Two weeks ago, a Louisiana pastor became the first contestant kicked off of CBS's reality game show, Survivor Thailand. On the show, sixteen participants arranged into" tribes" compete for one million dollars. Every three days, the tribes vote out one member. Besides surviving the elements, contestants also compete politically (often making alliances with one another) to stay in the game.
John Raymond is the executive pastor of the 2,700-member World Harvest Church in Slidell, Louisiana, the fourth fastest growing Assembly of God church in the country. A father of three, he is writing a book on church growth, leads church growth conferences with other Harvest leaders, and leads missions trips to Central America.
Raymond took a sabbatical from his church to participate in the 39-day game. (All contestants were forced to stay in Thailand until the game ended.) However, Raymond lasted only three days. After he returned home from the monsoon-drenched beaches of Thailand, his efforts for survival continued—his church was dangerously close to the path of tropical storm Isadore when it hit Louisiana last week.
After the storm dissipated, Raymond talked on the phone with Christianity Today assistant online editor Todd Hertz.
Why did you want to be on Survivor?
I grew up in Louisiana fishing and hunting and camping. So that part of the game, the outdoorsy part, intrigued me. I was also an athlete coming up through high school, so the competition intrigued me. And being a pastor, I am familiar with a lot of relational dynamics, so that intrigued me as well. I thought with the three of them combined I was a perfect fit for the game.
Did you envision your role as a pastor would be useful in the game?
I was just hoping that they wouldn't vote me off because I was a pastor. I didn't think that they'd accept Jesus Christ or necessarily give me the lead or anything like that. I just wanted to make sure they didn't discriminate against me for my faith. I don't know if they did or not.
Why do you feel you were voted off first?
[After the tribal council vote,] I came back to the Tribal Council to give my little confessional at the end, and I saw [producer] Mark Burnett and [show host] Jeff Probst. They were standing there, like me, mouths gaping open. They really anticipated me going further in the game as well.
Mark spent the whole next day, which he had never done before, with his associate producer looking over all that footage just to see what happened.
He told me, "The name we are giving this first episode is 'When is Capability a Disadvantange?' You started the fire, you found the water, you caught most of the food, you dug the latrine. You were so capable out here and so comfortable in that environment that it made other people uncomfortable."
I took that as an honorable way to go out. But it surprised me. Some conversations had taken place, I found out later, where alliances were in fact made. If you are not there to protect yourself in these conversations, there is nothing you can do.
Someone also suggested that many people are uncomfortable around ministers because they feel they have to be too cautious or that they have a second conscience floating around. So maybe they didn't want me around long.
Watching the episode, how do you feel you came across?
Keep in mind that before CBS edits the three days of footage, they already know who is getting voted off. So they already know that if John is going to go, they have to make sure there is some reasoning behind it.
So from all the footage we took from every different angle, they had to see what clips they could find to show I was too aggressive, since that is what someone said. I don't think I came across as aggressively to the tribe as it showed me as coming across on film.
For instance, in the beginning of the show it looked like I was giving instructions in the boat and telling others how to paddle. The interesting thing was that when we got in the boat, we were rowing in circles. We looked like the Bad News Bears in a boat.
So the others said, "Listen, why don't you get in the front of the boat and teach us how to row and we'll follow you." I was in the front of the boat only because they asked me to be. Not because I aggressively said, "Okay, let me show you how to do this." But the since clip shows it that way it is easy to say, "Oh John, are you crazy?"
Why was the Christian flag your luxury item?
I wanted to bring something that had to do with my faith. We have to make a list of five items. The Christian flag was one and the Bible was another.
When the producers said they'd let me bring the Christian flag, I thought to have one made with extra grommets that go all the way around it in case we needed to use it as a shelter. I then sprayed it with silicone water repellant on both sides. So really what I had was a 6 by 10 waterproof tarpaulin that happened to be the color of a Christian flag.
What role did your faith play in your desire to be in the game?
Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, not the sermon in the valley. The reason he preached it on the mount was because he got more exposure on the mount. If I can get more exposure for the church and the kingdom by getting on the highest-rated show in the history of television, then great, as long as I kept my integrity in the game.
And I think I did. I didn't do anything I have to apologize for or be embarrassed about. I just wanted to play consistently and let everyone know that God can take a Christian and put him on the top of the Hollywood mountain and you can still keep your integrity and you can still point to Jesus Christ.
How do you think you would have kept your integrity if you went further in the game?
Fortunately, since I was only in the game for three days, I really didn't have the opportunity to backstab or lie or anything.
Lying and hurting people is one thing, but playing the game really is another. The difference is that Survivor is a game. It is not real life. The fate of your wife and kids does not rest in whether or not you are honest in that game. Ever play basketball? If you fake left and go right to score on me, did you deceive me, did you lie, did you stab me in the back? Or did you just play by the rules and win?
I was ready to make alliances if I needed to, but I think maybe the Lord didn't want me to have to cross that bridge and possibly hurt my testimony before other people who wouldn't really understand.
Last year's Survivor winner, Vecepia Towery, is a Christian. Many people claimed that despite her faith, she still lied and changed alliances. What was your take on that?
Vecepia played the game well. She played according to rules. Changing her alliances and such was fair. I think where Vecepia left me with a bad impression was when she said, "I ask forgiveness for it." That cheapened the grace of the Lord.
What I would have said was, "Yeah, of course I changed my mind and broke alliances. That's the game, there is nothing to ask forgiveness for. There's no sin involved here. We were playing a game." But instead of saying it that way, she cheapened the grace of God by saying, "You just ask forgiveness for it." That's what threw everybody.
At Tribal Council, you mentioned there was a lot of faith on your tribe. Talk about that.
I said that really as a compliment to those guys. There really wasn't a lot of faith on my tribe. Everyone is going to say they believe in God, especially when there's a pastor around. But based on the language, innuendos, and the sexual comments and all that kind of stuff, it was very obvious to me that I definitely was not in a Christian tribe by any stretch of the imagination.
But there have been a lot of Christians competing on reality shows like Survivor and Amazing Race. Why do you think that is?
Mark Burnett wanted Survivor to be, "What if an airplane went down and 16 people survived?" So he wanted a cross section of American people. Certainly, America is primarily a Christian nation. For us to hide back and deliberately not be seen would be a mistake. I wish the reality shows would have 50 percent of Christians on them.
The problem comes when people get on there and say weird stuff like Vecepia did, like, "It's okay to sin, you just ask forgiveness." I don't think she meant to say it the way it came out. I don't think the Christians are doing a bad thing or giving a bad testimony by getting involved in reality shows. I think you just have to watch how you handle yourself while you're on the show.
How has your church reacted to you being on the show? And since you were voted out?
Everyone was totally happy I was doing that. They couldn't believe they voted me out so early. They all thought I was doing a good job. There was one person who thought I shouldn't get involved in Hollywood, but you will always have that.
Are there any further Hollywood opportunities coming out of your exposure?
Not that I know of. If they want me on Hollywood Squares I would be happy to go. But I am going to make sure my dignity as a Christian shines forth. I am not going to do anything to embarrass Christ or the church. I will take advantage of whatever opportunities they bring up, but I will point it all to the Lord.
What did you learn from playing the game?
We were not able to have any contact with our families from the time we left to when we came back. So the main thing that I saw was how much I love my family and how often we take for granted the few moments we spend with them. When I was away, I wrote down a whole list of things I wanted to do with my kids.
Another thing that really struck me was the level of paranoia that everyone on my tribe lived in. I am not used to being around paranoid people. We have an incredible staff at the Harvest who are very confident and qualified. To be thrust into a tribe of people that were very paranoid and worry about their own fate was not something I was really prepared for. It boils down to learning to understand where a person is coming from.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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