed a rerun of the sitcom “Last Man Standing” that aired on network television from 2011 through 2021.
The show features Tim Allen and Nancy Travis playing Mike and Vanessa Baxter, who have three daughters. The fictional Mike Baxter is an executive in a successful chain of outdoor sports stores. Mike Baxter is portrayed as a man’s man! The show gets its title from the fact that Mike is the lone male in the family.
I viewed one of the later episodes where all three of the daughters are adults, two of them married. Vanessa brings up to Mike that she is disappointed that their daughters no longer attend church on Sunday. Vanessa misses the Sunday morning ritual of going to church as a family, followed by brunch. The fictional family is not Catholic, but belongs to what appears to be a mainline Protestant church.
Mike thinks a significant part of the problem is that the pastor’s sermons are boring. He meets with the pastor, who is portrayed as a nice but rather clueless fellow. Mike coaches the pastor on how to improve his sermons by adding some humor and drama. The next Sunday, they go to church together as a family, and the pastor attempts to implement Mike’s suggestions. The congregation is entertained, but the Baxters’ adult children still are not motivated to regularly attend church on Sunday.
Vanessa and Mike decide they have to get their daughters more actively involved. One of their daughters is a fashion designer, so she is enlisted to redesign the choir robes. The other two daughters are recruited to help liven up the singing. Their daughters enjoy becoming more involved, but they are still not motivated to attend church regularly.
I was encouraged that “Last Man Standing” featured church attendance as the central plot for one of its episodes. Most 21st-century television entertainment ignores religion completely or portrays it negatively. The Baxter strategy to motivate their adult children to attend Sunday religious services was, however, predictable.
It is true that the quality of Sunday homilies can always improve. There is also supportive data that churches can increase young adults’ engagement by providing them opportunities to use their gifts to enhance Sunday worship. The research data suggests that even more impactful in connecting young adults to the church is to give them chances to serve the poor and underprivileged.
I have viewed a very small sample size of “Last Man Standing” episodes. However, from my limited exposure to the Baxter family, I think an even bigger factor of their young adult children’s nonparticipation in church may be what they experienced and, even more, what they did not experience in the Baxter home.
From what I observed of the Baxters, they rarely, if ever, talked about religion, and perhaps even more significantly, they never prayed as a family. Mike and Vanessa’s concerns appeared mainly focused on the loss of a family tradition, more than their children not seeming to have a close relationship with Jesus.
Mike and Vanessa never attempted to share with their daughters why going to church every Sunday was a high priority for them. They did not communicate to their daughters the importance of their own relationship with God. Mike’s and Vanessa’s solution was: How could they make going to church more entertaining and exciting?
Mass should never be boring. In fact, if we understand what is happening at each and every Mass, then it is impossible for Mass to be boring. The Creator of the Cosmos humbles himself to become an embryo in the womb of a woman. The source of life itself chose to enter fully into our human condition in order that we could share in his divine and eternal life. This amazing God chooses to continue to make himself present to us in a very humble manner — what appears to be a small piece of unleavened bread and cup of rather ordinary wine.
The reason to go to church is not for God to entertain us. The only reason for a Catholic to go to church every Sunday is to give thanks to God — to praise and worship the One who is the source of all blessings, even life itself. This used to be widely understood in American culture.
For millennia, most human beings knew that the beauty of the natural world and the gift of human life did not just happen by chance. People understood there is a God, and human beings owe him profound gratitude. The postmodern 21st century homo sapiens demand that God prove himself to us. We no longer have an obligation to praise and thank God for his blessings, but God has the Sunday obligation to entertain us.
It is not a coincidence, as modernity has denied the very existence of God, that we witness alarmingly high rates of loneliness, anxiety, depression and boredom, especially among our young people who paradoxically enjoy greater material blessings than previous generations.
It is also important to note that it is not necessarily the fault of parents if their adult children do not keep Sunday holy and choose not to worship God. Young people have free will. Adults choose their priorities for life.
However, parents can improve the chances that their children will love and honor God. How? By making God’s presence acknowledged and celebrated in your home; by sharing with your children from an early age the importance of your relationship with God, your friendship with Jesus; by teaching them from their earliest days that they are beloved sons or daughters of God; by recognizing in them that they are made in the beautiful image of God; and by reflecting their dignity with words and actions. Despite their imperfections, by delighting in the goodness and beauty of children, we must teach children that they are not the center of the universe, but that the Creator of the universe cherishes them.
If children grow up in a home where the presence of God is recognized and honored, their chances of developing a friendship with God increases astronomically. They still have free will. It may take many years before adult children understand and appreciate what parents have been attempting, by words and, even more importantly by actions, to communicate to them.
The experience of authentic faith life in the family is more important for the religious development of young adults than entertaining homilies or inspiring music.