Fixer Upper launches Christian revolution at HGTV

by Megan Basham
Posted on Tuesday, February 2, 2016, at 3:37 pm

Over the past few years, my No. 1 complaint about the current “golden age of television,” in which hundreds upon hundreds of new shows debut every year, is that almost none of them capture the experience of everyday Christian living.

Scripted shows that feature believers tend to fall into two categories: the saccharine style of a Hallmark Channel movie or the hostile approach of shows like Glee, where stereotyping the self-righteous, hypocritical, or naïve Bible-thumper is the entire point of the character. Up until recently, reality TV performed little better. The values and sentiments may have been more familiar, but some extreme characteristic—like having 20 offspring or an entire extended family of men sporting matching ZZ Top beards—often made them feel gimmicky and unrelatable.

Then came Fixer Upper.

Mention Chip and Joanna Gaines to a group of women of any age after a church service and gush does not begin to describe the reaction. They may watch House Hunters or Property Brothers if the airing schedule happens to coincide with a few minutes of downtime, but Fixer Upper inspires a rabid devotion comparable only to Trekkies and Game of Thrones fanboys. 

It’s not because there’s anything particularly unique about the show’s premise. Each week, this Waco, Texas, couple helps clients select and renovate an old house. It’s the same setup as countless other home design shows, yet the series is breaking records at HGTV, becoming its highest rated show in years.

The difference, at least in all the conversations I’ve had, is that while doing stunning work, the Gaineses consistently reflect an unassuming, recognizable Christianity. 

Though they never proselytize, Chip and Joanna’s faith was evident even before Max Lucado made a recent cameo appearance. Joanna sometimes sprinkles Scripture into her designs, like a dining room with Acts 2:46 painted on the wall. And Chip seems genuinely honored to be working on a house for a missionary family. 

But even these obvious clues don’t quite capture the subtle loving-kindness the Gaineses exemplify in their interactions with each other and their children. When the first episode of Fixer Upper debuted in April 2014, after watching for only a few minutes, with no clear evidence, I had a strong presentiment I was seeing fellow members of the body. A little web searching confirmed it.

Other viewers must have had a similar hunch. Start typing the Gaineses’ names into Google, and the first word it suggests adding is “testimony.” 

But the Christian part of the Gaineses is only half of their appeal. The other half is how normal they seem. There’s nothing stiff, strange, or self-consciously preachy about them. They joke, tease, and flirt. Chip fusses with his hair and tries to embarrass his wife with borderline inappropriate comments. Joanna sports the trendiest nail polish colors while puttering around the garden with their four kids. In other words, they look and act like people you might actually meet in your church. And now their popularity appears to be launching a trend at HGTV to find other ordinary Christians with extraordinary talent to turn into stars. 

News outlets made a lot of hay out of HGTV’s decision to cancel the Benham brothers’ renovation show, Flip It Forward, after liberal activists expressed outrage at the Benhams’ comments supporting the biblical definition of marriage. But few noticed that the incident hardly put the cable network off evangelicals altogether.

Shortly after it was clear that the Gaineses were a hit, the network launched My Big Family Renovation, featuring Pastor Brandon Hatmaker and his wife Jen, a Women of Faith conference speaker and best-selling Bible study author.

More recently, HGTV ended up passing on a pilot called Sweet House Alabama starring Matt and Shaunna West of the popular Perfectly Imperfect home blog and online store. But it’s clear that network executives were happy to give the Wests a chance, and are actively seeking out designers like Shaunna, who, amidst furniture painting tutorials, writes, “If I am actually following Christ daily, the Lord is protecting my steps, my heart from invasion from the enemy. He will give me ALL I need to be more patient, more loving, more compassionate, more like Him.”

One of those designers is Erin Napier. Along with her husband, Ben, she hosts a new show, Home Town, that debuted on Jan. 24. In the online journal that drew the attention of HGTV producers, Erin frequently quotes John Wesley, reflects on “a God who loved us enough to send His child to save us all,” compares the unexpected gift of getting a new television series to God’s grace, and prays for His protection as they embark on this new venture. Both Shaunna and Erin (clearly the writers in their marriages) talk openly about how their husbands strive to follow Christ in their work.

Taken together, these new series are enough to make you wonder, when HGTV conducts demographic research on its audience, just how strong are the results these days for the Christian contingent?

I’ve said for years that if some network could just paint an accurate picture of Christians living lives in a common way, they would have legions of fans tuning in. Fixer Upper proves the point. I’d still like to see something equally authentic on the scripted side. But for now, every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST (and during plenty of Saturday rerun marathons) my husband knows where to find me.

Listen to Megan Basham’s commentary about Fixer Upper on The World and Everything in It.

Megan Basham

Megan is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine based in Charlotte, N.C. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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  • Fuzzyface
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    Being from a rural area and part of a family business, the Robertsons seem like normal folks to me.

  •  dcsfoyle's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    TinaH, she isn't shaming or critiquing them. Megan is simply pointing out that TV networks don't normally make shows (fiction or non-fiction) containing normal believers. In the past, if believers are included in a show they're either crazy (as in the Glee reference), or they have some unique defining characteristic (as in the cases of the Duggars and the Robertsons) -- very little has been done with "normal folks."

  • Laneygirl
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

     Chip and Joanna's work is fantastic and their family sweet, but has anyone noticed the changes this season? Less house renovation and more of the folksy personal interaction.  

  • Caffeinated's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    It's appointment TV for me.

  •  TInaH's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    Chip and Joanna are great; I don't go out of my way to watch new episodes but I love when I'm just relaxing and I happen to catch a bunch of reruns. I, too, figured out without hearing directly that they are fellow believers. It's very clear that they are Spirit-led. However, I must take issue with the reviewer's critique of the Duggars and Duck Dynasty; just because they don't live mainstream lives doesn't make them weird. We are, after all, supposed to be in this world but not of it. The Gaines family does a nice job of being kind of "family next-doorish," but the Duggars and Robertsons shouldn't be shamed by a sister just because they're not.

  • Beth Nemati
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    Fixer Upper sounds great but I wish HGTV would back up the Benhams and other Christians whose ordinary Christian life also includes pushing back against moral decay and progressivism. 

  • hawaiicharles
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    It's not something I'd go out of my way to watch, but we often have HGTV on for "background noise" while fixing dinner at my house.  Chip and Joanna always struck me as a very likable couple.I do think that Christians should make a more concerted effort at engaging culture through popular entertainment.  That is, after all, how a small group of homosexual activists won the hearts and minds of America.

  • Mom65
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    Agreed!  It is my favorite show.  Thank you.

  • psubrent
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    Great article, Megan, but who chose the story title?  A revolution?

  • Lizzy's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    In the article - "Mention Chip and Joanna Gaines to a group of women of any age after a church service and gush does not begin to describe the reaction."  "entire extended family of men sporting matching ZZ Top beards" One person's normal is not necessarily another person's and we live in a very large country.  As a 62 year old married woman, I have never heard of Chip and Joanna and nothing in this article makes me want to check out this show.  I'm glad that shows like this exist for that percentage of the American Christian population that lives a southern suburban lifestyle, but that is not a lifestyle that is any more normal than the northwestern urban lifestyle where I live or the hunting lifestyle that a significant portion of rural America lives.  Can't we just celebrate that yet another segment of the Christian population now has a show where the characters feel familiar to them rather than claiming that now Christianity has a "normal" face on TV just because the characters are very attractive young white Southern Christians who focus on love and apparently never take a controversial stand on Biblical morality?  For the record, even though I am city through and through, I love Duck Dynasty precisely because they do seem normal to me in how they unapologetically conduct their lives as Christians (and frankly, I doubt this author has ever watched DD because they also tease and flirt and are shown living as a family doing such "odd" things as picking out tuxes for a son's wedding - the episode last season of that son's wedding was heartwarming).  And as for those beards - hair is a cultural thing not a "normal" thing and a beard is no more weird to me than a person in a three piece suit (the northwest culture is very informal).Just a side note, having a dear friend whose son is working as a film editor in Hollywood and who has worked on home "reality" shows, "reality" is loosely defined. 

  •  Soapbxn's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    I love this show but am only able to watch it if I time it right with  my workout at the gym and then only while on the elliptical. ;-)  Chip and Joanne are so sweet and their banter so entertaining.  It is encouraging to know that some more fulfilling programming is actually available.  We don't bother paying for dish, cable, DTV etc.  as most of what is on there is not worth paying for. 

  • gram
    Posted: Mon, 04/18/2016 10:16 am

    what about the show featuring two brothers that was cancelled just before it was scheduled to be shown on HGTV.  They hosted a rally opposing gay lifestyle due to their beliefs.  I love Fixer Upper  but I have to wonder what would happen to that show if they voiced their beliefs on the subject.

  • thecarmans
    Posted: Thu, 04/13/2017 09:14 pm

    I love this!  I agree now lets get some authentic Christian scripted shows!