Christian Dating Hits a New Low: “It Takes a Church.”

I‘ve written before about how bad it is in Christian churches for single people seeking marriage. But I guess I hadn’t quite counted on the reality show “It Takes a Church” to show me just how bad the situation has gotten.

I know I’ve mentionedIt Takes a Church” off and on. It’s a dating reality show wherein a particular church gets chosen to try to find a marital partner for someone in their congregation who just can’t find a match. The congregation offers up a bunch of suitable matches, and then decides which one they like best, and then (theoretically at least) the happy couple weds and lives happily ever after. The show ran for a couple of seasons from 2014-2015, at which point it just dwindled away, but I don’t watch a lot of reality shows so I didn’t catch it when it first aired.

A Christian singer named Natalie Grant introduces the shows, does a bit of singing, and generally hosts the circus-like proceedings. Close your eyes while the shows play, and you’d be excused for thinking you were listening to an especially odd episode of The Simpsons.

It’s a sort of Christian version of The Bachelorette and all those sorts of shows, with the single person in question pestered interminably by tons of outsiders and barely even able to talk to the potential matches. The uncanny resemblance even extends to the weird challenges/tests that don’t appear to bear any resemblance to anything remotely like a long-term relationship, but which the producers likely thought would entertain viewers. One is left with the impression that churches are like big social clubs, identical to anything one sees in secular culture–an odd message indeed considering that the churches are clearly fundagelical and thus very likely would resent such a comparison in any other context.

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually watched any dating shows before. This will be my first one. I’ve got a big glass of Marsala to go with this show because Mr. Captain didn’t want to go get me Watermelon Pucker (shakes fist at sky). Also cheese and crackers. It seemed appropriate.

A Dishonest Two-Step Shuffle.

According to Christian Post, hostess Natalie Grant has been married for some 15 years–and isn’t shy about imparting her own secrets for success. It’s the usual weird two-step we see out of Christians; she explains that people must love themselves before they can love others, and of course by love themselves she means become fervent Christians. I’m not kidding. That’s almost a direct quote from her. (She also notes that of all the episodes of this reality show, only one couple is still together from the first season–but she optimistically thinks that the second season is “going to have a much better track record” than the first. I couldn’t find any stats on the second season.)

The truth is, the “secret” to having a long marriage for fervent Christians isn’t any different from the “secret” to having one between non-Christians. Look for someone who shares your values with regard to the things that make relationships smooth: division of labor, flexibility/adaptability, level of sex drive, general values, ambition, and whatever else is important to you. Be honest with each other, learn to fight fairly and never deviate from that ideal, and don’t take advantage of each other. This ain’t rocket science, and it doesn’t work any differently for Christians than it does for anybody else.

But Christians can’t have anything so practical or universal. It’s too worldly, meaning that it isn’t the soapy, scrubbed-clean fundagelical vision they want to see within their bubble, repeating “Jesus” over and over again and revising all concepts and ideas to include their imaginary friend. Christians must be special–far more so than awful ole non-Christians. So Christian relationships must be based in Jesus, whatever that means; even as a Christian I struggled to understand this idea, and could only conclude that in practical and technical terms it means the couple must do lots of Christian things together and mouth particular platitudes, and then attribute their success to their faith.

Worse, in that vision of squeaky-clean marriage, those practical considerations are given short shrift–and that’s only if they’re considered at all. You see, “Jesus” often seems to demand that two people marry when they have no business at all even being in a relationship with each other, much less legally binding themselves together in ways not easily undone. “Jesus” always knew better than his followers did what was best for their lives, so the real trick was ensuring that we were hearing “his” directions rather than mistaking our own gut feelings or intuition for “his” voice. (It’s incredibly easy to make that mistake, too, though it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out why so many Christians make it.)

This alarming bit of folk wisdom permeates Christian culture from top to bottom; I often saw Christians (including myself) make business or personal decisions that made no sense whatsoever because we seriously thought a god was telling us to do whatever it was. We couldn’t rely on our own wisdom or judgment, went the explicit teaching, so we had to rely on what we thought our god was telling us to do. It might not make any sense. It might even go against common sense. But it’d always turn out wonderfully in the end. And every single personal decision someone made–even down to where they ate lunch, sometimes–had to be made according to what this god wanted.

Now it’s just laughable to me that a couple can imagine that a real live god might be passionately interested in who they marry and have an honest-to-goodness plan regarding where their little lives fit into the vast cosmos. But the idea sure kept us all dancing on our toes! After all, if we couldn’t quite figure out what “Jesus” wanted, there was almost always help available to illuminate the path. We thought pastors and other such leaders had an extra-strong Jesus Aura, so they were considered to have special powers of discernment with regard to what “Jesus” wanted.

I’m expecting a lot of that sort of pre-chewed nonsense out of this dating show.

So let’s look at this thing.

She Has a Wall Up, Apparently.

Angela Morgan is 30 years old. She wanted to be married with kids by 28, but obviously that didn’t work out. She’s a lovely African-American woman, slim and fashionable with gorgeous hair. She joined the Rock Worship Center about six months before. Some of her relatives attend the church and think that she’s had some bad experiences with relationships that have led her to be a little gun-shy about men.

This is Angela, standing next to the hostess, Natalie.
This is Angela, standing next to the hostess, Natalie.

The hostess, Natalie Grant, riffs on a gospel song about “Going to the Rock” and everyone gets all excited.

I wonder if I’m going to spend most of the next half hour thinking, Is this racist?

The various busybody matchmakers in the church introduce a dozen or so men–some white, some black, all very appealing. Some of the men bring flowers or sing songs to Angela. A couple of them make Jesus-noises or talk up how often they pray or how faithful they are.

(Mr. Captain: “This is so fucking painful to listen to.”)

Angela says she’s ready to get to know all these wonderful men, but Natalie pulls her up short by telling her that the church is going to be the one to winnow out the dozen men to select three for her. We can’t have a woman deciding who she wants to get to know better, now can we? So after filling out sheets with all the men’s photos and biographies, the church members select Nick, a 31-year-old motivational speaker; Brian, a 30-year-old law student; and Travis, a 34-year-old insurance salesperson. The pastor picks a fourth, Dr. Bradford, a 32-year-old dentist. Nick is white; the rest are black.

The Clothing Drive.

The first challenge involves a clothing drive the church is doing. One man will be eliminated afterward. Angela is not the one who decides which, of course. A team of matchmakers oversees everything.

find me a find, catch me a catch
find me a find, catch me a catch

Each man handles a clothing station while the church watches everything. Angela briefly talks to each man in turn. She and Travis talk about babies. She and Brian dance with the church’s little kids and play Duck-Duck-Goose (he’s not sure he wants kids, which shocks everyone). Nick dances with her and turns out to want kids very much; after they talk, he walks her to the next station, which impresses everyone. Dr. Bradford is handling a barbecue grill; he’s shorter than her, but very gentlemanly–and he plays the sax for her while the food burns. The dentist also has kids already and she’s not super-enthused about that idea.

The selected matchmakers in the church decide who they want to send home. They narrowly settle on Brian.

Angela has noted several times already that she hasn’t gotten much time with any of these men.

Blindfolded Leadership.

The pastor has set up a challenge for the second outing. Angela is blindfolded, and each of the three men remaining will lead her through a “minefield” of plastic cups of water and raw eggs. Angela’s nervous about this.

Travis leads her by voice commands. She steps on an egg and knocks over one cup of water.

Nick sets up parameters before they start, and this helps a lot. She does knock over one cup but makes the final leap at his command, landing in his arms. It’s very charming.

Dr. Bradford also communicates with her patiently and gently about how he will lead her–and he does so very easily. They quickly make it through the course with no incidents.

(Mr. Captain has moved on to watching WWII movie trailers. They are apparently much more engrossing to him than this show. Every so often I am forced to pause my show to watch sharks attacking people and missiles hitting cruisers and the like. TBH there may not be much difference between them and this reality show in general.)

Afterward the pastor of the Rock talks to the bachelors. When he asks Nick about his vow of celibacy, I noticed that the guy’s neck turned bright red. I’m not sure what it means, but it was interesting. Angela later says she was very surprised to hear that Nick was celibate because he’s so hot and in-shape and all.

Now, finally, Angela gets to pick which two of the three men she wants to go on a one-on-one date. She says she doesn’t really want to decide that, but sorry, she’s just got to do it. YAY AGENCY. She decides on Dr. Bradford, the dentist, and Nick, the motivational speaker. Travis is going home.

Angela cries in an interview later about how she hasn’t got a husband yet.

Are you noticing something missing so far? I sure am. Maybe it’s something that a non-Christian wouldn’t notice, but my Pentecostal church was a lot like this Rock place and it stands out to me like a blinking red light.

Date Night.

Nick takes Angela bowling. He blesses their bowling-alley food in truly cringeworthy fashion, and then they talk about their dating pasts. Her body language is not ideal–she’s shrunk into one end of her comfy chair as she listens to him describe doing to some poor woman exactly what her ex-boyfriend did to her. I mean, you tell me:

Seriously. She couldn't get much further into the side of that chair.
Seriously. She couldn’t get much further into the side of that chair.

He apologizes for “getting all heavy,” but she thanks him for sharing how similar he was to her ex-boyfriend and says later in private that she’s very put off by this admission.

Dr. Bradford has rented a horse-drawn carriage. It’s gorgeous, and she’s very impressed. (I wonder who that is walking off to the side here? It looks remarkably like Travis.)

I MUST KNOW
I MUST KNOW WHO THAT IS

They go to a very fine restaurant and he blesses their meal. He reveals that he does his daughter’s hair when she lets him. He talks a big game about being a team together.

The problem is, Nick’s super-hot but too much like her ex-boyfriend, and Dr. Bradford sounds perfect but he’s just so “safe” that she’s not sure she’s into him. I think I’m starting to see what the problem is here for her.

The Big Decision.

After the dates, Natalie brings Angela’s mother, aunt, and cousin from Charlotte to the Rock church because Angela can’t possibly make a decision without them. She asks the family members what they’ve been praying for. Her mom says she’s been praying for Angela to find a husband. Angela goes into the foyer and comes back with the man she’s settled on.

It’s Nick, the super-hot motivational speaker who reminded her painfully of her ex-boyfriend.

Aside from Natalie herself, I think Nick is seriously the only white person in the building. Dr. Bradford wishes them the best and then Natalie reveals that the church itself is getting $10,000 for its community service fund for its participation in the show (the pastor’s wife does a jig in her pew at this point).

The bachelors who washed out get a free one-year subscription to Christian Mingle, the shitty Christian online-dating site. Yes, really. I’m not kidding.

So… Did They Stay Together?

In a word, probably not. In this story, only one couple is described as still being together after their show aired–and it’s not Nick and Angela. I couldn’t find a single mention of them anywhere online, so I’m guessing that they didn’t last very long at all. If they had, I don’t think the show’s creators would have let anybody hear the last of it.

So the last we see of the happy couple is them standing on the dais of their church, excited and eager to start getting to know each other better. Like many Christian stories, this one ends there and the people telling it hope that the audience just lets them stay right there, like flies in amber, frozen forever in happy victory.

But I easily found Nick’s Twitter account, and he’s traveling with a young woman he describes as “my baby” who is very distinctly not Angela. “It’s always been you,” he tells her on Valentine’s Day.

You can also see Nick’s writeup of his experience at the Good Men Project, wherein he reveals that everyone was consistently shocked by the revelation that a good-looking Christian guy like him might have been celibate for years by choice. You might also notice that far from the bachelors having been brought to church almost randomly by people who attended there, the bachelors were all part of a formal casting call. At the end of that piece he says that he is the one who “quickly end[ed] the ‘relationship’.” (Scare quotes are his. It’s not hard to see why he chose to use them.) Incidentally, he makes no mention of religion in this piece at all. His Instagram sure doesn’t make him look like he’s still celibate, either, but that’s his life and his problem.

(Mr. Captain is now watching cutscenes from a game called Twisted Metal.)

Angela should have gone with the dentist, honestly. I liked him a lot.

The Lesson.

It’s easy to see why this kind of show took off. We’re at the very apex of Christian “courtship” culture, with all its hangups and weirdness. The idea of a church selecting a young woman’s mate probably sounded really good to fundagelicals.

But this show occupies a netherworld in culture. It’s too worldly to make fundagelicals happy, and it’s too weirdly fundie to make non-fundagelicals happy. The Christians who really, really get into courtship culture probably don’t watch a lot of television, and the ones who don’t get into that shit will be repelled in short order by the idea of a couple not being allowed total control of their own relationships. As Angela herself mentions repeatedly (along with several of the contestant bachelors), she feels hamstrung by not being able to really talk to any of the men or get to know them.

But I guess it was worth a try.

SCORE:

Production values: Somewhere around the level of the gospel-singing scene in The Blues Brothers
Coherence: Probably about on par with other dating shows
Is this racist?: Damned if I know, but I was uncomfortable
Quality of men: Very good; it was actually hard to understand why any of these people were single at their age in a culture as obsessed with marriage as theirs is
Number of matchmakers: Too damned high
Challenges: If you’ve ever read my rants about The Love Dare, you’ll understand my antipathy toward ridiculous “challenges” like these
Chances of marital success: About as good as the chances of Jesus coming back in 2017
The dentist: 10/10, would bang

TOTAL: blah/10

THE MARSALA: Wasn’t too bad.

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