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‘TruthQuest’ turns tables on lurid reality TV fare

NEW YORK (BP)–A group of teenage missionaries will be featured in a new “reality” television show that turns the tables on the genre. “TruthQuest: California,” which will be shown beginning Oct. 3 on FamilyNet Television, a cable Christian television station reaching 34 million homes, thinks its good clean Christian fun can succeed. Others doubt it.

Richard Sparkman is only 14, but he has already worked as a missionary. Last year, he visited New Orleans with his Franklin, Tenn., church’s drama troupe to spread the gospel by performing skits.

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Freeman’s faith
TruthQuest team member Freeman Field of New York City shares a testimony from his experiences on Sept. 11 during TruthQuest rallies July 7 in Cleveland, Tenn., and July 10 in Franklin, Tenn. Photo by Justin Veneman
But this year, his family will be able to keep a close eye on Sparkman as he evangelizes with other teenagers along California’s coast. Sparkman, an eighth-grader at Freedom Middle School, will be featured in “TruthQuest: California,” the brainchild of Todd Starnes of Baptist Press — the national news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. The series will be shown this fall on FamilyNet, a Christian-oriented cable television network. FamilyNet reaches 34 million homes, the same amount of combined households that subscribe to HBO and Cinemax.

Starnes said he was channel surfing and noticed MTV’s “Road Rules,” a show in which seven strangers travel in a Winnebago and are given clues at each stop that indicate their next destination. He said that even though that show was racy there were themes that, as an evangelical Christian, he could relate to.

“I noticed that at the end, they were using basically spiritual concepts, talking about friendship and trust and faith and hope, and it just got me thinking,” Starnes said. “If these guys can use spiritual concepts in that kind of a setting, why can’t we do the same thing from a Christian point of view?”

Twelve teenagers were selected for the show, most of whom were strangers to each other. In July, the group participated in team-building and whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River in eastern Tennessee before they headed west.

Viewers will be able to watch the group as they work at a community center in San Francisco, try to convert surfers in San Diego and evangelize to those along the way on a 1,200-mile, 16-day journey.

The students range in age from eighth-graders to seniors in high school. All of the teens come from Southern Baptist churches and have had prior missions experience.

Freeman Field, 17, came to the attention of the show’s producers when Starnes traveled to New York City after Sept. 11 and interviewed him for Baptist Press.

Field was a senior at Stuyvesant High School, a Manhattan public high school located two blocks from the World Trade Center site. Field wrote a personal account of the attacks and their aftermath for a Christian teen magazine.

Field is relatively experienced, as young missionaries go. He has already traveled to Texas, Kentucky and North Carolina on missions. He also has done volunteer work at Ground Zero, feeding relief workers.

Field is hoping that the program will show teenagers in a positive light. “I think that by having a reality show with a positive value system, it would just be refreshing, and show that all teenagers aren’t crazy,” he said. “We can kind of be a role model for other kids to see.”

Other participants echoed Field’s hopes.

“I was watching ‘Road Rules’ a couple days ago and all they do is argue and have sex,” said Sarah Brown, 16, of Youngstown, Ohio. “I’m a teenager; I argue with my parents, but I don’t have sex all day. It’s not reality TV.

“People need to see that not every teenager has a foul mouth, or is out there being promiscuous or smoking. You know we actually do positive things.”

Shanna Hawkins, 17, of Winston-Salem, N.C., said she is eager to show the world the fun side of being a Christian.

“I am hoping that they’ll get a glimpse that there are teenagers in the world who are Christians, and also who know how to have fun,” she said.

But that very cleanliness could work against the show’s ability to attract viewers. The show will lack the key element that draws viewers to reality shows: the chance to see the participants in compromising situations.

This curiosity is the main reason viewers watch reality shows, said Ted Baehr, an analyst for the Christian Film and Television Commission, an organization that evaluates media content for Christian families. Without that more racy content, it’s harder to get teens to “tune in,” he said.

Another strike against the show is that reality television may be an idea whose time has already gone, Baehr added.

“The worst thing you can do is jump on a bandwagon, because by the time you jump on it, it’s already left,” he said, conceding that the idea “could work” against all expectations.

But Starnes believes that the differences between TruthQuest and the others will work in its favor.

He is hoping that the drama of Christian teenagers proselytizing in places where they may not receive a warm welcome will carry the show.

“We want people to know that Christians don’t just go to church 24/7, but that they are engaged in their culture,” he said.
This story first appeared in the Columbia News Service and is used here with permission. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FREEMAN’S FAITH and TAKE TWO.

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  • Jill Terreri