Picture this: You’re a single, 30-year-old woman. You’ve been attending a new church for the past six months when one Sunday morning, you show up and there’s a special guest in the service. It’s Grammy-nominated Gospel singer Natalie Grant, but she’s not here to sing—at least, not more than a few bars of spontaneous solo—she’s here to help you find true love!
ITaC is cleaner and more “family-friendly” than The Bachelorette, and it is based upon the worthy assumption that healthy romantic relationships flourish most within engaged, active church communities.That’s what happened to Angela Morgan, an engineer attending The Rock Worship Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the first episode of It Takes a Church, a reality game show that premiered last week (GSN, Thursdays, 8 p.m.). As the episode began, Angela joined Grant and the pastor and his wife on the stage, and they listened to dozens of matchmaking church members introduce the bachelors they’d brought to church for Angela. After all the candidates were introduced, the church voted for the top three, and the pastor and his “First Lady” chose a fourth. After all, as the tag line says, “What does it take to find true love? It takes a church.”
The bachelors competed through three elimination rounds. First, Angela joined each of them at a different part of a church fundraiser. While the pastor, his wife, and matchmakers watched closely, the singles made small talk and flirted. At the end of the evening, the group of advisers voted to eliminate the guy that Angela had the “least chemistry” with.
(Incidentally, each eliminated bachelor was presented with a consolation prize of a year’s membership on christianmingle.com—a gift that seems to undermine the show’s premise that finding true love “takes a church.” I guess it takes a church AND a reality TV show, and if that doesn’t work out, forget that, try the Internet.)
In the second round, Angela had her sense of personal agency returned to her—she got to make the choice, finally!—but only after she was blindfolded and led in a trust and communication exercise through a “minefield” of water balloons and raw eggs. The pastor had one-on-one sessions with the guys to get to know them better and then gave advice to Angela based on what he’d learned.
For the final round, the top two contestants each got to take Angela on a date. After bowling with Nick (whom she was shocked to learn was committed to celibacy!) and a carriage ride with Dr. Bradford, Angela had to make her final choice. Back in a full church again, she announced her decision by walking down the aisle with the man she picked.
I hadn’t planned to watch the whole episode, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Like the show it was clearly modeled after, The Bachelorette, It Takes a Church is full of the things we love to hate: ridiculous situations, over- the-top drama, cringe-worthy conversations. ITaC is cleaner and more “family-friendly” than The Bachelorette, and it is based upon the worthy assumption that healthy romantic relationships flourish most within engaged, active church communities.
But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that the presentation of romantic love and fulfillment in It Takes a Church was deeply problematic, presenting a syncretistic “American” version of Christianity, adopting our culture’s obsession with romance and personal fulfillment and calling it Christian. How did a church founded by a never-married man and instructed by (arguably) its most important theologian that “it is good for a man not to marry” become an institution “on a mission,” as the voice over at the beginning of the episode proclaims, to play matchmaker?
Humans have not always sought personal fulfillment through the marriage relationship. In the first chapter of Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas says that the idea of romantic love was virtually unknown to the ancients. “The concept that marriage should involve passion and fulfillment and excitement is a relatively recent development on the scale of human history, making its popular entry toward the end of the eleventh century,” he writes, adding that the idea received a major boost by the Romantic poets of the 18th century.
God has already supplied all her needs in Christ Jesus and His grace is sufficient for her, with or without “the man.”Certainly there’s nothing wrong with romance, and healthy marriages work to maintain affection and delight. However, as Thomas argues, “any mature, spiritually sensitive view of marriage must be built on the foundation of mature love rather than romanticism. But this immediately casts us into a counter-cultural pursuit.” Disappointingly, It Takes a Church only serves to reinforce rather than to question the cultural exaltation of romantic relationships as a key to human fulfillment, often co-opting religious language to do so.
Ultimately, while the church should support and nurture healthy marriages, we must also be unflinchingly honest about the fact that marriage alone will not bring fulfillment. Several times throughout the episode, the editors used a clip of Angela saying, “I have the career, I have the great family—I just don’t have the man.” This is where I hope, behind the scenes, her pastor was counseling her with the precious truth of God’s Word, reminding her that, as Gary Thomas says, marriage doesn’t exist to make us happy, but to make us holy. Reminding her that God has already supplied all her needs in Christ Jesus and that His grace is sufficient for her, with or without “the man.”
We’ve written recently here about the disastrous consequences of the belief that romantic and sexual fulfillment are what give life meaning. The truth is that the church has a beautiful and unique message for the world about what makes life meaningful, and while it does require relationship, it doesn’t require romance or sex at all.
At first glance, It Takes a Church looks like clean, family-friendly entertainment, but with more careful examination, it becomes clear that the show displays and calls Christian a set of assumptions that are anything but inspired. If we’re going to allow our churches to be the scene of reality TV shows, let’s be sure we use that platform to proclaim the truth rather than to present a distorted version of it.