Joel Osteen and Reality TV

On November 29th, TMZ reported that “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett will be teaming with Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s largest church, for a primetime network show in 2012. Burnett told TMZ, “The premise of the show is that ordinary people will give up several days or longer to go on a mission with Joel Osteen, one of the most popular pastors in the world. All of the missions will be in the confines of US soil to “start fixing things.”

And that’s when I started feeling scared.

Turns out, this is not the first time the Osteens (Osteen’s wife Victoria is co-pastor of their Lakewood Church in Houston) have been approached about a reality show, but according to their spokesman, Don Iloff, this was the first premise that fit their mission. “We do these projects without the cameras rolling,” Iloff told the Houston Chronicle. “But Jesus said, ‘Let your light shine. Don’t hide it under a bushel.’”

Osteen seems in no danger of being accused of hiding under a bushel. His white smile and thick shock of wavy hair is already emblazoned across several bestselling books, such as Your Best Life Now (which I could have sworn was the title of Oprah’s personal trainer’s products), Become a Better You, It’s Your Time, and his latest, Every Day a Friday: How to be Happier 7 Days a Week. According to Osteen’s website his sermon broadcast reaches over 100 million homes in the US alone, and his podcasts are listened to by over 1 million people a week, but it seems he feels he can do more. Or at least, be on more TV screens.

As a native Southern Californian, I am no stranger to mega-churches and star pastors; Orange County’s own Rick Warren might be one of the few pastors in America who is more recognizable than Osteen. Friends of mine working at Saddleback and Mariner’s Church in Irvine told me that the pastors of these behemoths have been approached about reality shows as well, but turned the opportunity down. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that producers are interested in pastors. With reality shows littered across networks focusing on everything from state troopers, modern day polygamists or jousting knights, moms of multiples and people who fish with their bare hands, it seems it was just a matter of time before Christian ministries entered the fray.

But, but, but, does this have to happen? I mean, I like the Duggars just fine, but I don’t think I’m wrong to say that reality TV hasn’t proven to be the best medium for communicating the depth and intricacies of the Christian faith. A personality based show like Osteen’s soon to be named American Fix-It Project just seems doomed to failure. If the show itself isn’t completely embarrassing, it seems only a matter of time before Osteen and his wife are. Am I being too skeptical (it wouldn’t be the first time)?

As much as I’d like to think that my cynicism is misplaced and all will be well, it turns out I’m not the only one who’s worried. USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Richard Flory is skeptical of Osteen’s project. He told the Houston Chronicle, “It turns (mission trips) into an entertainment model, where you feel good watching it, people feel good doing it and Joel Osteen gets exposure. In an era where media exposure is the Holy Grail, this is to be expected.”

Though exposure of the every day lives and ministries of Christian men and women couldn’t be considered a necessarily bad thing, the potential for sensationalism and artifice seems all too possible. As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research told the Christian Post, “I see no problem with a pastor in a reality show if it shows pastors as real people, the church on a real mission, and the pastor can point to the real Gospel.” I guess if I were to pick one guy in America to show the rest how real Christians can be, and what the real Gospel is made of, I don’t think I’d have picked the permanently be-suited and smiling happiness guru that is Osteen.

I suppose we can only wait and see if he’s is able to helm a reality show that keeps anything particularly real.

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  • http://pilgrimsgrace.blogspot.com Stephanie James

    I think the scary (and alluring) point of reality TV is that it often shows the worst in people. In a way it takes an awful lot of confidence to say that you, as a christian and human being, are a decent representative of Christ at your worst. I think a lot of christians honestly are. Mistakes and victories lived with humility and love can convey more than any apologetics sermon. Only time will tell with Olsteen…

    I’m not sure if there is such a medium capable of conveying the christian faith’s complexities, however I’m not sure how many people would be interested in it anyway. More, I think people are looking for a kindhearted person who doesn’t have beliefs and behaviors that defy commonsense. God only knows if that’s possible within the bounds of a 30 to 45 minute TV slot. Rob Bell is apparently doing the same so I guess there’s a 2nd chance of some good… or utter failure…

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Cate

      That’s very well said, Stephanie. I think I must just lack the confidence that most Christians, or, I should say Christians in the hands of television producers, are capable of communicating Christ through their mistakes and brokenness. I’m even less confident that Osteen is interested in that, given his orientation towards personal prosperity and happiness.

      I didn’t know that about Rob Bell, but his name did come to my mind when I was thinking of pastors who would be into the whole reality TV thing. It will be interesting to see what the two of them come up with, and how it’s received and understood.

      • greg

        Maybe fold the critique into the 20 P project ?

        The assignment: 20 Hours of TV/Film for 2012.

        Hypothesis: Selective viewing (led by the Mere-O Contributors and contributed upon over this next year) might allow for a more discriminating approach, and, perhaps, provide telling results about the spiritual life come December 2012.

        • http://mereorthodoxy.com Cate

          I like it Greg! But do I really HAVE to watch 20 hours of TV? :(

          • Matthew Lee Anderson

            I’m pretty sure Parks and Rec. will fill my quota for this. : )

    • Kyle Smith

      You beat me to it SJ!

  • Kyle Smith

    From my understanding Rob Bell has also made the decision to enter into the reality TV scene by leaving his church and joining the producer of “Lost.” So this seems to be a bit of a new fad.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      I think–*think*–he’s doing a dramatic series based on his life, not reality TV proper. Whether that’s better or worse, well, I’m not sure.

  • Robert

    Weren’t Christians made part of the entertainment in the first few centuries of the C.E.? Thrown to lions and set on fire for the mob’s amusement? They say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. So why do I have a very bad feeling about this? Probably because, in certain ways, show business (and that’s what this is) has become even more vicious and exploitative than it was in the days of the Roman Empire. May God bless him because he is going where even angels fear to tread.