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Survivor: Faith on the Islandby Rev. Jack Brooks -- 09/27/2002
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I'm the pastor of a small church in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. My wife and I have watched with interest as evangelicals have unexpectedly marched across our reality-TV screen: Tina Wesson, Rodger Bingham, Vecepia Towery. The first series had youth-pastor Dirk. Then, of course, there was Pastor John Raymond.
I know a few facts about pastors. As a Pentecostal pastor, John Raymond was programmed for defeat before he set foot on the island. Here are some reasons why.
First, John's experience in church leadership was poor preparation for the unnatural setting of Survivor. A pastor's leadership is a four-legged chair. One leg is Faith, one leg is Personal Influence, one leg is Competence, and one leg is Position. Church members voluntarily accept a man's leadership because of the pastor's commitment to the faith, his personality, and his gifts. There is a shared theology, a shared ideology. People also follow a pastor because – well, because he's the pastor. Somebody gave him the job. But ability is only one leg of the four. John's outdoorsman experiences would never have been enough to move him forward in the game (and John, no one was "threatened" or "jealous" of you. Sheesh).
Faith is an uncertain factor on Survivor. Mark Burnett wants a maximum of dramatic tension. Diversity is the way to get it. Unlike church people, Survivors don't get to pick their tribe (well, except for Jan and Jake, but they didn’t even know them at the time). People might hate the teammates they're eventually stuck with. The game is like some weird cross of Tag and Lord of the Flies. A pastor's instincts are pre-programmed by years of church-style leadership. He'll get roasted if he acts on those churchly instincts. I think that's what John did.
Second, John is a Charismatic pastor, and that makes a difference. The Pentecostal/Charismatic churches deviate from standard Protestant-Reformation tradition. Where the Reformation held to a "Bible-only" view of religious authority, Charismatics believe that God is still giving new revelations today.
This radically changes a pastor's view of himself. There is a strong belief among Charismatic Christians that God speaks directly through their pastors. This trains a Charismatic pastor to think of his opinions as Divinely inspired. This doctrine fosters a go-it-alone mentality (after all, when God Himself talks to you, who needs democratic processes?). Charismatic churches tend to operate with a trickle-down, Divine-Right-of-Kings view of leadership. This mentality won't go over too well on the island. The island is a raw democracy, where leadership must be earned day-by-day.
If John had just remembered some simple courtesy rules! On Democracy Island, you offer to help – you don't hop yourself to the front of the boat. King Solomon said, way back in the book of Proverbs, that a guest should seat himself at the low end of the table. That way, the hosts can always invite you up higher, and by not grabbing a top chair you avoid the humiliation of being asked to move for someone more favored than you. Solomon also warned that, "The man who separates himself seeks his own way." During the first half of the game where it's all-for-one-and-one-for-all, climbing off alone to follow your own notions is like painting a bulls-eye on your chest.
Not rowing out to help the incomers, and the water prank, just further cemented John's image as a selfish irritant.
I wonder whether evangelicals can participate on Survivor and keep their integrity. Vecepia Towery kept attributing her wins to Jesus, even though her winning involved deception and trickery. Misleading people in order to win a million dollars, then feeling guilty about it and repeatedly asking forgiveness, seemed weird. But it seems Rodger Bingham maintained good ethics in his series. Other ethical people like Ethan and Neleh managed to play the game without gross back-stabbing. Ethan was shrewd, and shrewdness is not evil, though the line between shrewdness and duplicity at times seems thin.
Of course, the only real way I could ever test my questions would be to actually be on Survivor myself. I wonder what kind of example I would set – to my children, my congregation, and the viewers. But if there's going to be any more preachers on this show, they'll need to shift gears from the Church to the Island.
Jack Brooks is a native New Jerseyan and currently pastor of the Georgetown Evangelical Free Church in Georgetown, KY -- a little way south from Rodger Bingham.
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