The new season of The Walking Dead premiered this past Sunday. If you’re not familiar with The Walking Dead then you are not familiar with the show responsible for “the most watched non-sports telecast” in cable television history. The show, which is about a group of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, is most famous for helping revive zombie popularity. But I am unconvinced that zombies are the secret to its success. After all, we’ve had countless zombie films, books, and other media in recent years, and none have approached the popularity of The Walking Dead.
So what sets The Walking Dead apart?
What is responsible for its broad demographic and international appeal?
In my opinion, it’s not an issue of unequaled quality. The quality of writing on The Walking Dead often has much more in common with a telenovela than with Breaking Bad or The Wire. Instead, I think the overwhelming appeal of The Walking Dead is due, in part, to the vision it presents of community. Against the backdrop of apocalypse, zombies, and cannibalism, The Walking Dead is about a community of people who in a number of ways reflect the community that Jesus’ Church is called to be.
A Community of Diversity
The protagonists of TWD include male and female heroes; black, white, asian, and latino heroes; heroes who were formerly professionals, clergy, homemakers, pizza delivery boys; even heroes as old as this and as young as this. In a country as diverse as America, this sort of diversity shouldn’t be noteworthy. But in the world of American television - and American churches - it is.
Throughout the series, these people - who are unlike each other in nearly every way - become a family. They live together, rejoice together, weep together, fight together, heal together, and share everything together. In our real world of division and distance, a community united in its diversity is attractive. It is also a picture of the community Jesus created us and redeemed us for, in which “people of every nation, tribe, people and language” are united in one body (Revelation 7:9). Having pastored a church like this for 9 years, I have seen first-hand the power they have to attract those who generally find religion unattractive.
A Community of Mission
Our protagonists on TWD are able to be united with people who are unlike them because - while they may not share a common race, class, generational or religious background - they do share a common mission. At one point, the protagonists find themselves hunting down a cure for the zombie virus. They are often sidetracked, and their mission shifts to helping others or strengthening and protecting their own community. The end goal is always the same: survival. The mission that unites this group is always clear to its members, and every single member contributes to its fulfillment.
I believe we are drawn to TWD because we instinctively recognize the beauty of a community of people, each using their respective gifts and abilities, to together contribute to a shared mission. This is a picture and a story that we want to be a part of. It is also a picture and a story that ought to be provided by every local church. Our neighbors and visitors will not be attracted to a group of people who sit in the same room together and listen to a “professional” contributor for 90 minutes each week, nor a group of people who leave church on Sunday to pursue their own missions for their own good during the rest of the week. They will be attracted to our church communities when every single member combines their gifts, talents, and experience for the shared purpose of serving the good of the church and the world.
A Community of Hope
One might describe TWD as a dark television show, but it’s really not. Nearly every single episode is infused with hope. The hope that, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, life is still worth living; the hope that you can survive in this dark world without turning your back on your fellow-human and without abandoning everything you believe is good and right; the hope that somewhere - somehow - there is a cure that will ultimately make all of this right. That's not to say there are not many moments where the characters struggle to hope, it is to say that they stay alive and stay together because somehow that hope abides.
This hope is what makes TWD watchable. If it were just darkness, zombies, betrayal, and various forms of homicide, we would have no reason to tune in. We tune in because we are intrigued by the prospect of hope in a world that seems so hopeless. This quality is equally intriguing when found in the local church, which should be the locus of such hope, even as we “suffer all kinds of grief and trials” (1 Peter 1:3-6). In a world where our eyes and ears feast daily on fear and despair, the Christian Church has reason and power to stand out. Our churches do not captivate people when they, too, sell fear and despair. They captivate people when they proclaim the reason for hope (the person and work of Jesus Christ) and show genuine hope by living in the light when everything around us is calling us to surrender to the darkness.
A Community of Forgiveness
The protagonists of TWD are united in their diversity, on a common mission, with a shared hope. Yet that is not to say that living in this community is without its severe frictions. As they live in community together, the characters hurt one another repeatedly and deeply. Various members of the group are guilty of everything from keeping secrets, to telling lies, to betraying trust, to murdering loved ones. Yet through all of this, the people stay together and continue to live as a family. Unless they desire to give into the darkness that surrounds them, they really have no other choice.
This is yet another quality that draws us into TWD. If it were just a story about the dangers of zombies it would be no different from the scores of zombie films that have come our way. Yet it is also about the danger of human beings - a danger we know all too well - and the choice we have to make every day between vengeance and forgiveness. The Christian Church should be the first place people look to see what this type of forgiveness looks like in real life. We are not just told to forgive offenses against us, we are given the reason and power to forgive offenses - “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Churches that put this power into practice are churches that capture the interest of outsiders and change the lives of insiders.
There may be many reasons that The Walking Dead is becoming the most watched show in cable television history. I am convinced that at least one of the reasons for its broad appeal is that it presents a picture of community that all humans are innately drawn to, because it is similar to the community we were all created for. As our churches reflect these same characteristics we too connect with the innate cravings of our friends and neighbors. People should be able to look at our churches and see a diverse community, united by a common mission, filled with hope, and quick to forgive. In other words, they should see something like The Walking Dead, minus the zombies and - if I have any say in it - minus Carl Grimes.
All image credit goes to AMC.