Is the Christian reality show fad harmful to the faith?

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Pastor Ed Young with wife and children in a family photo. According to 'Dallas Morning News,' the Youngs are pitching a reality show based on their lives to major networks. (Photo: Facebook / EdYoung)

Pastor Ed Young with wife and children in a family photo. According to 'Dallas Morning News,' the Youngs are pitching a reality show based on their lives to major networks. (Photo: Facebook / EdYoung)

Pastor Ed Young with wife and children in a family photo. According to 'Dallas Morning News,' the Youngs are pitching a reality show based on their lives to major networks. (Photo: Facebook / EdYoung)

Pastor Ed Young with wife and children in a family photo. According to ‘Dallas Morning News,’ the Youngs are pitching a reality show based on their lives to major networks. (Photo: Facebook / EdYoung)

Ed Young is a mega-church pastor, “New York Times” bestselling author, and Internet fashionista. But according to “Dallas Morning News”, Young is hoping to add “reality television star” to his resume.

According to an article published online, “Dear God: Is Dallas society ready for Fellowship Church’s sex-loving, million-dollar minister?”, the pastor and his family are in talks to star in their own reality show. An L.A. producer reportedly pitched the project to A&E last month and has meetings scheduled with other networks as well.

The article portrays the Youngs as a faithful family living a lavish lifestyle—complete with Botox-injections, personal assistants, and a Kevlar-coated, bullet-proof Mercedes Benz G-wagon. A photograph of Ed and his wife, Lisa, posing in front of their $1.5 million home in Bluffview Estates rests atop the article, which described the Young’s show as “a Christianized version” of the Kardashians.

If the program is acquired, it will be the latest in a long line of Christian-flavored reality shows to hit the airwaves. To wit:

  • “Snake Salvation” on National Geographic Channel follows two snake-handling Pentecostal pastors in a “struggle to keep an over-100-year-old tradition alive.”
  • “Preachers of LA” on Oxygen is a brash, bling-filled show that follows six California pastors and attempts to “explore the human side of these ambitious and very powerful men of faith.”
  • “Mary Mary” on WE follows the fascinating lives of the Grammy-winning gospel duo by the same name.
  • “Thicker than Water” on Bravo showcases the Tankard family who blend faith with fortune and believe “God wants us all to be millionaires.”
  • “Preachers Daughters” on Lifetime centers on three religious families for “a behind-the-altar look at what happens at home after the sermon concludes.”
  • “Duck Dynasty” on A&E is slightly subtler in showcasing religious elements, but it’s hard to miss the prayers and spiritual inferences the bearded stars incorporate into nearly every show.
  • “The Sisterhood” on TLC was recently cancelled but documented the lives of five preacher’s wives as they battled parenting issues, marital problems, and financial troubles.
  • “Divas for Jesus” on WE is a forthcoming show that “features the lives of upscale Southern women that live naughty during the week and act nice on Sunday.”
  • HGTV and Christian author-blogger Jen Hatmaker have announced a forthcoming reality show following the Hatmaker family as they renovate their home.

But what are we to make of this trend in religious reality programming? Is this fad good for the Christian message or a blight on our already flailing public perception?

Kate Shellnutt, editor of the Christian women’s site “Her.meneutics” and self-described reality television watcher, expressed discomfort with shows “which highlight a particularly lavish Christian lifestyle.” But, she says, we shouldn’t dismiss the genre outright.

“Reality TV has become such a powerful culture force that there’s almost no escaping the references, one-liners, stars, and merchandise. We can’t help but respond, challenge, and engage the genre as Christians,” Shellnutt says.

But other Christians, like Craig Detweiler, associate professor at Pepperdine University and author of “A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture“, aren’t so sure. He says that the early days of reality TV offered Christians unprecedented exposure since it drew casting from the “fly-over district” between New York and Los Angeles. But the genre quickly veered toward extremes.

“Shows like ‘Preachers of LA’ and ‘Snake Salvation’ play into Christian stereotypes in unhelpful ways…. The temptation for the reality TV cameras to capture a caricature remains daunting,” Detweiler says.

Other Christians who are thinking about the intersection of faith and entertainment are even more cynical about the genre.

Brett McCracken, a film critic and author of “Hipster Christianity” and “Gray Matters“, says the genre itself is problematic because it has always been about exploitation, stereotypes, caricatures, and vanity for the sake of laughs and ratings.

“Christians who sign up to be on a reality show may do it in the name of ‘expanding their platform to share about Jesus,’ but I doubt that’s what the producers–who ultimately control the narrative through the power of editing–have in mind,” McCracken says. “And a desire for a bigger ‘platform,’ I fear, is sometimes code for self-serving hubris.”

Phil Cooke, a Los Angeles-based producer who is a Christian and author of “Branding Faith“, says he’s had more than 100 Christian reality show ideas pitched to him. He says it is challenging to make a Christian topic work within the genre for at least three reasons.

Reality programming is based on conflict: “Network producers and executives aren’t really interested in the ‘hilarious antics’ of your pastor and his family,” Cooke says. “They’re more interested in seeing the pastor lose his temper in a staff meeting, toss his mobile phone against the wall, and storm out of the room.  Like it or not, it’s conflict that drives most reality programming.”

Reality programming is about distortion. “Do you really think the Kardashian family is normal? Even though the Duck Dynasty family may be wonderful people and Christians, they’re popular on TV because of the hick factor,” Cooke says. “Invite a reality production into your church, and trust me – you won’t recognize the church you end up seeing on the screen.”

Reality programming is not about reality. Cooke says, “Reality programming is scheduled, planned, and manipulated, and is about as far from reality as you can get.”

It’s difficult to argue with Cooke’s reasoning. The majority of television shows in the list above showcase outlandish expressions of Christianity rather than the less sexy, but more common, versions practiced by most Americans. But while a show based on the family dinners, kiddie play dates, and soccer practices of a churchgoing family of five in middle-of-nowhere Iowa may be a more accurate depiction of American Christianity, it doesn’t make for good television.

Additionally, a common thread seems to be mansions, money, and celebrity. It’s difficult to reconcile the bling-soaked image of Christianity presented on many of these shows with the founder of the faith—a Jesus who had “nowhere to lay his head”, much less enough money to purchase a luxury vehicle and multi-million dollar house.

This doesn’t mean that the genre is completely bankrupt or that Christians should avoid participating in it. Rather, it means that those Christians who feel called to such an industry must be aware of the difficult hurdles inherent to it. When we present ourselves as Christians in public, we are saying something to the watching world about what it means to follow Jesus. And this is serious business.

Can a great show about Christians work in a reality television format?

“I never say never,” Cooke says, “but when it comes to engaging today’s secular culture with a message of hope, the stakes are high.”

  • Larry

    If religious practices doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny of outsiders, maybe one should look evaluate them with a more critical eye.

    Reality TV is not a secret journalistic expose. Its subjects volunteer to be on it and are compensated handsomely for it. Of course hubris is a major theme. It takes a certain level of hubris to even want to be the subject of such programs.

  • Pj Bertsch

    I attend two churches. One being Fellowship. I completely trust Ed and Lisa to do an outstanding work for Christ if this reality show gels. I say go for it! If any preacher and his wife can pull this off the correct way, it’s them!

  • Great question — good piece. Thanks for NOT including the Duggars on this list. They are unremarkable except for their belief that contraception is a vile sin. Take that distinction away, and they’re just kind, neighborly fundamentalists. Basically like Ned Flanders.

  • Surprised you didn’t mention the Church Rescue reality show the National Geographic Channel briefly aired. Debuted last month, lasted three episodes and got canned. They’re dumping the remaining episodes on Dec. 23.

    It didn’t last long enough to put together much of a reaction about it, other than a mixture of curiosity and terror. 😉

  • Loren Haas

    A reality show about authentic followers of Jesus would just piss-off the establishment, both religious and secular, just like Jesus did. Hence, not likely to succeed in TVland either. What sponsors would back it?

  • Marcus Johnson

    Actually, a reality show about authentic followers of Jesus would bore the piss out of viewers, and it would get canceled in a matter of weeks. Real people, living real lives, who don’t allow their lives to get distorted for the camera? Your right, no sponsor would back that.

  • ALthough I like Ed Young, this actually makes me mad. I think it is a very ill-conceived idea, and would hope it doesn’t become a “reality”. Christianity is to be about Jesus Christ, not the Pastors. Jesus is to be the “celebrity”, not the people. This would most likely give such a distorted view of True Christianity, which is already so distorted in the eyes of many unbelievers. Christianity doesn’t need to be part of the latest fad. It will long eclipse any fad…

  • I was going to write about a similar issue on my blog today. I haven’t done so yet, but I just might. I have been re-reading Nancy Pearcey’s excellent book Total Truth and in the early chapters, she cites a Washington Times (I think) article from a few years ago that referred to Christians as poor, dumb, and uninformed. The backlash was, predictably, strong.

    However, that got me thinking about Duck Dynasty a show I personally love. I wonder if Hollywood is portraying these Christians in such a way to confirm the idea that they are poor and dumb (though in reality, they are neither). Unfortunately, what Hollywood presents are caricatures of Christians (e.g., Rednecks, greedy rich white people) rather than those who are saved by grace through the cross. I agree with Marcus that a show featuring authentic Christians would be canceled quickly, though it sure would be cool to present a range of believers such as those involved in world mission, care for the poor, university faculty, business leaders, those struggling to make it, depressed people who cling to Jesus as their only hope. That would be cool.

  • My reactions:
    1. Creepy – except Duck Dynasty.
    2. Religion of personal power on display, not the Gospel.
    3. Mere human beings living like little gods.
    4. Not good for Christianity.

    2 Peter 2:15
    Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gainfrom wrongdoing,

  • Tim

    Reality shows don’t even show the subjects as they really are, let alone give an accurate view of the subjects’ beliefs. Seriously, hours and hours of video edited to 42 minutes of air time is just for show, and not at all reality.

  • It WILL be a blight on our already flailing public perception? – The proposed show is the antithesis of the Gospel. I propose a show that highlights Shane Claiborne’s and Jeremy Courtney’s work/ministries could be interesting!

  • Micah

    I believe we enter onto a very slippery slope when we use mediums like reality TV to promote our particular brand of faith. You make great points about the salient features of reality TV being conflict and distortion. This is especially dangerous for our Christian faith that calls us to preach good news to the poor and advocate for the widow, the orphan and the oppressed. When we begin collaborating with entertainment and media spokespersons that operate in a capitalistic, “always raise the profit margin,” societies that promote values like wealth and individualism, we allow people whose worldview is incompatible with the gospel message decide how best to market and advertise the faith. Displaying Pastors as responsible, caring individuals is not even possible within the category of reality TV, because those are not what make reality TV a commodity. In an attempt to make our faith relevant in mainstream ways again; we distort the Gospel and conform Christ to our competitive, self-centered capitalistic society, rather than allowing Jesus and the Gospel truth to transform and convict us to be committed to faith, love, and hope in God and all of God’s creation.
    I’m sure that this Pastor will be able to navigate the waters of reality TV well enough; but I’m concerned how the medium of Reality TV will present Christianity to the general population that already finds Christians to be hypocritical and unable to truly follow the example of the One whom we place our entire faith in. I have nothing to say about his personal stewardship of the blessings God has given him; but I’m wary how it would be perceived by so many people that are unable to relate to a lifestyle of wealth and opulence while claiming to come in the Name of the One born in a manger, who has no place to rest His head. If we take the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob alongside the life, ministry and salvific act of Jesus on the cross seriously; we see that the poor, oppressed and marginalized are favored and avenged by God. The existential reality of wealth and possessions creates a difficult scenario to overcome because the leaders of our churches, which are supposed to aid in transforming the world into the kingdom of God, resemble the leaders of these present times: not necessarily in word but in action and definitely what is never discussed.

  • Micah

    That would be much more welcome!!

  • Nicola

    Interesting, Jonathan. I couldn’t help but notice that 50 percent of the shows you list perhaps appeal specifically to the black American consumer, religious or otherwise. I wonder how that plays into the discussion.

  • Larry

    But the Duggars gave us that great Demotivational poster meme about ladyparts and clown cars,d.b2I&psig=AFQjCNE0_81nAV0JiuwKhmKbJH7Hmd7PKw&ust=1386366371764212*pics3*400*DX*DXOERUZPBVAGWDP.20080207223748.jpg%252F%3B400%3B320,r:29,s:100,i:91&iact=rc&page=5&tbnh=173&tbnw=247&ndsp=29&tx=155&ty=63,r:30,s:100,i:94&iact=rc&page=5&tbnh=173&tbnw=245&ndsp=29&tx=69&ty=19

  • Larry

    Nice “No True Scotsman”ing

    But the problem is there are too many very visible examples of pervasive silliness and outright idiocy associated with Christians in public. A lot of the image problems are self-inflicted.
    For example:
    -Any Creationist
    -People who insist on invoke Christ in every public situation and actively force others to do so
    -David Barton’s fictions and those who adopt them whole cloth
    -Pretty much every politician who invokes their Christian faith as a campaign point.
    -Every public rant against atheists made by famous people
    -The banality of “Christian media”
    -Any Televangelists and their supporters
    -The phony persecution complex of fundamentalist Christians in the US.

  • Gina Adams

    I work with a family band that turned down a reality show due to a question the producer asked:

  • Garet Robinson

    A couple of weeks ago at the annual SBL gathering in Baltimore, NT Wright was doing and panel and made this observation:

    “Do you want to know what a church that doesn’t practice theology and holiness looks like? Look at the church in the west.”

    Seems appropriate.

  • W. P. LeMaul

    Isn’t The Walking Dead a Christian reality show?

  • Earold Gunter

    Christian reality, christian scientist, scientific creationism, religious tolerance, virgin mother, cardinal sin…oh wait, maybe not that last one….

  • Michael

    To answer the headline, in a word, yes.

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  • DT

    Phil Cooke is wrong when he says of Duck Dynasty “… they’re popular on TV because of the hick factor,”

    DD is popular because it’s funny and has great characters, not to mention a lot of common sense wisdom for living life well. I get that the sophisticated elite of Hollywood see DD as something to laugh at. The rest of us in middle America find DD a refreshing break from most of the muck served up by the non-hicks of Hollywood.

  • Debbo

    Perfect Larry.

    I’m your basic Christian, doing my best to make it in this world. I’m active in my church, helpful, sometimes, to people in need. I get angry, swear, struggle to be humble, and look at JC as a first class role model, and beyond class Savior.

    I get really irritated with the groups on Larry’s list, and read, participate, watch, study and enjoy all kinds of stuff that is not Christian, but is human, is real life, ends badly, ends well, has a hopeful message, etc.

    Geez. My reality show would probably best serve a center dealing with Insomnia!

  • Debbo

    DT, many of us in Middle America don’t care for Duck Dynasty at all. And many of us in Middle America find some very good work, and some muck, comes out of Hollywood.

    Be careful of broad generalizations. They are always wrong in some degree. In this instance, your generalization is wrong by about half.

  • Marcus Johnson

    I’m not sure how, but it really should. The exploitation of Christianity in these reality TV shows very closely parallels the exploitation of the Black experience. It’s worth talking about.

  • Marcus Johnson


    Those characters are caricatures which are exploited to the nth degree. We forget that Duck Dynasty is a scripted reality TV show, which means that it is not realistic, and the characters are portrayed in a way that provides cheap entertainment to the masses.

    I’m sure folks might be entertained by it, but that doesn’t make it quality entertainment. We can do so much better by ourselves.

  • I was not aware that there were so many Christian reality television shows! But, then again, I don’t have cable at home, so I’m not up on all the current shows on broadcast television. There are 2 other Christian reality shows I know of: Church Rescue on the National Geographic channel (cf. – where I looked up its back story) and The Messengers, back in 2006 (cf., the reality tv show to select the best spiritual motivational speaker, with Bobby Schuller being one of the judges.

  • Case in point: I know two of the three women who were part of a team in the reality show Expedition: Impossible. They are wonderful, godly, Christian woman and their team went further than any of the other female teams, but their faith or conversations pertaining to Jesus did not appear in a single one of the edited clips featuring them. They may have had an opportunity to share their faith with their fellow competitors, but the world at large saw nothing.

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  • Wel Instead of this series, I’d like to see more of the below ideas become available due to personal preferences:

    I’d like to see all religions get exposure in the United States (especially here first!) in a TV series of ALL recognized world religions – name them please:). Yes, there are many recognized religions of the world, as you all know or soon will know, and each of them are beautiful and true in their own right and springing from their original religious traditions and customs. These recognized religions ALL have much to teach us for many lifetimes, if we can learn from all of them and understand each other better through that understanding and compassion. All recognized religions in the World are able to exist because they arose organically from their own people and none are better than any others, just different and ALL saying the same things essentially with different customs and beliefs unique to themselves, which are beautiful, insightful, loving and peaceful for those who know them.

    It would also help to reveal the different fundamentalist organizations propping up in our view, due to all kinds of pockets and offshoots of the recognized world religions.
    To ALL Recognized Religious Scholars, please speak up and be with us in this public consideration and TV series idea. It would help us all to have an objective discussion and overview and learn how other families with other religions live and understand life.

    I’m hoping many of the world’s religious scholars and practitioners become actively involved in such a show, AND get someone with energy and a knack for history to help tie it all up together as host, as to the origins, the peoples, the beautiful and insightful texts and geographies of the world religions.

    And, yes, all religions have gone through massive destruction and regenerations due to power struggles and ignorance. We’re still in those days right now within our continent and across many continents, and religions can help toward calming those war and warring issues in my view. Worth a try.

    Personally, I’ve studied these religions and I like them. I continue to gain inspiration and guidance/meditation through all of their texts, and also rely on mindfulness and attention to present moment to keep me grounded in doing my best in my life (from Buddhist religious traditions).

    Maybe our world realities, understood through objective TV education would be inspired and enlightened to help us understand our place in the world and also serve to lessen the tensions within our world geographies.

    Bottom-line question to you back – and in a different direction from the original, still necessary questions for today:

    Do you think It’s TIME worthwhile to have such a TV series arranged – to explore world religions, historically and present day reality based arranged?
    Would you tune into such a series yourself or how would you construct it to be worthwhile viewing for you?