Not Strange Enough: “Church Rescue” and the National Geographic Effect
Have you ever seen someone gawk at an evangelical? I don’t know if the phrase is unique to him, but I’ve often heard Al Mohler refer to this as the “National Geographic effect.” What he means is that secular Westerners—especially elites—sometimes respond to evangelical Christians about like they’d respond to rumors of cannibalistic tribes in the South Pacific: “Wait—there are still people like that out there!?”
If life can imitate art, it can certainly imitate the good Dr. Mohler’s verbal art. Enter the National Geographic Channel’s new niche reality show Church Rescue, which premieres tonight.
Think Extreme Home Makeover: Church Edition. The show features three church consultants who run an outfit called Church Hoppers: Kevin “Rev Kev” Adams, their business analyst; Anthony “Gladamere” Lockhart, the marketing specialist; and the spiritual counselor, Jerry “Doc” Bentley.
The first episode features New Hope Baptist Church outside Charlotte, pastored by Larry Roseboro. This largely African-American congregation is described as “Bapticostal”—a Baptist church where people get “slain in the Spirit” and the service lasts four hours.
The pastor’s dream, which his late wife shared, is to exchange the church’s cramped, shabby building for a more expansive facility that will draw more people. But like so many dreams, this one comes with a price tag: $1.4 million to be precise—a hefty sum for a small, rural church with only $40,000 in the bank.
The Church Hoppers begin their work with an unannounced Sunday morning audit. After experiencing all there is to experience in the morning worship service, they talk with Pastor Roseboro about his dreams and frustrations. Among the latter are a host of problems with the building: torn carpet, no air conditioner, rainwater flowing in the back door. But, Pastor Roseboro wonders, why throw money at the old building when it could be put toward a new one?
Not only that, but we learn from Roseboro and some of his congregants that he’s bearing the pastoral load alone. A deacon formerly assisted him, but Roseboro and Brother Curtis fell out some time ago.
Here a Southern, spiritualized spin on the standard consulting script kicks in. Our three consultants assess New Hope’s problems over lunch, hatching a three-point plan. On Monday they sit down for “the hardcore truth meeting” with Pastor Roseboro. If Roseboro wants his church to grow, he needs to invest in the current building, reconcile with Curtis and reinstate him as deacon, and split his four-hour service into two shorter ones featuring more focused, concise sermons.
What does Pastor Roseboro make of these recommendations? You’ll have to watch to find out.
In one sense, the National Geographic effect is up and running. The choice of a “Bapticostal” church for the first episode is evidence enough. And future episodes promise a biker church, a cowboy church, and a synagogue. Yes, a synagogue. The Religion News Service article on the show reports that the three protagonists hail from the Southern Baptist Convention, and they certainly sound like evangelicals. Yet the fact that a synagogue is in line for a “church rescue” tells you all you need to know about the show’s theological acuity.
Happily, a few moments of spiritual perception shine through. For instance, Doc remarks that the pastor’s problem is that he’s as passionate about getting his way as he is about spreading the Word. But the following comment by Gladamere is more typical: “We’re in the Bible belt, where there’s a church on every corner. To stand out, you’ve got to improve your curb appeal, so when people drive by, the church is beautiful and inviting.”
The show is well-produced and the protagonists are likeable. Somewhat despite myself, the first episode kind of made me want to see the others. And to their credit, National Geographic lets the Church Hoppers tell their own stories.
But I actually wish the National Geographic effect were in fuller swing. The problems New Hope Baptist Church faces are problems anyone can understand: soured relationships and a run-down building. So also the solutions: extend an olive branch and install new carpet. Any consultant can tell you that.
But every church’s problems run deeper. Sure, their symptoms show up in ways everyone can relate to, but the causes lie hidden from unredeemed sight. Ultimately, there’s only one church Rescuer, the eternal Son of God who became a man and died on the cruel cross to purchase and perfect his people. And the message of his rescue repairs and refreshes his church all the way to its roots.
As it is, Church Rescue is a friendly, innocuous, late-period artifact of the shrinking Bible Belt. But if the show were about the real rescue, it would give people a reason to stop and gawk.
Editor’s Note: this piece is cross-posted from Schaeffer’s Ghost with the kind permission of its editors.