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Joel Osteen and Reality TV

December 27th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Cate MacDonald

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.