SBS TV’s “Christians Like Us” an Extreme Experiment in Communal Christian Living
By: Clare Bruce
If a TV production company approached you, asking if you’d live in a house with nine other Jesus-believers for a week, with TV cameras following your every move, would you do it?
What if you knew your nine housemates would be from wildly diverse backgrounds, with clashing views on hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, sex before marriage, and women in leadership – a scenario bound to make sparks fly?
And what if you were pretty confident the entire week’s footage, to be edited down into only two, one-hour episodes, would show only the most negative, controversial bits?
For Steve Chong, head of the Christian youth movement RICE, there was one simple reason he said yes to such a proposal.
“I went in with one aim, which was to make Jesus known, and to represent Him well, as I see Him in the Bible,” he said.
The reality show that Steve participated in is Christians Like Us, a two-part SBS series that purports to shine a light on the state of Christianity in an increasingly secular Australia – by throwing together 10 people of different faith persuasions, in a house in Bella Vista.
The show is a follow-up to the previous series, Muslims Like Us.
In the promotional screed, it’s being billed as “a week of shocking revelations, emotional outbursts and surprising insights”, while the trailer uses all of the standard “church in crisis” language – portraying a faith“dogged by internal battles, struggling against the tide of public opinion, battling to get bums on seats”.
“Not Your Average Dinner Party” – Theological Clashes Guaranteed
In an interview, Steve described the experience of living in the house for a week as “full-on”.
“It wasn’t your average dinner party that’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve got a full spectrum of people who have very different takes on how they understand Christianity and God.
“Some of the housemates held really strongly to a [literal] understanding of the Bible… and others would not, and that meant we would have very, very tricky discussions at times.”
While the conflict and drama in the household was real, Steve said he expected heavy editing would portray the church in an unfairly negative light.
“I’m really hoping people see beyond what will definitely be shown, which is the church’s mess…we’ve got a perfect saviour who is not messed up.” ~ Steve Chong
He believes the show’s portrayal of Christianity in Australia will be an extreme and unrealistic one, and is hoping viewers will be able to see beyond the editor’s cut.
“We lived in that house for one week, and we were filmed all day…that’s a week’s worth of footage that’s going to come down to two short episodes,” he said.
“I’m really hoping people see beyond what will definitely be shown, which is the church’s mess…and say, ‘No, we’ve got a perfect saviour who is not messed up, and invites people into relationship with him, and who wants to forgive their mess’.
“We all contribute to mess in some way in our lives. Jesus says, ‘into that mess is what I’m going to step into’. That’s why he came.”
A Diverse Group of Believers
Other participants in the fascinating seven-day experiment include Chris, a gay man who still holds to his faith, but talks about his painful experiences with ‘conversion therapy’ ministries; and Marty, who holds to a very traditional Biblical view of homosexuality and believes sexuality and gender identity can be changed.
Housemate Hannah is a member of the Mormon faith, which becomes a topic for debate in the house; Jo is a liberal Catholic woman who teaches theology but has no problems with sex before marriage; and Daniel, a virgin and a devout Coptic Catholic, is saving sex for marriage.
Marty is a Pentecostal pastor, a creationist and the CEO of the Christ Mission Possible, a charity for the homeless, and Carol is a Uniting Church elder who works as an obstetritician and gynaeocologist and has performed abortions, while also being a big believer in social justice. Reverend Tiffany is a female Anglican priest, while Assumpta is also an Anglican woman – but takes the more conservative view that women shouldn’t be in leadership over men.
“If Jesus’ command to proclaim him to the nations was true, then I had no option but to go on the show.” ~ Assumpta Venkatachalam
Most poignantly, one of the housemates on the show is Steve Smith – a survivor of child sexual abuse in the Anglican church, who gave evidence in the 2017 Royal Commission.
Sadly, Steve told the Newcastle Herald that his experience of living with nine Christians was “one of the most disturbing” weeks of his life, and that he was “surprised at how little some of [the housemates] had engaged with the royal commission.”
“I was raised Anglican,” he told the Herald. “I wanted to see what makes Christians tick today after the royal commission, and see if there is a place there for me. I found there wasn’t….There was a lot of quoting from the Bible, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of Jesus Christ in what some of them were saying.”
In an article for SydneyAnglicans.net, housemate Assumpta Venkatachalam writes that the week of filming for Christians Like Us was a “shattering”, yet faith-building experience. She participated, despite feeling she’d rather “be eaten alive by piranhas” or “have her eyes poked out with a thousand needles”, because “if Jesus’ command to proclaim him to the nations was true, then I had no option but to go on the show”.
Assumpta says she was often close to tears during her week at the Bella Vista house, and continually prayed for God’s help regarding what to say and when. She particularly felt led by the Holy Spirit while preaching the gospel to atheists in the Domain, as well as during a house discussion on abortion – a moment she can now see God had prepared her for.
“Incredible Answers to Prayer”
Assumpta formed a firm friendship with Steve Chong on the show, and the pair often prayed together throughout the week they lived under the same roof.
“We saw incredible answers to prayer,” she writes. “When we thought we were about to crumble, something would rearrange itself to ensure that we could get an hour’s rest or time alone to pray and chat. Halfway in, we started to feel a supernatural love and care towards those who were attacking us. One of the housemates approached me at the end of the week and told me that meeting me had been a healing experience and that perhaps not all evangelical Christians were abusive and intolerant.”
Whether Christians Like Us will deliver a realistic snapshot or a sensationalised one, remains to be seen when the program goes to air.
Despite the tone of conflict, crisis and division portrayed in its advertising, Steve Chong said he believes the church in Australia, in all its diversity, is in much better shape – and represents Christ far better – than many people realise.
“We’ve [always] had issues, we’re all sinners and that means that by nature we’ve all got in ourselves the ability to hurt divide, mess stuff up,” he said. “But Jesus has always been the one that unites us through the church’s history, and that’s still going on, in my opinion. I’m hopeful people can see behind that edit.
“The church needs to repent for a lot of stuff, no question, and we want to, but don’t put that on Jesus.”
The show’s two episodes air at 8:30pm on Wednesday, April 3 and April 10.
Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.
About the Author: Clare is a digital journalist for the Broadcast Industry.