Meet the TikTok Generation of Televangelists

Written by on October 26, 2020

Gabe Poirot runs from the street toward the camera, yelling, “Wait, wait, don’t scroll!”

If the urgency in his voice causes you to pause and watch his video, you’re in for a 60-second blessing. Wearing a pink crewneck sweatshirt with “#MakeJesusViral” emblazoned on the front, he leans deep into the frame. “Let me pray with you today,” he says earnestly, then bows his head and closes his eyes. “Father God, let me just pray for the person on the other end of this phone.”

Poirot, 19, is a student at Kenneth Copeland Bible College who uses the social media app TikTok to share clips of himself preaching short sermons and praying for his audience. TikTok feeds users a constant stream of one-minute-or-less videos via its “For You” page, making it easy for them to skip the ones that don’t catch their attention within the first few seconds.

While much of TikTok is devoted to less-than-youth-group-friendly content—like dances to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and videos of users walking into rooms naked to film their partners’ reactions—Poirot’s content rests in a subgenre known as “christian TikTok” (or, as rapper Kanye West suggested, “Jesus Tok”). christian TikTok influencers publish sermonettes, cleaned-up versions of trending dance challenges, best Bible study practices, and even tutorials on how to stretch without participating in the Hindu elements of yoga. And many of the young content creators are on a mission: to spark revival among Generation Z—those born in the late 1990s through the early 2010s.

At the beginning of 2020, TikTok set the record as the most downloaded app in one quarter; to date, it’s been downloaded over 2 billion times worldwide. Part of the app’s popularity among contributors is its algorithm, which suggests new videos based on users’ history and preferences. It can vault the average video onto the screens of TikTok’s 700 million monthly active users, launching the careers of aspiring social media influencers.

The app has been controversial, not only because of concerns that the Chinese government uses it to collect data on Americans, but also because it has haphazardly spread videos such as a girl documenting her abortion and a man filming his suicide. But Poirot (@gabe_poirot2) and other christian TikTok creators hope to leverage the easy virality for the sake of evangelism.

Gabe Poirot.

Image: Courtesy Gabe Poirot

Gabe Poirot.

The app seems to be rewarding their efforts. Poirot’s two accounts, where he posts videos with captions like “ITS TIME FOR CHRISTIANS TO UNITE” spelled out in bright, eye-catching red, cater to a combined following of 556,100 users. His audience is young: One study indicated that in 2019, 41 percent of TikTok users were between the ages of 16 to 24; other reports show TikTok has roughly 18 million daily users in the US under the age of 14.

If TikTok is fostering the next generation of populist preachers, they share a lot in common with their predecessors: wide smiles and amped-up personas, along with a keen awareness of the rules of medium in which their message lives. And like sawdust trail preachers and televangelists of old, christian TikTok stars must contend with accusations of false teaching and strike a balance between self-promotion and proclamation.

From the beginning, religious broadcasters fought to “compete for the hearts and minds of the nation,” wrote sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Although broadcasting corporations initially saw evangelical programs as more work than they were worth, prosperity gospel preachers like Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker soon dominated airwaves and created an entire industry of televangelism.

Today, when virtually every prominent pastor and Bible teacher has an online following, grassroots christian video influencers more commonly take the form of lifestyle vloggers. Atlanta wedding videographers Nate and Sutton Eisenman’s YouTube channel, for example, features christian dating advice and footage of their world travels, attracting more subscribers than Beth Moore’s Living Proof Ministries or Tim Keller’s sermon channel. christian TikTok stars see the populist potential of their platform as an untapped means for revival—part of a longstanding evangelical tendency “to diagnose where is culture moving, what is going to be the most influential, and then just jump into that,” according to Candy Gunther Brown, who studies evangelicalism at Indiana University.

When Poirot first started making TikToks in April, he didn’t take it seriously; he mostly just posted christian comedy content. Then one of his videos accrued 50,000 views overnight.

“The thought came to my heart and it really struck me,” he said. “I’m not out here to be famous for myself. I want to make Jesus viral.”

The hashtag #MakeJesusViral was born, and Poirot began creating more evangelistic videos. He created a 40-part series on why “Everyone Deserves Hell” and often begins his clips with questions like “What if you stopped scrolling for 60 seconds and it changed your life?”

Poirot told CT that the Billy Graham crusades motivated his thirst for revival. He watched Graham videos when he was younger and was inspired by how Graham’s crusades helped “give Christians a place to bring their friends.” As the coronavirus pandemic limits in-person outreach, he thinks tools like TikTok could have a unique role in evangelizing the unchurched.

But Graham isn’t Poirot’s only inspiration. He also cited the traditional marketing funnel as his strategy for online outreach. Similar to how sellers encourage people to buy a product by generating awareness and buy-in, Poirot uses his TikTok videos to drive people to his lengthier YouTube livestreams. On Wednesday and Sunday nights, hundreds of eager kids around the world tune in to sing praise songs, listen to him preach, and recite a prayer of repentance along with him at the end.

“If you prayed that prayer for the first time,” Poirot said during one of his streams, “comment ‘First.’ If you prayed that prayer for the second, third, or fourth or fifth, just say, ‘Recommit.’ ” He then counts these comments to gauge how many people have been saved through his meetings and posts the number of conversions online.

Poirot’s social media presence across platforms isn’t unique. TikTok enables users to link their Instagram and YouTube accounts to their TikTok profiles, and many creators encourage their audiences to follow them in multiple places—giving them a more stable online persona and more ways to publish longer-form content that can be monetized.

This past summer, Poirot ran a TikTok collective called Carry Christ, comprising himself and more than 10 volunteers who helped create and promote videos. The Carry Christ account gained over 100,000 followers in four months; the hashtag #MakeJesusViral has garnered over 253.5 million views.

But virality doesn’t equal virtue. Within the fanfare lies a bitter cacophony: Poirot is one of many christian TikTok personalities facing accusations of being a “false teacher.” For instance, in a now-deleted video called “God Doesn’t Send Anyone to Hell Part Twenty-Five,” Poirot claims that “God sends people to heaven, not hell.” Dissenters commented “FALSE TEACHER WARNING” and “this is false bro.”

When CT asked about the video, Poirot said he had made a mistake and his title was unclear. His intent was to reach people who wanted to know why God sends people to hell. Jesus has “given an opportunity for every person to come to heaven,” Poirot said, but some people “deny the free gift


of salvation.”

Accusations of false teaching—which sometimes mirror broader theological disagreements within the church—are not uncommon. Hailey Serrano (@haileyjulia_) made a video calling out a TikTok creator who claimed that people needed to be water baptized to go to heaven. One user said he saw a profile of a man who claims to be the Messiah.

But even with the criticism against him, Poirot doesn’t begrudge his critics their opinions.

“A lot of people will screen record one of their videos and then say their two thoughts on it,” he said, referring to the different editing functions on TikTok that allow users to record their “reactions” to other people’s videos. “Which is cool—actually just brings more traffic to the page.”

T

here are a lot of false teachers on TikTok,” said Peter Park (@bibleflexguy), 40, an elder at Lighthouse Bible Church in San Jose, California, who makes apologetics videos in his spare time. As a marketing professional and a parent, he started his TikTok account last year in an effort to understand the platform.

“The fastest way to grow on TikTok is to buy into the emotional, and the [christian accounts] that are the most popular on TikTok are the ones that pray over you,” Park said. “Those tend to be, I think, ultimately the most dangerous ones, but those are the ones that usually shoot up to over 500,000 [or] over a million followers fairly quickly.”

Park thinks the popularity of these videos motivates people to make more of them. Such appeals to emotionalism find their roots in the early days of American Christianity, particularly during the two Great Awakenings that served as waves of “spiritual revival.” Charles Finney, a leader during the Second Great Awakening and the “father of American revivalism,” engineered a methodology of revivalist technique that emphasized creating the right spiritual environment for conversion. In “What a Revival of Religion Is,” he wrote:

Men are so sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the Gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles. They must be so aroused that they will break over these counteracting influences, before they will obey God.

The techniques that Finney pioneered—music, advertising, and the altar call—won him many converts. They also provoked criticism that extends to today. In her book Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey challenges Christians to think more biblically about the marketing tactics they use, both in terms of fundraising and evangelism. She advocates for treating people as “made in the image of God, not a mass of emotions to be manipulated.”

“Though Christians would never accept naturalism as a philosophy,” she writes, “many have absorbed a naturalistic approach to marketing, adopting techniques that treat a target audience essentially as passive ‘consumers’ to be manipulated into buying a ‘product.’ ”

Poirot, however, doesn’t see his ministry in this light—despite his now-deleted Carry Christ GoFundMe page, and a merchandise website that sells hashtag hoodies for $40. Other christian creators sell merch, like Jana Jaye (@janatiktoks), who recently announced that she was selling T-shirts and accepting Venmo donations to raise money for her college tuition, room, and board.

“When I say marketing, the purpose of me preaching the gospel and having a funnel is not to claim the impact of reach,” Poirot said. It’s to offer seekers more ways to go deeper in faith. “The purpose is so that they can learn more in every moment, so that they can gain more learning and understanding.”

A

s with blogs and other forms of online discipleship, a major challenge for TikTok is that no one is really guiding that learning and understanding. christian TikTok is not a church.

As COVID-19 has forced many places of worship to shift to holding online services, Park is concerned about the blurred lines between online church services and the “TikTok church” livestreams and Bible studies that some creators host over Zoom.

“Ultimately, those aren’t real churches,” Park said. “There’s going to be more and more Christians that call themselves ‘christian’ that won’t ever be a member of a physical local church. But they’ll be part of these types of social networks. And they’ll be receiving some truth in these videos and they’ll go pick and choose what they want to watch on YouTube.”

Park isn’t the only one who’s concerned. Elijah Lamb (@elijah.lamb), 17, began making TikToks as a joke in 2019. He later began making apologetics videos and sharing his testimony with his 669,000 followers. (He’s currently creating a 66-part series on the books in the Bible.) Lamb said that although the app has given him the opportunity to build a lot of friendships, the community lacks a church’s governing authority.

“No one’s the president of christian TikTok,” he said, “so it’s hard to maintain order.” Anyone can download TikTok and begin preaching on it, a freedom that hearkens to America’s trademark religious populism.

“Religious populism, reflecting the passions of ordinary people and the charisma of democratic movement-builders, remains among the oldest and deepest impulses in American life,” writes Nathan O. Hatch in The Democratization of American Christianity. With the birth of America, emphases on the dismantling of tradition and the sovereignty of the people resulted in a crisis of authority that ripped apart the fabric of society, including the hierarchical structure of the church. Laymen began preaching, often offending traditionally trained ministers; the most extreme populist preachers claimed that “divine insight was reserved for the poor and humble rather than the proud and learned.” A fundamental flip in authority granted power to anyone with a Bible and a voice.

Elijah Lamb.

Image: Courtesy Elijah Lamb

Elijah Lamb.

Populist preaching lives on in the digital age. Even though TikTok has been praised for the way that it can make anyone be a star, Lamb noted that the free-for-all nature of the app made it “easy for [christian TikTok] to split apart.” Creators have the license to say and do whatever they want—a liberty that provides a diversity of viewpoints and cultivates an atmosphere of creativity but also engenders a sort of recklessness in word and deed.

But while Park believes that TikTok presents a lot of dangers, he isn’t worried about all young evangelists. “I think a lot of the younger ones, like Gen Z, they’re doing it just for fun. They’re doing it to make friends,” he said. “We need to correct but also encourage.”

Despite concerns about the app’s Wild West atmosphere, there are plenty who fear that TikTok videos are, in fact, being controlled. Religion Unpluggedreported in May that some christian influencers have claimed that TikTok “shadow bans” christian voices, a practice in which a social media platform covertly removes or refuses to circulate certain videos.

“There was one point where we all felt like we couldn’t even put Jesus in our captions because TikTok would pick up on it and not put the video out there,” said 22-year-old Aatiqah Wright (@uhteakuh). Wright said that while normally she would get 15,000 views in two minutes, the shadow ban made it so that she’d get a thousand views in an hour.

Shadow banning claims aren’t unique to Christians. Last year, the Guardianreported that TikTok banned depictions of alcohol consumption, figures of Jesus, and LGBT content in Turkey. Slate also reported last December that the app admitted to limiting videos created by users who looked like they would be “susceptible to bullying,” including disabled and overweight people.

Perhaps the biggest crisis christian TikTok faces, however, is the uncertainty of the app’s future. TikTok, which is currently owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, made headlines over concerns that it was sharing user data with the Chinese government. These concerns culminated in August, when President Trump issued an executive order banning TikTok from the US if it was not sold to an American company. In September, Walmart and tech company Oracle announced they would become part owners of TikTo

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