Evangelical Christianity and the Internet
You don’t have to be a born-again Christian to have heard about Justin Bieber’s newfound relationship with God, or about the celebrity pastor, Carl Lentz, who took him—and Kylie and Kendall Jenner—under his wing. After all, Lentz’s average Instagram photo of Bieber has over 80,000 likes. It’s a little less likely you’d have heard of the megachurch pastor’s fall from grace, and you might very well have to be an evangelical teen searching for a “Godly” soulmate to have encountered the more niche of lay evangelical preachers, often young adults filming videos from their living rooms and posting them on YouTube. But from celebrity pastors to small-time influencers, evangelicalism in the United States is in the middle of a concerted rebranding designed to draw in millennials and Zoomers. And it’s working.
Carl Lentz, with his entourage of celebrities from NBA player Tyson Chandler to pop star Selena Gomez, is probably the most easily recognisable celebrity pastor of millennial crowds. He’s been featured in outlets like the New York Times, The Cut, GQ, and ABC News. Even after his 2020 dismissal from Hillsong Pentecostal for “moral failings” (i.e., cheating on his wife), Lentz still has over 600,000 followers on Instagram who can be seen asking (nay, begging) for his return to preaching in the comments on his photos. Lentz has muscles and tattoos; he wears oversized glasses, skinny jeans, and flat brim baseball caps. Watch his interview on The View and you’ll see how, with his impish grin, he can turn on the charm … but you’ll also see how coy he gets about his stance on abortion or the LGBTQ community. Lentz looks liberal, but not far underneath the surface lurks a dangerous conservative agenda. And Lentz is far from the only evangelical pastor to have cultivated a devoted (and numerous) flock of youngsters, both in person and online.
Rapper and pastor Marcus Rogers has 180,000 Instagram followers, almost 600,000 YouTube subscribers, and almost 1 million Facebook followers. A clean-cut young Black man with an impressive beard and confident public speaking skills, Rogers comes across as … pretty cool. It’s therefore a bit of a surprise to learn that he desired—and prophesied—that Donald Trump would win the 2020 election. In seeming contrast, he’s also released songs such as “Door of Adonai” with vaguely anti-racist messaging (“We want Chicago to know all are welcome in the Kingdom. There is no discrimination” reads the YouTube descrption). Puzzlingly, the video features Black Chigagoans toting automatic rifles … for God’s war. In another twist, Rogers’s most popular uploads on YouTube include a video about how the COVID vaccine will be used to insert microchips into our arms and another that refers to a trans person with the dehumanising use of “transgender” as a noun (“Transgender Goes Off on GameSstop Employee”).
Rogers demonstrates many of the hallmarks of this new, social media-savvy evangelism that turns out to be the same old regressive politics dressed up in a slicker, cooler outfit. Rogers picks and chooses a few progressive issues to support; for example, he demonstrates some suspicion of the police and some sympathy for anti-racist activists. He references Edward Snowden, a controversial figure to the mainstream but often applauded by both the “alt-left” and alt-right. However, he uses this vaguely liberal appearance to introduce conservative beliefs: a mistrust of the state sets the groundwork for doubting the existence of COVID, for example. He is also explicit about his backwards stances on the trans and queer communities. “But he’s a rapper!” you might think. While not all rappers are necessarily known for their progressive gender politics, you could surely be forgiven for suspecting Rogers to have more liberal views than he does. And that’s on purpose.
Rogers also demonstrates the hallmarks of the longer tradition of evangelism. Like many historical evangelical preachers, Rogers does not have an extensive formal education. He completed just one year of undergraduate study and did not attend a divinity school. He has a home church in Chicago, Firehouse, where he now preaches regularly, and he built his following in the classic evangelical mode: preaching on the streets. This lack of education might paint Rogers as a social outsider, particularly to the elite, but he’s a military brat as well as a military veteran. It doesn’t get much more Wonderbread American than that, right?
There’s also a whole category of mega-rich megachurch pastors. From old school televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, who travel by private jet, to massively prolific book-writing preachers like John Hageeand and Joel Osteen, who live on multi-million dollar estates, evangelical pastors seem to have taken to heart the idea that God celebrates his disciples with prosperity. Pastor Pat Robertson, whose net worth is estimated to be thirty million dollars, literally owns a diamond mining company. The Instagram account PreachersNSneakers, which has over a quarter of a million followers, is devoted to documenting the lavish lifestyles of megachurch pastors, posting photos of the designer kicks pastors sport as well as their prices and resale values. And it’s no coincidence the pastors wear Yeezy sneakers and not dress shoes. In the Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports:
The Rev. Melech Thomas, who was born in Baltimore and now pastors an AME church near Raleigh, N.C., said he started attending a Black church in the 1990s, when all the pastors wore black suits. He watched as a generation of young Black male youth pastors began trying to reach a hip-hop generation by wearing jeans and Jordans.
“First it was a theological statement,” Thomas said. “Now it’s a statement of status.”
Hip-hop scholar Michael Eric Dyson writes in his 2010 book Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip Hop:
the hip hop community has become a dominant African American institution. Where young black Americans once turned primarily to the church—and to the civil rights leaders that the church produced—to articulate their hopes, frustrations, and daily tribulations, it is fast becoming men like Jay-Z and Nas, and women like Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill, who best vocalize the struggle of growing up black and poor in this country.
Originally the purview of Black and Latinx South Bronx youth, hip-hop is now the most popular music genre in the United States. According to Revolt’s Milca Pierre 66 percent of young people consider hip hop artists to be the most influential political voices of our time, while 49 percent say hip hop is the first place they learn about politics. To appeal to the youth, it makes absolute sense for pastors to dress like rappers.
One much-discussed (and much harangued) hallmark of hip-hop culture is consumerism. In the context of Black history in the United States, Black culture has used conspicuous consumption to defy racism and demonstrate Black people’s full citizenship. However, when mainstream culture begins using Black cultural symbols outside of their original context, those symbols lose the historicity that forms part of their definition. Jay Z’s Jordans might symbolise a resistance to racial capitalism, but Pastor Ron Carpenter’s Pradas sure don’t. Already notorious for its close ties with big business, the marriage of the evangelical church with a hip-hop ethos that appears consumerist when devoid of its cultural context is a profitable one.
Evangelical pastors look increasingly like celebrities, from their fashion choices to their social media followings to the company they keep. All of this is fairly common knowledge. What you might not know, though, is how the intersection of the celebrity culture that evangelism fosters and the way that social media encourages us all to think of ourselves as miniature celebrities has spawned a whole gig economy of born-again influencers. As Alexandra Samuel details in “With Social Media, Everyone’s A Celebrity” for JSTOR Daily, we used to closely observe the minutiae of the lives of only celebrities—indeed, this close public scrutiny of personal habits is arguably the defining feature of celebrity. Now, the online broadcasting of the dull intricacies of our own lives on social media has made “the problem of celebrity into a mass phenomenon.” By the power of YouTube or Instagram, an ordinary person can develop her own cult following, which is a perfect storm if you’re looking to become a lay evangelical minister.
It’s easy to zoom in on actual celebrity pastors. They’re in limelight so bright even heathens like me can see them. Even more interesting, however, are those influencers tap-dancing right around the edge of the spotlight. As evidenced by Lentz’s removal from Hillsong’s staff after his extra-marital affair came to light, pastors and churches are at some point accountable to their congregations. Small-time influencers, meanwhile, harnessing the reach that social media can grant them, can gather a following with more extreme or controversial views. In the past, those who held “fringe views” may truly have existed on the fringes of society, never gathering into a group large enough to form a critical mass. However, with the power of the internet to eliminate geographic limits on the formation of community, formerly fringe individuals can form cohesive groups online. They can form a large enough group to support an extremist Patreon account or to view videos enough times to keep YouTube content creators financially afloat. This particular ability of the internet to amalgamate niche groups is how the world of small-time evangelical influencers could become so truly batty.
So evangelical social media influencers are thriving. In just the year or so that I’ve been digging in this rabbit warren, many have increased their followings by half again. These lay preachers are evangelizing even more effectively than the churches themselves. While these social media accounts’ followings are growing, there’s actually an overall decrease in the proportion of Americans who identify as evangelicals, according to Pew Research.
In case you haven’t had reason to prod around the online Christian influencer world, let me introduce you to an intriguing and surprisingly robust corner of the internet—as rich with alliances, feuds, and intrigue as a season of Game of Thrones. YouTube accounts with anywhere from one hundred thousand subscribers to millions will advise you on the hot topics of how the Enneagram personality test is the devil’s work to the questionable morality of Christian memes. YouTube is the home base for many of these influencers, due to twin perils of this particular platform. First, the YouTube recommendation algorithm encourages the viewing of similar but more extreme content. Furthermore, for a long while YouTube did less to regulate misinformation than did the other tech platforms, allowing for the proliferation of right-wing channels on YouTube while they were booted off other sites. This combination of a right-wing milieu and the push towards more extreme content means that the conservative videos became mutually reinforcing.
The characters in the telenovela that is Christian YouTube exchange snarky response videos to one another’s content, produce cross-over editions with influencers they agree with, and post take-down videos like diss tracks. The strangest part of the viewing experience is the contrast between the visual appearance of the influencers (often young, attractive, hip) and the wildly regressive opinions they spout (e.g., no holding hands before marriage, COVID is a hoax, vaccines are made with dead baby parts). Girl Defined, a blonde evangelical sister duo “helping Christian women discover what it means to become girls defined by God,” have amounted 159,000 subscribers and post peppy videos about the perils of pornography, the sin of masturbation, and how to break up with your non-Christian boyfriend. Morgan, from the evangelical couple channel Paul and Morgan, which has 144,000 subscribers, sometimes joins Girl Defined in videos like “Unfulfilled Longings and Unanswered Prayers” and “Sexual Past: How to Tell a Godly Guy.” Paul and Morgan are a young, attractive, Christian couple who come across as fun-loving millennials you might see eating avocado toast in Brooklyn, recounting the escapades of the night that went before. That is, until they reveal their views on vaccines, masks, modesty, and gay people. In contrast and, depending on your own politics, either the antagonist or the white knight of evangelical YouTube is the channel God is Grey, created by Brenda Marie Davies a pro-sex, science-affirming, LGBTQ-affirming Christian with 138,000 subscribers. She makes responses to all the evangelical videos, debunking misinformation on everything from how birth control works (God is in fact not adequate birth control!) to whether masturbation is even mentioned in the Bible.
The drama and intrigue of Christian YouTube is certainly part of the appeal of watching, even for an infidel such as myself. In the New York Times, Kevin Roose reports of other right-wing YouTube channels:
These people weren’t all shouty demagogues. They were entertainers, building their audience with satirical skits, debates and interviews with like-minded creators. Some of them were part of the alt-right, a loose cohort of pro-Trump activists who sandwiched white nationalism between layers of internet sarcasm. Others considered themselves “alt-lite,” or merely antiprogressive …
Few of them had overt ties to establishment conservative groups, and there was little talk about tax cuts or trade policy on their channels. Instead, they rallied around issues like free speech and antifeminism, portraying themselves as truth-telling rebels doing battle against humorless “social justice warriors.” Their videos felt like episodes in a long-running soap opera, with a constant stream of new heroes and villains.
Evangelical YouTube follows a very similar structure, enticing viewers with videos about dating as a Christian and, from the vantage point of marriage, answering questions about sex, but then loading their videos with an unhealthy dose of anti-vax, deep-state, voter-fraud, Capitol-insurrectionist politics. Then, they turn up the drama among the channels, increase the density of connections in this particular part of the web, and keep their viewers hooked using the same old tricks of reality TV. Evangelicals aren’t just good at YouTube; they’re masters of the technology.
Similarly, on Instagram, young Christian singles, couples, and entire families will alternate between posting photos of their exotic (mid-COVID) vacations and photos from church services. Hannah Janel Williamson, an adorable little brunette who has about 18,000 Instagram followers and is a friend of Paul and Morgan, right after posting a photo of herself posing in a cactus garden, posted a photo reel of people lying face down on the ground, which she captioned:
Gen Z is statistically the most depressed, suicidal, & anxious generation out of any generation so far.
We will no longer be known as the most suicidal and depressed generation. We need PENTECOSTAL FIRE.
You think cute Sunday morning only Christianity is going to set them free?
CHURCH, get into your prayer closets and out of the 4 walls of the church building!! Stop the plasticity, platform seeking, celebrity Christianity, & watered down truth. GEN Z DOESN’T NEED NOR WANT IT.
Williamson, who describes herself as a Revivalist YouTuber, makes several clever moves in this caption. She makes it clear that her kind of Christianity is catered towards the younger generation: she speaks their language, she’s on their platform, and she’s looking out for them. According to former evangelical Bri Jurries, the manner in which Williamson references the mental health struggles that Gen Z is genuinely afflicted with contributes to the narrative of Christian persecution that evangelicals propagate, often citing John 15:19-20:
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.
Instead of exploring worldly causes for this rise in mental health troubles—the oft-cited source of anxiety among Gen Z being climate change, for example—Williamson demands a more engaging and encompassing kind of Christianity, one that goes beyond the church building. She demands the kind of Christianity that would need a prayer closet, a private place in which to seek a one-on-one relationship with God rather than a communal or text-based one. Perhaps it’s even the kind of Christianity that would show up all over social media, so that there’s truly no place where the gospel is not being preached. Williamson disavows celebrity Christians even as she herself is becoming one. Even though Williamson appears to call for a radical change, a new kind of Christianity, she is in reality calling for a return to evangelical tradition.
It’s not just YouTube and Instagram. Evangelical influencers are truly on every social media platform, from Twitter to Facebook, from Patreon to Discord. I was initially surprised (and fascinated and amused) to find this social media-savvy batch of young Christians giving their testimony and sharing thoughts about God across the internet. But evangelicals have always gone to where the people are and spoken in their language. Rather than representing innovation, evangelical social media accounts demonstrate conservatism not only in the viewpoints they espouse but also in their mode of exposition.
Although evangelism can be traced back to Christianity’s deepest roots—as a proselytizing religion, it almost has to be evangelist—the origins of evangelical Christianity are usually traced to the First Great Awakening, which spread across Britain and her colonies in the 1730s and 40s. With the object of including all people, regardless of race, gender, or social status, in North America, evangelicalism was responsible for the conversion of many enslaved Africans and free Blacks to Christianity, hence today’s general diversity in megachurch crowds. With its focus on personal conversion and internal salvation, the new evangelical Christianity both proffered and required a more personal relationship with God, and the preachers of the day spoke in the terms of their respective congregations. Furthermore, the Great Awakening saw the rise of the itinerant preacher, first in England and then across the North American colonies in such figures as George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and James Davenport. The established clergy often criticised these travelling preachers for their emotionalism and lack of formal education. The itinerant ministers were usually not ordained and had not attended university, let alone divinity school, but they claimed they felt called by God to share their ministry. Our evangelical social media influencers fall squarely into this tradition, only they can travel by digital means rather than solely physical ones now.
This transformation of the itinerant minister has happened several times over as new technologies have opened up new soap boxes. In frontier America, the Methodist church developed a formal program of circuit riders, ministers whom a bishop would appoint to an area settlers were colonising and who would ride on horseback from settlement to settlement, preaching wherever there was space: a church, a home, a street corner. Then with the rise of railroads in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Baptists (as well as Episcopals and Catholics) established chapel cars, essentially churches on wheels, to conduct services all the way across the West, as far as the railroads would go. And of course the advent of first radio and then television in the twentieth century led to the prominence of televangelists such as S. Parks Cadman on radio and Jimmy Swaggart and Marcus Lamb on television. These televangelists helped to create the image of the mega-rich celebrity pastor, with Marcus Lamb, for example, establishing the Christian TV network Daystar Television Network, reported to be worth $230 million, and cultivating a burgeoning net worth of his own estimated at $10 million.
This history of both celebrity preachers and lay preaching among evangelicals places both big-time and small-time evangelical social media influencers into a storied tradition of the church. Hypocritical as Christian ministers sporting $5,000 designer sneakers might seem, they’re using fashion as a code to reach prospective parishioners. Surprising as a cool couple’s calls to avoid making out before marriage might seem to me, they’re using the visual language of their appearance to communicate that they are like me. That I could be like them.
It’s dangerous because it’s working. These channels are gaining followers in a time when evangelical Christianity on the whole is losing adherents. It’s dangerous because their views go beyond whether a woman should wear a bikini or not. They extend to whether people should take the vaccine, whether a sac of cells trumps a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, whether gay people can have sex or find love. Evangelicals are a well-organised and deeply conservative voting bloc (just look to the Supreme Court), and it appears they have no plans to decrease their political influence or change their stances on long held opinions. They’re suiting up for a battle for millennial and Zoomer hearts and minds, only those suits are now $700 Nikes and Saint Laurent fanny packs. And that battle—for your eternal soul, no less—is going to be fought on the internet.