The Big D’s sex-loving, millionaire megapastor

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Would a major network such as A&E really consider a reality series featuring a millionaire evangelical family?

No, I’m not talking about THAT family.

Before “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson became the subject of a gazillion tweets, Facebook posts and news stories this week, The Dallas Morning News ran a 5,000-word feature on a Texas megachurch’s “sex-loving, million-dollar minister.”

The piece has been in my guilt file — those stories we at GetReligion want to cover but for whatever reason haven’t — for a few weeks now. The feature, which appeared in FD Luxe, the Dallas newspaper’s monthly luxury lifestyle magazine, teases readers up high:

Fellowship Church’s effusive Ed Young and his wife are loving the Lord, having more sex than you and staking their claim in the best neighborhoods in town. Can a reality show about this million-dollar minister and his gleaming family be far away? (No.)

Um, OK.

The story itself is one of those long, winding magazine pieces in which the writer sprinkles his own perspectives and point of view throughout (with an annoying number of parenthesis). It starts with a “reporter visits the zoo” lede:

A man approaches me in the parking lot of Highland Park Village, wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Walking Dead.” He extends a friendly hand. “Are you here for church?” Yes. “Is this your first time?” Yes. (Maybe it shows?)

It is early Sunday morning. The swanky boutiques that keep Sunday hours here — the likes of Dior, Diane von Furstenberg and Jimmy Choo — won’t open till noon and 1, but the movie theater at Dallas’ most elite shopping center is buzzing with activity, and none of it film-related. The job of the man in the T-shirt is to lead newcomers to the greeters standing beneath the theater marquee. “Good morning!” says a stylish young woman at the door.

Those newcomers are ushered inside and wrangled by volunteers, who introduce themselves in rapid-fire succession. An oversize foamcore signin the lobby depicts a desolate cityscape with bold white letters proclaiming: “Walking Dead: Life Is Too Good Not to Live. A new series by Ed Young.”

A sermon hooked to a popular cable-TV zombie show? Edwin Barry Young knows how to titillate and provoke. The charismatic, controversial founder and senior pastor of the sprawling Grapevine-based Fellowship Church burst onto the national scene in 2008, when he challenged the church’s married couples to have seven days of sex for greater emotional intimacy.

If you’re familiar with Young (I am, having written about him a few times during my Associated Press days) or megachurches, you may find yourself wondering if the story’s ever going to get to the point or tell you something you didn’t already know. Then again, maybe I just have a bias against this kind of journalism, preferring a more traditional newspaper approach.

A few million — er, thousand — words into the piece, we hear more about the possible reality series:

Welcome to the heightened reality that is life with the Youngs. Go ahead and compare them to a Christianized version of a certain other well-funded, camera-friendly family: the Kardashians. It is unavoidable — especially when you learn the Youngs are in talks to star in their own reality show. Last month, an L.A. producer pitched the project to A&E; meetings with other networks are scheduled. “We have not signed anything,” says Ed, stylish in a gray-and-plaid reversible shirt. Ed’s youthful appearance, at 52, aided by his constantly changing hair color and hairstyle, have made him a target for cosmetic-surgery chatter online. (He says he has tried only Botox.)

The Youngs have been approached repeatedly over the years to do a show, and they feel comfortable enough with this producer and the production company to consider it — cautiously. The show’s angle is how the family says it lives out a message of God’s love. (Bonus ratings if there are any train wrecks along the way.) “If we would have some sort of guidance over editing” of the footage, Ed says, sounding both savvy and naive, “I don’t mind showing anybody anything.”

But if you can make it through all the glitz and glamour, the story actually hits its high point near the end as it delves — in a journalistically meaty way — into the theological rightness or wrongness of Young’s lifestyle, quoting him on that question as well as Elaine A. Heath, a Southern Methodist University evangelism professor who suggests that Jesus did not live a life of opulence. Fellow Dallas megapastor T.D. Jakes weighs in, too:

Heath classifies Fellowship Church as what she calls one of the “entertainment ministries,” which don’t form disciples so much as followers. “They’ll get people to come in and say, ‘Hey, this a good show,’ but when it comes to developing people who live and act like Jesus, I’m not convinced that sensationalism does the job.” She says that she understands some people do come into a relationship with God through unconventional churches, “but this is not the sort of ministry that I see historically and globally bringing about real transformation in the world.”

Jakes takes issue with Heath’s entertainment label and says a better term would be contemporary ministries. He says younger generations communicate in different ways than their predecessors, embracing television and social media. He thinks Ed Young “translates the Christian message into the language of the times.”

Last year, one of Fellowship’s congregants, conservative radio talk-show host and Dallas Morning News opinion columnist Mark Davis, wrote an essay in The News defending his pastor. “If you prefer your church low-key and your pastor quiet and safe, Ed is not your man. He will put a bed on the roof and tell you it is about time people heard what Christ has to say about intimacy. He will integrate every element of contemporary music, high-tech presentation and modern vernacular to bring a very traditional message to thousands each week. It minces no words, it allows no fudging and leaves nothing uncertain.” He goes on: “Everyone is entitled to personal taste in terms of the worship they enjoy. Fellowship’s flavor is pure, unmitigated Bible 101 packaged in a 21st-century way that attracts tattooed 20-somethings alongside grandparents. While some find these trappings a bit intense, others may be challenged by the thoroughly traditional messages within: God said it, you need to believe it, and that settles it.”

By all means, read the whole story and then cheer or jeer my critique.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Darren Blair

    Was he the cover story of the issue?

    This reads a lot like the cover stories that Business Week and other publications used to run, wherein they include a lot of flash to draw attention at the cost of actual substance.


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