The Imminent Transition of Jon Stewart, America’s Pastor

I work within The United Methodist Church, a denomination proud of its history of itinerancy; a practice where pastors are sent to congregations by a Bishop and are subject to transfer every four years on average.

Given this frequency of movement, one grows quite familiar with the ups and downs of regular pastoral transitions. For an interested observer of these sometimes painful moves, it’s hard to miss how such transitions are impacted by the length of service and the accumulated influence of a beloved exiting pastor.

Some shoes are truly harder to fill than others.

The coming transition of the Most Holy and Right Reverend Jon Stewart

Last February, Jon Stewart, long time host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show announced that he would be leaving the show he has hosted since 1999. Most people forget that Stewart wasn’t the first host of The Daily Show (which launched in ’96 with the comparatively forgettable Craig Kilborn) largely because he has shaped nearly everything we know about it.

In the church, it is not uncommon to find a corollary in the firm establishment of the practices, preferences, and stylings of a long serving pastor upon the expectations of a congregation. This has led to the wise consideration of intentional interims to help churches to reset and open themselves up to new ways of being led. Transitioning pastors with adequate emotional intelligence can also work to ease, though rarely to eliminate, the potential difficulties such moves pose.

In March Trevor Noah, a younger and relatively unknown South African comedian, was named as Stewart’s successor. Not long after the announcement people did something that was also very familiar to anyone who has observed pastoral transitions. They started to second guess the decision and to look into the new pastor’s track record. In short order they found some dirt to reinforce their concerns about the new guy, not realizing that any one of their favorite alternatives would have had similar issues if they had been advanced.

After all, Trevor Noah’s primary offense was not being Jon Stewart.

America’s Pastor?

Now I imagine that some folks might cringe at the thought of someone calling Jon Stewart America’s pastor. I won’t try to convince you that Stewart isn’t partisan or that Republicans are just as likely to laugh at his jokes as Democrats. You won’t see me defending the many crude quips and political caricatures he has made over the years, or even my (sometimes guilty) laughter at them.

In my opinion Stewart’s comedy – his sermons if you will – have the affect of good preaching. They are both divisive in their clarity and often unifying in their presentation of a different way of being. Not everyone can find themselves in the words of an effective preacher but I do think it is worth noting that The Daily Show’s audience has consistently shown itself to be among the most informed on both domestic and international news. If we believe an informed electorate is a valuable, this is a good thing.

I might further contend that The Daily Show has been one of the most regular and consistent provocateurs of moral thinking on contemporary topics with a level of thoughtfulness, complexity, and sincerity (heavily layered with feigned apathy, cynicism and snark) that should embarrass a number of churches. Stewart, and his team of writers, have fearlessly tackled the things people actually talk about; the world we really live in. They have built, educated, and humored an audience that is different from, but also similar in some ways to, a church. The confidence with which they do this is something that only develops over time; something ill-afforded short pastoral stints.

Perhaps it is no accident that Stewart’s well educated, successful and demographically young audience is also almost perfectly aligned with those absent from many churches.

For those predisposed to dislike Stewart’s politics, put off by his Jewish ethnicity, or more generally agitated by his irreligious nature, I doubt there are words that would ever convince you. But for his audience, I would contest that Stewart’s practices of skewering rampant hypocrisy and unveiling truth with sarcasm are a form of popular theologizing that will be sorely missed.

But even if you disagree with all of that, the transition is still one we can reflect upon and perhaps even learn from as a church.

Preaching to a shared sense of Justice

While I am writing this during Jon Stewart’s last week of hosting The Daily Show, I first intended to do so last April. On one show that month, he discussed the scandal of teachers in Atlanta who were given prison time for inflating test scores to “protect their own jobs and paychecks.”

Much of the coverage of this scandal stirred outrage at the teachers, with scattered reporting digging deeper to explore a systemic need for educational reform. This latter approach would have been familiar ground for The Daily Show’s audience.

But instead of a few cheap jokes about cheating teachers, or even some straightforward moralizing about our broken education system’s over-reliance on testing, Stewart spent time outlining the parallels between this exaggerated maleficence and the actions of Wall Street bankers whose criminal acts “nearly broke the earth” and precipitated the Great Recession of 2007. For the record, these well connected bankers went largely unpunished. Stewart used humor, and thoughtful presentation, to appeal once again to a shared sense of justice.

And this was just one of many times he has done this for us.

Trevor Noah has some very large shoes to fill when he delivers his first sermon to his new congregation late in September. We might expect a lot of people to tune in that first Sunday and go away disapointed regardless of how well he does. They will still be mourning the loss of their pastor of 17 years.

Still, Noah is a hell of a name to have if you expect some storms ahead of you. With time, hard work, and a willingness to meet the audience (congregation) where they are, he’ll have the opportunity to build anew upon something great.

Photo Credit: Elements from “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” by Flickr user Cliff, CC BY 2.0.

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