February 16, 2006

Renovation Nation

capLeaping into the air, the Kirkwood family embraced one another and jubilantly shouted with every ounce of breath in their lungs. They'd just received the keys to their brand new home, courtesy of ABC television's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In the span of one week (or two one-hour episodes for TV viewers) the reality show magically transformed their uninhabitable house into an extravagant dream home.

And though the Sears family had won the exact same prize, their response was quite different. They stood quietly still, tears rolling down their cheeks, unable to express in words the flood of emotion they were feeling.

1505 EMThe reactions of these two Adventist families, who appeared on the TV show in January 2006 and January 2005, respectively (see related story), well reflects the range of emotions viewers experience when watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: cheers and tears.

There's something about this hit ABC television program, which has drawn an increasingly large Christian fan base. On a Gospelcom.net message board, one man announces it's the only TV show he watches. In a FamilyLife.com online discussion board, one person queried, "With all the indecency, sexual innuendo, racy ads, and immodest behavior, should we even watch TV anymore? Is there any redeeming value or shows worth watching these days?" Someone replied, "Yes, there is at least one show that is most definitely worth watching: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Showcasing Faith
It's a rare phenomenon: Believers of every age, ethnicity, and denomination are embracing a prime-time television show. One HollywoodJesus.com reviewer hints the show is promoting godly values. "I like shows about biblical principles," he says in his review. "Maybe that's why [Extreme Makeover: Home Edition] works so well ? maybe lots of people, knowingly or not, like that kind of show." Another blogger calls it "the best Christian ministry show on television"--though no one at ABC has ever indicated there's anything particularly religious about the program.

So what makes this mainstream reality show so attractive to Christians?

For one thing, the show has featured several Christian families. True, there have been Christian cast members on other reality shows, but it was rare that they could speak about their beliefs--except when they were being set up for a punch line. In a refreshing approach, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE) seems to let believers be believers, without apology. It shows families praying. Church choirs singing "I'm So Glad, Jesus Lifted Me." People speaking about the goodness of God. There was even a shot of Focus on the Family literature in one episode, which was donated by the organization. And ABC broadcasts it all to some 20 million viewers each Sunday evening.

1505 EM link"We're making this show the only way I'd be comfortable making it--by finding great families we want to help, and then turning on the cameras and letting them be them," says Tom Forman, the show's creator and executive producer. "If they choose to pray, then they pray. Whatever their response is, it's what we put on TV."

In one episode, 12-year-old Warrick Harris of inner-city Los Angeles gets down on one knee and, with his head buried in his hands, prayerfully thanks God for his new room. In the Sears family's episode, when the Pleasant Hill Adventist Academy choir sang ?The Old Irish Blessing? to their classmate, 17-year-old Jhyrvé Sears, EMHE host Ty Pennington repeats the words, "May God hold you in the palm of his hand."

The show even mentions participants' connections with the church. An episode on the Cox family of Southern California unabashedly notes husband and dad John Cox's lifelong work with churches, and on a program featuring the Wofford family of California, Ty Pennington explains how the family was nominated for the makeover by members of their Calvary Chapel church.

The moments are often brief, but they are noticed. As one woman posted on the Christian chat website MannaCabana.com, "I remember watching quite a few episodes where the people were thanking Jesus, so God is blessing Christians also through this show. Praise the Lord."

It isn't just the Christian community that senses there's something different about this program. It was widely suggested NBC wanted to draw EMHE's Christian audience to its similarly themed Three Wishes, even attempting to appeal to Christian viewers by enlisting singer Amy Grant as its host. (It didn't work: low ratings caused the network to cancel Three Wishes during its first season.) On RuthlessReviews.com, a secular website filled with atheistic views, writer Matt Cale calls EMHE "ABC's Sunday-night sermon," and says, "God could be on [the network's] board of directors, instructing his lackeys to bestow lavish gifts on the poor, suffering souls of the earth ? ." And Time magazine's James Poniewozik observes, "There's a quasi-spiritual cast to Home Edition (and not just because an itinerant carpenter works miracles across the land )."

Sarcasm aside, the unbelieving world is catching a glimpse of something truly remarkable and uplifting--a weekly celebration of family, faith, and charity in action.

Inspiring Good Deeds
Tom Forman, who was a news producer before developing EMHE, says he set out to make a different kind of reality show, one that would be true to the lives of the families it features. Without naming names, Forman (who is Jewish) says the show's cast and crew are composed of Christians, Jews, and people who don't believe in God at all. Still, they are all on the same page about the show's purpose.

1505 EM"We're all proud to be working on something where people aren't voted off islands or performing stunts, but where you're just doing a good thing for good people. That's probably largely why the show resonates with the Christian community and all of our viewers."

And EMHE clearly has had a widespread effect on the Christian community. The idea of an "extreme makeover" has become an increasingly popular topic for everything from Christian blogs to church newsletters to sermon series to retreat themes. Arlington Adventist Church in Texas offered a five-part sermon series entitled "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" last fall. An old book, Setting Your Church Free by Neil T. Anderson and Charles Mylander, got a new title for its updated edition released last fall: Extreme Church Makeover (Gospel Light). The publisher's description of the book, which lays out a biblical plan to resolve conflict within a church, reads, "It takes more than fresh paint and new carpet to revitalize a church that is entangled in conflict and disunity."

Several churches across America have taken the concept one step further by creating their own versions of EMHE. Some have used the theme for church renovation projects. There just wasn't enough space for the youth groups to meet at Valleybrook Church, a Baptist congregation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; they'd gathered at various off-site locations for years. So the church decided to expand one of their buildings to accommodate the teens, naming the project, "Extreme Makeover: Valleybrook Edition." Instead of hiring contractors to do all the work, the church kept costs down by calling on the congregation to pound nails and paint. Work days were scheduled twice weekly over several months, and the church was able to pay for the renovation without taking any loans.

Other congregations have reached out to their communities. As part of a 10-week sermon series called "Extreme Makeover: Heart Edition," Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California, spent a day cleaning and sprucing up a local public school. The teens at First Baptist Church of Lodi in California decided their busy youth pastor desperately needed some help with the jungle he called his "yard." While their leader was away on a trip, the youth group put "Extreme Makeover: Backyard Edition" into action.

1505 EMMaranatha Chapel, a non-denominational church affiliated with Calvary Chapel, renovated two churches in their San Diego, California, community through their "Xtreme Church Makeover" program. One of these, St. Stephen?s Church of God in Christ, had been in such bad shape it had garbage cans placed throughout its basement to catch rainwater that dripped down the walls from its leaking roof. Maranatha also renovated Faith Tabernacle Church, which serves a predominantly black congregation. Along with the physical renovations to its building, Faith Tabernacle has a second, cultural makeover in process: It's making a concerted effort to reach out to the area's growing Hispanic community.

Some churches have even lent a hand to complete strangers. Up on the Canada-U.S. border, the Aldergrove Adventist church in British Columbia made extensive repairs to the run-down homes of two local families. For one of Aldergrove's projects, some 50 Adventist teens from Washington state and British Columbia joined up with the church to pitch in. Lakeshore Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Holland, Michigan, raised more than $7,000 to make needed repairs to a local family's home. And way down south in Georgia, Bethlehem First Baptist Church expanded a tiny two-bedroom, two-bath house to better meet the needs of the family of 10 that live there.

EMHE's Forman says he's thrilled others are taking the concept and running with it. "We get letters every day that say, 'We saw what you guys did and were inspired to go out and paint someone's house,' or 'fix up the church rec hall,' or 'work on the school playground.' We've always said, 'Please, would somebody copy this show?' The more people out there doing this, the happier I'll be," he says.

It's amazing how one TV show's simple formula--a kind deed for a family in need--has inspired so many. In his Internet diary, one man shared his dream of just how far this idea could go in the hands of Christians: "There are people all around us in need. If secular TV shows can make this stuff happen (and that's awesome), what do you think the church could do if we all got together and sought to bless our neighbors?"

Holly Vicente Robaina, a regular contributor for Today's Christian Women magazine, writes from Playa del Ray, California.