I first heard about the SBS television show ‘Christians Like Us’ after being contacted by a friend from Sydney Anglican Media, Russell Powell. Russell himself had been contacted by the producers of the show, looking for an evangelical adult convert to Christ from a multicultural background. They wanted this person to spend a week in front of cameras with a bunch of other Christians from all sorts of perspectives, discussing a range of hot button issues. I suggested a lady from my congregation named Assumpta Venkatachalam. Assumpta is a smart, articulate former Hindu with a now deep trust in the Lord Jesus. She would be the right fit, I thought. And SBS agreed.
In preparation for her appearance, I told Assumpta to expect heated debate around controversial topics. She would ‘win’ some rounds, and lose some rounds. But either way, someone needed to go in and spell out a biblically orthodox position in what was likely to be a diverse crowd. And, as the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it…
The result? Well it was pretty much as you might expect: lots of discussion and disagreement over contentious issues. From abortion to gay conversion therapy; child abuse in church to the future of Christianity – it was intense.
There was lots of discussion and disagreement over contentious issues. And yet Jesus was essentially missing from the show.
And yet, there was one big disappointment: Jesus was essentially missing from the show. Normally, if you put a bunch of Christians together in a room, what’s one thing they’ll talk about? While they might well discuss many issues (even hot button topics), they’ll also talk about Jesus: How did they meet Jesus? What does Jesus mean to them? How are their lives shaped by relationship with Jesus? But unfortunately there was very little of this in a show called ‘Christians like us’.
How could a show all about Jesus fail to talk about him?
We can’t be certain, but the possibilities include the apparent fact that quite a few of the housemates weren’t actually Christian (by that, I mean that they didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus where they trusted in his sacrificial death for their salvation). Either the non-Christian producers didn’t realise that Jesus is most central to Christianity (rather than hot-button moral issues), or they did know and cynically included a number of non-Christians anyway.
There were ten housemates. Five were picked as conservatives, five as progressives. Of the conservatives, there was a Pentecostal pastor from Western Sydney, a Sydney Anglican woman who converted from Hinduism, a Chinese evangelical youth leader, a quirky eastern-rite Catholic and finally (and bizarrely), a Mormon twenty-something (n.b. no Christian denomination regards the Mormons as Christian).
Then there were the progressives: an agnostic man who had been subject to appalling abuse at the hands of a Anglican priest; a progressive Catholic, who was so progressive that it seemed her role on the show was to just be the negative foil. And then three activists: a female priest, whose been a leading campaigner for women in leadership in the church; another ex-church member who was against the labelling of homosexual sex as sin (and specifically against conversion therapy); and a Uniting Church member who had performed hundreds of abortions and was a campaigner for abortion law reform.
All this seems to confirm the theory that the producers were more interested in controversy than actual Christianity. And yet, when Jesus did get a look-in there was surprising encouragements. In the second episode, Sydney Anglican Assumpta Venkatachalam climbed the steps of the rickety ladder in the Domain to declare that ‘that there was a man Jesus who came to this earth. He was a historical person, and he was crucified, and that he died and rose again.’
She said more, of course—even though the producers weren’t interested in showing it. But Assumpta told me on The Pastor’s Heart, ‘It was one of the highlights of the week for me. I felt absolutely exhilarated. The Holy Spirit filled with me a sense of peace and comfort. I had no idea what I was going to say, and yet he gave me the words to speak and filled me with such a sense of comfort that I came away thinking this was the most amazing experience I have ever had.’
When ‘Christians like us’ discussed the Authority of the Bible
Episode 2 also contained a constructive debate about the authority of the Bible which revealed the roots of many of the differences. As Progressive Roman Catholic Jo and gay Chris sang ‘… the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so,’ it reminded me of the crowds of John 6 who took offence at Jesus words, leaving the disciples and their simple confession: “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).
The power of that Word was on show,however, when Rice Movement’s Steve Chong—in what I thought was his finest moment on the show—wielded Psalm 139 to end the heated discussion on abortion: ‘For you created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ Even though quite a few of the progressive housemates wouldn’t acknowledge the supernatural authority of the scriptures, in this moment they seemed unable to escape its auhority. It was a lovely surprise—though it shouldn’t have been a surprise: ‘the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow’ (Hebrews 4:12)
What was going on theologically?
Jesus says in John 8 that there are two sorts of people in the world: children of the Heavenly Father, and children of the devil. The children of the Father love truth. The children of the devil push against that, for they ultimately serve their father, the father of lies. The devil’s children will get some things right (e.g football scores and political analysis) but the closer they get to spiritual things, the more trouble they with the truth. The problem seemed well illustrated when the producers followed-up Steve Chong’s decalaration that ‘the point is that the world comes to know Jesus’ with a jab from progressive Jo: ‘If this is the future of Christianity, I am going to become a Buddhist.’
All this reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised that the producers showed such poor judgement in the setup and editing of ‘Christians like Us’ Secular outlets can never discern spiritual matters.
But ‘Christians like Us’ encourages us to keep on making the most of every opportunity. Despite the deep flaws in the program, Assumpta, Steve and Marty were able to engage. Somehow, in the midst of it, God created opportunities for his Word to be heard; for people to hear about his Son.
And that’s a great encouragement to us too.
For more analysis on the program see my conversation with Assumpta Venkatachalam and Russell Powell on ‘The Pastor’s Heart’