In a television landscape filled with can’t-miss flops and out-of-the-blue hits, The American Bible Challenge—launching its third season tonight on GSN—may be one of the most improbable hits of all. For two straight seasons, this explicitly Bible-based game show has been the cable channel’s highest-rated program.
And according to host Jeff Foxworthy, it’s not just folks who appreciate Sunday school who watch the thing, either.
“People are like, ‘Well, I don’t really go to church, but I kinda like that Bible Challenge show you do,'” he told me recently.
Foxworthy shot to fame as that “You Might Be a Redneck” comedian, then became a popular game show host with Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? He’s also a committed Christian who, for several years, has led a Bible study at an Atlanta-area homeless mission. But initially he wasn’t so sure he wanted to host a Christian game show.
What happened? Read on, my friend, to discover what changed his mind—and to learn what the comedian thinks the Bible is really about.
Paul Asay: So this is your third year hosting The American Bible Challenge. How do you keep refreshed and energized to do this show?
Jeff Foxworthy: I like people, so that part of it is easy. And I like people’s stories. But at the end of last year, we kind of sat down and said, “OK, what are we doing well, what are we not, what do we need to do better?”
And I think one of the things that we do well is, if you’re on the outside looking in and you had a preconceived notion of what you thought a Christian looked like, you turn on our show and you think, Well, I was wrong about that. It’s nuns playing against tattoo artists, motorcycle gangs, cowboys, and that’s deliberate. That’s the show [saying], “Hey, this is for everybody.”
One of the things that I thought we could do better, and we worked on it this year, was to make the stories of these people, and how they’re loving on people in their communities, more personal. Instead of just saying, “OK, we’re playing for the American Cancer Society,” it’s like, “Why don’t we do something in your community, make this more of a more intimate, personal thing?” And hopefully we’ve told those stories better this year.
PA: That’s one of the things that makes the show so special, isn’t it? These people are raising money for charities that really mean something to the contestants. It’s not about lining pockets, but doing good.
JF: When they approached me about doing [the show], I had to go away and think about it. When I came back, I said, “I’ll do it if people don’t keep the money.” The only people Jesus got sideways with were the Pharisees that had all this head knowledge but they had no heart knowledge. If these people are giving the money away and loving on somebody else, that’s heart knowledge. If you’re on the outside, faith being talked about gets boring pretty quickly. But faith you can see, that’s interesting. That’s what I want this to be, is faith you can see.
PA: Yeah, I like that. But I’d imagine that there were some other aspects of this gig you had to think about, too. I mean, you’re doing a game show based on, and having a little fun with, the Bible. That seems like it could get tricky.
JF: I jokingly say that I don’t want to be in line at hell, looking up and [saying to St. Peter], “It was the game show, right?” I told my wife that I’ll probably catch some grief for this, but I probably won’t catch it from the secular community. It’ll be somebody from the faith-based community saying, “You can’t do a game show, or you can’t have fun, or you can’t make jokes.” And the pleasant surprise is that there’s been none of that. Not one time. And I was shocked by that.
I’ve been a Christian since I was 7, but I got a weird job, and I’m wired a little weird. And I used to struggle with that. …. I used to think, Boy, I just can’t go a straight line like that. And it took a long time for me to understand that God was kind of like, “I know. I didn’t wire you like that. I wired you differently.”
I kinda like that very idea of being the hands and feet. It’s, you know, Where would Jesus be hanging out? He’d be hanging out in the homeless mission with the addicts and the drunks, and so to me, that’s where it becomes interesting. I love church on Sunday morning. But I love it down there [in the homeless mission] even more. And if I had to pick between the two, there’d be no question where I’d be.
I think God loves restoring broken things. And so when you take somebody whose life has been so broken and you help walk with them through it to be reunited with their family and being able to get a job and being able to put down the bottle or the pipe or whatever demon they’ve got … that’s cool. You’re helping to breathe life into somebody.
PA: Do non-Christians watch this show, you think?
JF: Surprisingly, yes. People are like, “Well, I don’t really go to church, but I kinda like that Bible Challenge show you do.” Because I think everybody knows a little about this stuff. It’s like Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader—you may not know the 5th-grade questions, but you know the 1st- and 2nd-grade questions. And I think the thing that really attracts outsiders to [American Bible Challenge] is just seeing these stories about, Why would somebody do that? These people are doing these things, feeding people out their back doors, whether they’re on our show or not. So to go tell those stories, I think to somebody on the outside, it’s like a perfume. It’s like, “Why would somebody do that?” It becomes really interesting.
PA: When you think about the legacy of The American Bible Challenge, whether it goes on for a couple more years or 20, what do you hope it’ll look like?
JF: Somebody said to me one time that the Bible was a book of rules, and I’m like, “Nah, man, it’s a love story. It’s like the greatest love story.” And so to be able to show that, to show the people who have read it and contemplated it and meditated on it, and that’s what they took away from it, was they understood that they were so loved, that they can’t help but love on other people, you wouldn’t expect that out of your everyday game show, and that’s pretty cool.