The United States is one of the most religious countries on Earth. Nearly 85% of Americans claim some sort of religious affiliation, and the vast majority of us identify most closely with Christianity. Yet surveys show that not even half of us show up for worship services on any given weekend, and some experts contend that the number is much lower than that.
So there's a disconnect between what most of us say we believe and how we show it. It's both a troubling and compelling subject, to be sure—and perhaps a big reason why National Geographic decided to tackle the subject of failing churches in its new reality show, Church Rescue.
After all, reality television has renovated, revitalized and "saved" restaurants, hotels and homes. Isn't it high time for churches to get a little love?
The program follows the well-worn reality template popularized by the likes of Fox's Kitchen Nightmares: Experts go into a struggling business and help turn things around. Promised "treats" for TV viewers include angry confrontations, thrown pots, a few tears and, most importantly, a happy ending by the credits—a sense that the experts made a business more profitable, its customers happier, and its owners and managers wiser.
For Church Rescue, the experts in question are a trio of pastors known as the Church Hoppers: business expert Kevin "Rev. Kev" Annas, marketing whiz Anthony "Gladamere" Lockhart, and more touchy-feely counselor Jerry "Doc" Bentley. All three express a deep desire to advance God's work through His church. And, as such, they break from the template just long enough to make sure that Bible verses are thrown around more than pans. Certainly the stakes are higher than serving up a tasty appetizer to a table of four.
The rhythm of the show feels very familiar: The Hoppers identify the problems, they engage in an uncomfortable confrontation with the church's pastor or leadership to talk through those problems, and then they go about the sometimes ticklish task of fixing the problems. But they're always quick to tell us about the biblical rationale for whatever steps they take. The end result? Hopefully new congregants tumbling through the church doors.
From a Plugged In point of view, fewer shows on television are cleaner, nor could they be. Sprucing up churchyards and retrofitting baptismals, after all, don't lend themselves to the down and dirty—unless you count the dirt kicked up by eager workers.
But the show still feels like a potential magnet for controversy. "We believe that the mission of the church is to present the Gospel, to present Jesus," Bentley told The Christian Post. But Church Rescue opens its sanctuary doors to not only various denominations and persuasions, but also different faiths. (An intervention with a Jewish synagogue is on the first-season docket.) Church Rescue also seems to be gravitating toward some of America's more sensational worship services. (Snake-handling pastors are featured in the opening credits.) Even the show's tagline—"Running a church takes more than faith; Sometimes it takes a Church Rescue"—could rub some of its faithful fans the wrong way.
And then there's this: Church, however it manifests itself, isn't just messy, it's sticky. Church Rescue suggests that most any problem can be fixed with a nice, tidy, three-point plan. And maybe sometimes a congregation's dilemmas can. But often, I expect, the issues go deeper than any single hour of TV can hope to drill, and in the process might actually end up trivializing some significant theological or relational issues.
But all that said, rarely will you hear God mentioned in any of TV's silly sitcoms or serious dramas. Even in reality shows, the "reality" of faith and religion in people's lives is often given short shrift—a tad surprising, given the stats laid out above. In Church Rescue we see a far different message. It tells us that faith is important. That church is important. That both are worth fighting for. The people we see here—both the experts and the rotating cast of church leaders and congregants—understand that.
The Church Hoppers's first stop is New Hope Baptist Church, a Bapticostal congregation given to exuberant expressions of worship, including getting "slain in the spirit." And Pastor Larry Roseboro would very much like to build a new building to better showcase his marathon four-hour services.
The Hoppers don't believe, however, in the philosophy of "If you build it, new members will come." Instead, they tell Roseboro, a growing congregation may eventually help fund a new building, but you've got to draw folks in through the existing doors first. So they help the reverend fix some of the church's cosmetic problems, push him to cut his sermons down to a manageable length and tell him that he needs help leading the church. And if that latter bit means orchestrating a confrontation/reconciliation with an ousted deacon, then so be it.
Roseboro is belligerent and obstinate at first, unwilling to bend or change. But he comes around soon enough, and video footage shows a rousing result, with lots of new people flooding in on Sunday morning a week after the Hoppers arrived. (A written postscript indicates that three months after the cameras leave, Roseboro is back to some of his old habits.)