The plot is as trite as a made-for-TV movie: A teenager goes to Hollywood, openly professes Christ, and acts in over-the-top family-friendly sitcoms. Soon money and fame roll in with record and movie deals. His face decorates the backpacks of 12-year-olds. Then like clockwork he outgrows his fans and wants to prove himself as an artist. He takes on risqué roles, gets involved in the party scene, and gets arrested. Parents are crushed and ban their kids from following him.
Which leads to the question: Can Christians make it in the entertainment industry?
Ten years ago, Tanya Harper would have said no. The homeschool mom of three banned cable TV and secular music from her house. She kept her children involved with their church in Orange County, Calif. Her kids only interacted with unbelievers at extracurricular activities–dance, community theater, karate practice.
But when I recently asked her the question, Harper said, “They can. I’m seeing it with my son,” referring to her 20-year-old son, Shane, who acts on the Disney Channel and released his first album last year. “But it’s not like it’s not a battle, because it is. Every step of the way [God] is ministering things to us.”
She says the battle is against the everyday temptations of life—success, pride, and hedonism—magnified by the bright lights of Hollywood. And so the solutions are also familiar: studying the Bible, listening to good teaching, staying together as a family, finding a church community, and praying for wisdom.
Talent scouts first discovered Shane Harper at a regional dance competition when he was 13. Tanya reacted with fear for her son that was “nearly debilitating.” Part of that fear, she said, came from isolating her children so much that “we had forgotten how to relate to people who were not exactly like us.” But friends had recently introduced her and her husband to Reformed pastors who stressed Christians influencing culture. She started to realize it wasn’t an us-versus-them mentality, but that everyone needed the gospel.
Shane accepted the agent. His first few gigs centered around dancing, including a spot on Disney Channel’s High School Musical 2. Every week Tanya and Shane would make the one-and-a-half-hour drive to Hollywood, listening to Tim Keller sermons on the way. Over the years they listened to hundreds of sermons. “That was God equipping us for work,” Shane said.
Differences between Hollywood and Shane’s sheltered childhood appeared quickly: He remembers his stylist cussing up a storm as she fitted him his first day on the job, and being offered alcohol at a party when he was 14. The realities of being a child actor set him apart from most kids: He worked while others his age hung out with friends. He had to deal with constant rejection from casting directors. The roller coaster of emotions forced him to think through the theology of his work, and he began taking online classes at Moody Institute.
Shane picked up more acting roles, guest-starring in shows like Zoey 101 before landing a recurring guest spot on Disney’s Good Luck Charlie in 2010. He played the on-again, off-again boyfriend of the main character, played by Bridgit Mendler. Without a contract with Disney, Shane had time to pursue other projects like independent Christian movies and a pop music career. The whole Harper family moved to Los Angeles so Shane could be closer to work.
While sex, drugs, and alcohol are the trinity of temptations for young actors in Hollywood, Shane said his biggest struggle is pride: “The industry is all about you, and it’s very difficult to subdue your own self-interest on the job or in everyday social interactions. Everyone’s selling a product in Hollywood and it’s usually themselves.”
Between the constant branding and celebrity culture—his young female fans call themselves “Harpions” and follow his every move on social media—Shane finds that resisting narcissism is a daily struggle that can only be overcome by reorienting his perspective: “It starts with a personal relationship [with Jesus] and asking for the grace of God to affect everything in your life from the inside out … I think doing it for the glory of God is the only way to rectify the issue.”
His family helps keep him grounded. While on tour, Shane spends his off-time listening to the same sermon podcasts as his family listens to back home. They discuss the roles Shane plans on accepting and what it looks like for him to love those with whom he works. “As a team, as a family we’re always reminding each other, ‘Are you approaching this from superiority complex or in a humble way?’” Shane said.
At times loving others means serving the people on set, which is unexpected for entertainers. Sometimes it’s being ready to engage in conversations on spiritual topics.
He started talking to his Good Luck Charlie co-star Mendler about faith at the beginning of their friendship. They continued the conversation for two years, with Shane using the apologetics and theology he was studying, before she came to profess Christ. The two are now dating and attend church together.
While Shane has acted in “faith-based” films, including God Isn’t Dead, where he played a college student debating his atheist professor about the existence of God, he doesn’t want to stay in a Christian subculture. He chooses roles based on the narrative of the story rather than the character itself, looking for stories with redemptive value.
Recently he landed a part on MTV’s Awkward, which he doesn’t advise his Disney audience to watch. He chose the role for its dignified portrayal of a student with Asperger’s—which Shane’s younger brother has. Still he doesn’t know how the story arc will end up, but trusts God in his decision: “I can try and protect myself as much as I can in terms of what people think, but if I do that, I’m going to miss out on maybe the biggest ministry I could ever have.”
Tanya recognizes her son had an easier time than the typical Disney star since he isn’t in the spotlight as much. But looking at fellow actors who have fallen off the pedestal, Shane suggests that children and parents shouldn’t have put them there: “There’s a lot of pressure when you grow up in front of a lot of people, especially if you make this great proclamation of faith, and they sometimes overdo that. … Jesus should be the role model.”