‘Rich in Faith’ brings young pastors to reality TV spotlight

Rich In Faith - Season 1 - daenChere Wilkerson Rich Wilkerson
This photo provided by Oxygen shows, DawnChere Wilkerson, left, and Rich Wilkerson in the "Gator Nuggets" episode in season 1 of "Rich in Faith." The show airs on Oxygen on Dec., 9, 2015. (Matthew Burke/Oxygen via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — As a MTV executive, Rod Aissa helped develop “Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica,” the reality series that peered into the lives of Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson.

Aissa, now at Oxygen Media, believes he’s found equally engaging young marrieds who will appeal to today’s millennials. The twist: the couple featured in Oxygen’s “Rich in Faith” are pastors, not pop stars.

The reality show (debuting 10 p.m. EST Wednesday) features Rich Wilkerson Jr. and his wife DawnChere, both 31 and offspring of ministers, as they launch a youth-oriented Miami church and grapple with balancing work and home life.

Oxygen, which targets 18-to-34-year-old female viewers, is “trying to connect them to relatable characters, experiences and milestones of their lives,” said Aissa, executive vice president for original programming and development.

The Wilkersons are appealing, he said, and the fact that their “business happens to be religion” brings an added dimension.

“What I liked about it for Oxygen is the overlay of the discussion of faith,” he said. “We know from brand research … that traditional things like family and relationship to God and spirituality are still high on their (the audience’s) list.”

Rich Wilkerson, who started with his parents’ ministry in Miami, brings a celebrity connection to the series: He married Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

Vous, the church the Wilkersons are founding, has a certain glitz of its own, with music, dance, strobe lights and fog machines added to appeal to their generation. They take their ministry to the street as well, meeting people on their own ground.

The Wilkersons say it’s their relationship with God and parishioners that’s important, not TV celebrity or its trappings.

“So often it’s really easy, especially for people of faith, to sit around and report negatively about the status quo of where our nation is or where entertainment is,” said Rich Wilkerson, author of the newly published “Sandcastle Kings,” which includes a blurb from Kim Kardashian West (Wilkerson’s optimism and “passion for the Word of God are contagious,” she said).

“Our idea was to do something that’s encouraging, that’s positive out there. We want to show people you can have faith, even in this busy, chaotic world we live in right now,” he said.

While he’s not a reality TV watcher, Wilkerson said, “no matter what you think about it, it’s the language of our culture. We want to be people who are trying to take every opportunity to spread the message of faith.”

Faith and reality TV have become close companions. A number of shows are based on families for whom religion is a visible part of their lives, including UP’s “Bringing Up Bates,” in its third season. Others focus on the clergy, among them Oxygen’s “Preachers” franchise that started in Los Angeles and moved on to include other cities.

“Preachers of LA” was criticized by some African-Americans ministers who said the show could foster the inaccurate idea that preachers are in it for fame and wealth.

Hollywood’s fascination with pairing reality and faith has dubious roots, said Dave Johnson, a film and TV writer-producer (“Against the Grain,” ”Doc”) and a Parents Television Council advisory board member.

“It’s like the old circus, with the sideshow tent,” Johnson said. “They’ll use little people, they’ll use Christians, they’ll use tattoo people. It’s a group of people (industry executives) don’t really know or understand or are part of, and think they’re interesting to watch.”

That’s fine, he added, if the show is created and produced honestly, citing “Bringing Up Bates” as an example. He had yet to see “Rich in Faith.”

“If they chose someone who is genuine and true, who believes and lives that faith, then the show will reflect that faith honestly,” Johnson said.

DawnChere Wilkerson believes her series will do that.

It demonstrates “how our faith and relationship with Jesus is really the greatest influence in every part of life, whether marriage, at work, with friends and family,” she said.

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Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/lynn-elber and she can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber

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