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Is the Christian reality show fad harmful to the faith?

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.”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.