Written by Carolyn Innis
Becoming an outlier in Christian media means taking a few risks.
When Young Once Creator Jon Oleksiuk began the process of casting an eclectic group of young Christians from Southern California for a close-up look at their lives, he knew it would come with some drama – and a unique opportunity for youth discipleship using media.
The cast are far from perfect – and they know it – but they’re choosing to navigate their 20’s with God, even through the messy parts of growing up. And while their actions in the docuseries Young Once reflect the good, bad and ugly moments of “adulting”, it presents a reality-check that the students sitting in the pews at your church are also journeying towards holiness, and that process isn’t often neat and tidy.
Young Once has proved to be something special. With nothing quite like it in faith-based entertainment, it’s attracting an unchurched audience to take a closer look.
“Creating faith-based media that truly connects with teens and young adults is extremely difficult, and therefore left untried,” shares Oleksiuk. “But we (Crossroads) made the show to model Christian life and thinking for a secular millennial audience.”
Set against the backdrop of beach life on the West Coast, the show documents the lives of young Christians as they navigate romantic relationships, school, careers, and explore important questions about how God fits into their lives. It’s a new approach to faith-based media for a new generation: unscripted, honest, highly creative and produced from a Christian worldview.
Young Once’s eight episodes of Season 1 were filmed in 2015 – 2016, at and around Biola University, one of America’s leading Christian liberal arts schools, and followed a group of young adults – sisters Cassie and Michelle Randolph, Caelan Tiongson, Tony Walsh, Robert Carlson, with Cassie quickly becoming an audience favourite.
While relatively unknown, Young Once quickly garnered an enthusiastic niche faith-based audience with its airings on Christian TV networks in Canada and the US. Finally, there was a non-sensual, but non-preachy, series that young people could relate to.
In 2018, Crossroads’ leadership team felt God was leading them to create a second season of the show. Generous donors came on board who believed that the show was unique and compelling, and a distribution plan with Castle TV was put in place; Young Once Season 2 became a reality. But Crossroads didn’t realize how reality TV, specifically one of the most-watched shows on television, “The Bachelor”, would accelerate the show’s timeline.
“We found out that Cassie Randolph was also going to be on an upcoming season of ABC’s The Bachelor,” shares Jon.
Cassie appeared in Season 1 and had just filmed Season 2 when she was cast for the popular reality dating show. Meanwhile, the team at Crossroads went to work trying to understand what the media impact of Cassie’s appearance on the show might be.
“The Bachelor Effect” caused the publicity and interest in Young Once to grow and bring in new audiences. The team was reaching out to fans and influencers of The Bachelor on social media to let them know that there was an important faith story unfolding on Young Once that would provide important context for Cassie’s journey on TV. Within a span of a few days, the story broke in entertainment publications, and more than 65 articles were written about Young Once in publications like People, US Weekly, Newsweek, and ET.
Crossroads released Season 1 of Young Once on YouTube in advance of the Season 2 release. Since that decision, over 9 million minutes of the show have been viewed.
The growing audience is discovering a message in Young Once that God cares about the details of their lives, and while hours of Christian testimony are cut from shows like “The Bachelor,” Young Once is showing audiences reality of life with God in it.
An example of this testimony is a scene in Season 2 between friends Caelan Tiongson (Cassie’s ex-boyfriend) and his mentor, Andre Murillo.
It shows the two men in their 20’s, talking authentically about their struggles with misplacing hope – in romantic relationships, jobs, health and security. Andre gently, but directly, reminds Caelan that he needs to place his hope in Christ first, and goes on to encourage him to pray with his friends and spend time in God’s Word. It doesn’t feel forced. It wasn’t a scripted conversation. It’s a close-up look at young people working out their faith.
“I just wanted a show to reflect the reality of what life is like having God in it, I don’t think you see that anywhere in television for young people,” says Jon. “It’s a message that in your struggles and pain you can have an anchor in God and He will see you through. And that’s what Young Once is. It’s about the pain for a relationship that was breaking down and what you do with that pain.”
Jon believes that viewers will find bits of themselves in the Young Once cast. “They’re going to laugh and enjoy it, but the story is a tragedy until you understand that life isn’t all about romantic relationships, it’s about us and God. And then you’ll see that it isn’t a tragedy at all, but a victorious story of finding that a relationship with your Creator trumps all relationships on earth, but with an admission that it’s hard to understand that reality when you can touch and feel the human next to you, yet God feels distant.”
An honest statement about the realities of young people working out their faith. It’s as real as TV gets.
*Castle is streaming Young Once Season 1 + 2, plus a Bible-study curriculum that takes the series deeper for churches and youth ministries.*