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Church divide laid bare in SBS series ‘Christians Like Us’

Ten believers get cosy for TV ‘experiment’

Ten Christians will be on TV screens around Australia tonight, as part of a new SBS two-part series Christians Like Us. 

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Dubbed by its producers as a “fascinating televisual experiment”, the show purports to reveal how “even within the essential tenets of a faith, there can be huge disparities in what adherents believe.”

To Christians, this is unlikely to be a surprise. But to prove it to those outside the church, SBS rounded up ten Aussie Christians and stuck them in a house for seven days to see how they behaved. To this writer, it sounds like a Christian version of Big Brother, an opportunity for the wider public to grab the popcorn and watch the sport of Christians attacking each other. But residents in the house told Eternity it wasn’t like that. In fact, they were surprised at the capacity of people to have respectful conversations and show love.

Housemates include: Tiffany, a progressive Anglican priest; Assumpta, a conservative Sydney Anglican who converted from Hinduism as a young adult; Carol, a Uniting Church elder and gynaecologist who says she has performed abortions; Chris, a former Baptist who calls himself a “gay Christian”; and Steve, an evangelical leader of the Asian Christian movement RICE.

Tiffany Sparks, rector at St Paul's Anglican in Ashgrove, Brisbane

Tiffany Sparks, rector at St Paul’s Anglican in Ashgrove, Brisbane SBS

Tiffany Sparks, the rector at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Ashgrove, Brisbane, says she was nervous going into the house, but had watched the previous SBS show Muslims Like Us, on which the current series is based, several times, which helped in setting her expectations.

“There were no ‘gotcha’ moments,” says Tiffany.

“I really wanted to be part of the show because I wanted to show how broad Christianity is. We get pigeon-holed that we all have the same beliefs and we all drink a warm glass of milk before we go to bed. But there’s a lot more nuance with what’s happening in the Christian world.”

“How often, honestly, do Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians get an opportunity to have a voice that isn’t a soundbite designed to make us look a certain way?” – Assumpta Venkatachalam

Assumpta Venkatachalam, who attends a Sydney Anglican church agreed, saying the Muslims Like Us series convinced her she could be represented well on the show.

“I thought they treated everybody, regardless of their beliefs, in a fair and even-handed manner,” she told Eternity. “And how often, honestly, do Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians get an opportunity to have a voice that isn’t a soundbite designed to make us look a certain way?”

Though, says fellow resident Steve Chong, “it’s not rocket science to think that no one’s going to watch ten Christians holding hands singing ‘kumbaya’.”

“People want to know what different Christians have to say on the big issues,” Steve said.

With that in mind, Steve, who describes himself as a “conservative evangelical”, says he brushed up on how to approach the topics he thought would come up in the house. As did Assumpta and Tiffany. So what are these issues? Homosexuality, women in leadership, abuse in the church and abortion, just to name a few.

“I’m hoping and praying that people might come to know Jesus as they see Christians trying to get on with each other.” – Steve Chong

Steve Chong describes himself as a "conservative evangelical" and is founder of RICE, a movement of Asian Christian young people.

Steve Chong describes himself as a “conservative evangelical” and is founder of RICE, a movement of Asian Christian young people. SBS

“Some of the conversations were really intense. And I think that’s to be expected: some of these issues are so personal for people, and go to the heart of people’s backgrounds and hurts they’ve experienced,” says Steve.

“I think that any attempt towards unity among Christians has an evangelistic aim: ‘that the world may know.’ I’m hoping and praying that people might come to know Jesus as they see Christians trying to get on with each other.”

Of course, there were many disagreements in the house. In the trailers for the show, SBS presenters attempt to pit Assumpta, a conservative evangelical who believes the Bible does not allow female priests, and Tiffany, a progressive Anglican rector. The issue of women in leadership in the church was the first conversation they had in the house.

“That first conversation wasn’t fun for either of us,” says Tiffany. “I think that set a bit of a tone for us. But it wasn’t as adversarial as the trailer makes out. We disagree on a number of issues, but we were always respectful to each other. We shared meals, we laughed, we told stories,” says Tiffany, who was asked to wear her clerical collar throughout her time in the house.

“I think that will help me in how I respond to those in the LGBTIQ community or to people who have been abused or people who call themselves ‘progressive’.” – Assumpta Venkatachalam

Assumpta Venkatachalam, attends a Sydney Anglican church and converted from Hinduism as a young adult.

Assumpta Venkatachalam, attends a Sydney Anglican church and converted from Hinduism as a young adult. SBS

Assumpta told Eternity that while she didn’t change her mind on what she believes as a result of being in the house, she thought it was an “incredible opportunity” to live for a short time with a majority of people who think very differently.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean you’ve got it all sorted out and know how everything works. Only God knows that! — Tiffany Sparks

“I think we ‘ghetto-ise’, don’t we? We like to be around people who think like us. And at our worst, we dehumanise those who don’t. So the opportunity to spend time with those people and see than as human beings, not just one-dimensional labels, was a good one. I think that will help me in how I respond to those in the LGBTIQ community or to people who have been abused or people who call themselves ‘progressive’.”

Steve says he knew he would be in conversations where his position on an issue might hurt someone else.

“I had to work out how to hold what I believe to be true whilst making sure my front foot is love. The big thing I had to constantly remind myself of was that the aim isn’t to be same as each other on everything. It’s OK to disagree. But it’s not OK to drop love,” says Steve.

“There were many times when I got really tired, trying to be as natural as possible while having to think all the time very carefully about how you’re speaking and how to express your views lovingly, without judgment,” Steve says, reflecting on what surely all the housemates had to deal with.

“Doing that 24/7 for seven days was tiring. I think with Jesus’s strength and the Holy Spirit empowering me, I think I was able to do that. But it was good to go home.”

Tiffany hopes the show encourages people to be “more generous with their listening.” For the wider culture, part of the reason she wanted to go into the house was to show that it’s possible to explore faith while still having questions.

“That’s OK! Being a Christian doesn’t mean you’ve got it all sorted out and know how everything works. Only God knows that! It turns out having questions and struggles is completely human, so why let it get in the way with exploring your faith?”

* Ben McEachen attends the same church as Assumpta Venkatachalam

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