Controversy erupted last winter when the TLC network launched a new show called “The Sisterhood” about first ladies of Atlanta-based churches. Then in April, BET premiered “The Sheards,” about the lives of a gospel superstar family in Detroit.
Now, this fall television season will usher in two more “faith-based” programs on major cable networks. “The Preachers of L.A,” which focuses on the lifestyles of six mega-pastors in Los Angeles, will premiere on Oxygen media next month. “Thicker Than Water,” highlighting the family life of millionaire gospel recording artist Ben Tankard, will debut on Bravo media in November.
This new phenomenon of church leaders as the focus of reality television shows is seen by some as a rare, needed look into the guarded lives of pastors. For others, it will further the embarrassment of an already ridiculed church community. My thoughts lean towards the latter: I question what’s behind this growing trend and what potential damage it will do to Christian ministry.
Like so many reality TV shows before them, these programs focus on black opulence. Often, they make a mockery of black wealth, portraying affluent African Americans as irresponsible, reckless financial stewards. These stereotypes are magnified by highlighting prosperity ministries versus churches rooted in a social gospel focused on the poor.
But lavish living and fame are unfamiliar comforts to most pastors. The majority do the arduous work of saving lives and souls day in and day out without the sexiness of film crews and make up artists to catch it on camera.
In all four of these shows, African American men and women are the prominent figures with two of the shows having only a few white characters. Despite the faith component of the shows’ themes, they mirror the countless other reality television shows crafted for “drama-hunger” black audiences. The racial dimension cannot be ignored.
In the trailer for “The Preachers of L.A.,” a Bentley, mansion, clothes and jewelry flash on the screen as the show’s stars offer biblical justification for why “the preacher is to be taken care of.” This is juxtaposed with images of seemingly thuggish African American men in need of spiritual deliverance. The trailer also features scenes in which the preachers argue with the women in their lives about their degree of love and commitment. When you put all of that together, it’s an old narrative of black preachers as poverty pimps who take advantage of not only naive women but the community in general.
This type of programming ends up serving another purpose: offering white audiences a channel to learn about the “other side of America.” The voyeuristic nature of it all is deeply troubling, as viewers may get the impression that watching these shows can replace meaningful engagement with individuals and communities they deem different. As scary as it is to think that Americans will draw conclusions about the black family dynamic based on “The Real Housewives” series, it is equally frightening to think that the black church image might be shaped by shows like “The Preachers of L.A.”
At the heart of all of this is a theological debate about God’s nature and God’s will for humanity. Ben Tankards’ wife Jewel speaks to this in a promotional video for “Thicker Than Water” when she states that God wants them to be rich: “The first time that I realized God wanted us to be rich I was a senior in college, and I saw this phenomenal man and woman standing up preaching the word, and honey, there was nothing broke about them. And I said, ‘O Lord, this is the Jesus I know.’”
But isn’t the Christian understanding that Christ died so others could live and live more abundantly? Didn’t he surrender his life so others could gain theirs? That’s not the Christ that’s being portrayed on these shows.
This isn’t to say there is no room for abundance or media exposure in the work of ministry. It is wise of church leaders to use modern tools at their disposal to broaden their reach and amplify their voices. But to what end? Is it simply to become a household name? Is it simply to set themselves apart from “the common folk”?
As I was preparing to write this article, I came across the October 2013 issue of Ebony magazine. On the cover, there’s a heart wrenching headline: “My Sister Killed Herself: A pastor reveals his family’s battle with mental illness.” As I read Otis Moss, III’s words about his sister Daphne committing suicide at the age of 33 after years of battling paranoid schizophrenia, I was proud of the Chicago-based pastor’s selfless public witness and testimony through media.
It’s that type of vulnerability that allows people to see their problems, pain and search for meaning mirrored in their faith leaders. It’s that type of truth-telling that shares intimate experiences for the sake of helping the collective gain greater understanding and hope. You can’t get more real than naming the demons lurking in one’s self, family and church.
As I read Moss’ essay, I knew I was seeing a model of pastoral transparency that does the faith community good. The church needs more of this and less of what these cable networks are dishing out.