It seems like churches that see the writing on the wall are trying their best to shift into what they believe is coming next. With the pandemic, many congregations dipped their toes in the digital pool and noticed that digital spaces and social media platforms are gathering real community. We can deny the Holy Spirit is moving through these platforms. Or we can recognize we have a lot to learn about how beloved communities are forming now and the God who refuses to abandon them.
Numbers tell the story so let me share about one social media platform whose numbers are blowing my mind right now. Have you heard of Tiktok? According to the CEO of Wallaroo Media, Brandon Doyle, TikTok’s March 2022 statistics show they officially have over 1 billion ACTIVE monthly users! They are available in 150 countries, and in the United States alone, over 138 million ACTIVE monthly users.
How does this translate for the Church? Check out what some of these amazing ELCA Pastors @AlmostPastor, @emmykegler @ElleDowdMinistries, and @PastorPaulDrees are creating on TikTok. A lot of their content comes from real questions and wrestlings people have with the Church, while also being very honest about being flawed humans, and called pastors.
My current reach is not as vast as these buddies. I am what the kids call a micro influencer. You can find me as @FreeRangePastorJenny on the TikTok app. While I am new to this platform and still learning, one thing I am recognizing is that TikTok is a part of the next reformation. Instead of printing presses, we have access to this technology to witness, learn, and hear the stories of people all over the world. A dance trend can go viral and within hours we see a wave of TikToks with this trend popping up in 149 other countries. Somehow, it feels like we are doing something vulnerable together.
Let’s be clear, not all TikTokers are professional dancers, and that is what makes this platform so enduring. You don’t have to be the best dancer, the most attractive, or famous to feel seen on TikTok, and isn’t that what we are all longing for? No matter how old you are, your ethnicity, or sexual orientation, so many of us hope to be seen, to be known.
THE CHURCH IS…DYING?
A common narrative these days is the Church is dying, and it’s just not true. God continues to move and call disciples whether the Church is willing to move with God or not. There is so much we, as the Church, can learn from the way community is forming in these holy spaces. God is doing what God has always done; calling the people you least expect from the places you least expect them to lead.
There is a shift happening in the overall kind of leaders younger generations are willing to follow. Perfectionism reads as dishonest, grind culture reeks of discontentment, and being “fine” IS a lie from the pit of hell. There is a genuine hope in understanding how to be human, and you can’t learn how to be a human from robots. We crave to learn from people who are honest about the struggle and admit #thestruggleisreal. We want to learn from those people how to navigate the #hardthings.
GOING WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE
How many youth programs or young adult programs do you find asking the question, “Where are all the young people?” Oftentimes the Church has limited roles for them so they get stuck lighting candles or handing out bulletins, while online they are making Tiktok’s and exercising their voice by sharing things they care about.
According to Influencer Marketing Hub, TikTok users spend more than 850 minutes per month on this app. A Tech Crunch survey reveals kids ages 4-15 spend an average of 80 minutes per day on TikTok and that was in 2020! Since then this app has pulled ahead to the number one download on iPhones in 2021 and the second most downloaded app overall in 2021.
The learning doesn’t stop there. What makes TikTok unique is the short videos from MANY different denominations, religions, and perspectives you can learn from! Different hashtags can help you navigate and find people or topics you’re interested in. This is how I got connected to the #progressiveclergy people, and other #womanpastors. Many realized I was a new account and were so welcoming, and affirming… even the big accounts! Before I knew it I was making #progessiveclergy stitch videos with other pastors across different denominations, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities affirming our LGBTQIA+ siblings in the Church.
I began getting an overflow of messages, comments, and questions from people who really wanted to understand “Why the Christian God?” They didn’t want to hear it in the sweet Christian language they always heard or the hymns that have always been sung. They wanted to know why I follow Jesus, why Jesus matters to me and in my life.
In a world where saying you have an opinion about something implies you have a lot of other thoughts against something else, many people have decided to remain silent. Something unique to TikTok is the people who grow [in followers] are the ones putting out a good amount of content, in a niche they love, from their authentic voice and perspective.
REAL PRESENCE IN DIGITAL SPACE
The way people worship and feel beloved in community is vastly different. It seems no matter how many barriers we put up the Holy Spirit is determined to be EVERYWHERE with everyone and it’s holy. As pastors we are all tending to different places in the vineyard, and praise God for that! Thank God there are people called to serve and love people in places I could never survive and vice versa. One of the places I feel called is to the conversations and experiences I’m having with people on TikTok.
Many conversations I have on TikTok are with people who do not feel they are welcome in a Church building or feel that their authentic selves could sincerely belong in a Christian Community. One of my favorite follows has been @jjtalks4 who identifies as an ex-christian. She has been sharing her deconstruction journey on Tiktok. I found her because she had tagged me in one of her videos as a pastor she liked following. I have learned so much about deconstruction (folks who are deconstructing elements of their faith that have become hurtful or harmful in search of something holistic and life-giving) and the personal wounds people have endured because of the Church by following her and other folks like her.
Oftentimes, the church can be so quick to assume we know, and even everything I am sharing is from my perspective. The truth is you don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, Tiktok is a great space to process and wonder. Of course, there are trolls who come at you if a video hits a certain number of views. In fact, many congregations have “trolls” just like this.
I share all of this information with you not so you can make all your youth and young adult leaders download Tiktok. I share this information because God is moving and is doing something beautiful, and I don’t want you to miss it. There is so much we, as church leaders and pastors can learn from the way community is forming in digital spaces like TikTok. God is doing what God has always done; calling the people we least expect from the places we least expect, to set down their nets and follow.
Rev. Jenny Sung is an ordained #FreeRangePastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America meaning she spends most of her time traveling, preaching, speaking, writing, and coaching leaders how to heal through brave love and beloved community. She received her Masters of Divinity through Luther Seminary and is the founder and co-director of One Dance Company, a professional modern dance company in the Twin Cities.
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Day1, Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.