May 2022
Beyond the Pews

TikTok and Real Ministry

TikTok. You’ve probably heard about it only because it was going to be “banned” several times in 2020. As St. Paul rightly points out, “the Law increases the trespass.” The platform has expanded exponentially since to the pandemic began. From teens dancing and viral memes to a guy drinking grape juice while riding a skateboard and lip-syncing a Fleetwood Mac song, TikTok is the social media platform of choice for Gen Z, aging millennials and reluctant Xers.

Surprising things happen on TikTok

My foray into the weird, wonderful world of TikTok came at the start of the pandemic when my wife and I were looking for just about anything to keep us busy, laughing and connected to our congregation. What started as a few Holy Week videos turned into a surprisingly fruitful ministry where real formation happened. (I know, I am just as surprised as you are).

I remember meeting with my youth group, who had been following our church account (@holytrinitywenonah) on TikTok, and they excitedly said, “Fr. Ben! You have so many followers. You have enough to go live!” I said, “What!” And they said, “Go live!” When I asked for more information, they struggled to explain the purpose or point of “going live” – essentially livestreaming through the TikTok platform, which is limited by follower count. To them, it was a big deal.

In no time I, too, would discover that “going live” was a big deal. We began streaming the daily office and compline on the platform. Then in the evenings, after the kids were asleep, my wife would get ready to moderate the live feed from her phones, I would boot up Red Dead Redemption 2 on the Xbox One, and we would go live – chat, answer questions and engage with anyone who stopped by.

We had no idea what we were doing. There are lots of Christian content creators, and there are other fantastic Episcopal TikTokers (@davidwpeters of Hot Priest Summer fame; @joshbarrett0, who makes very wholesome content; and the hilarious @motherpeaches, to name a few of my favorites). But there’s always room for more.

People are looking for answers, help and support

However, what became abundantly clear early on was that people are starved for Good News. Much of the Christian content on TikTok comes from a world that has a difficult time offering Good News generally and certainly isn’t good news for everyone. There are lot of other progressive Christians, but they often (admittedly) stand outside the historic, creedal traditions of the church. What does this mean? There is a unique niche that Episcopalians of an “inclusively orthodox” ilk can bring to TikTok. We were early contributors to the #progressivechristian and #progressiveclergy communities, that now have almost a quarter of a billion views (when we started there were a few million).

The power of this platform is that you’ll find people ­– real people – struggling with the faith they were raised in and looking for answers. “Deconstruction” is a hot and oft-debated topic there. But people are looking for answers that speak to them where they are. They are looking for faithful, traditional, loving, compassionate, inclusive Christians to help and support them on their journey.

Real and authentic interactions take place and real ministry happens

TikTok – like no other platform I’m a part of – offers the opportunity for very real and significant interactions with followers and in a surprisingly authentic way. Look, I’m Episcopalian and I believe deeply in the Incarnation and the importance of embodiment and in-person relationships, but TikTok blurs that world in a distinctive way.

People come to TikTok with real questions. They come hurting, searching, broken and vulnerable – and they have so many options for answers. But the gracious and loving Gospel of Jesus Christ connects with people in a very real and significant way. The community of TikTok can be an amazing gift – like when we were worshiping with our Lutheran friend, @pastorjesseck, and the chat filled with hundreds of people with prayers for each other and the world and ended with us all exchanging a virtual peace. The exchanges can sometimes be breathtaking in their Spirit-drivenness.

In the years we have been on TikTok, here are a few examples of the (still very much to my surprise) real ministry we have done:

● We have sent five Books of Common Prayer to folks who wanted to follow along with Morning Prayer

● We have sent blessed chalk kits to Colorado, South Carolina and Tennessee

● We have had TikTok followers join us weekly for Bible study, our social justice book group and Sunday services

● We have helped young, lapsed Christians find their faith, take it seriously, get connected with a local parish and become active in helping other young people on TikTok find the answers (and the creators) who might answer their questions

● We have helped older adults – who joined TikTok to monitor their kids activity or kill time at work rediscover the faith of their youth, take their families back to church and start reading their Bibles and praying again after years of spiritual drought

● We have connected innumerable people to local Episcopal Churches – sometimes even doing the vetting that they were afraid to do (asking if they were an openly affirming church, if they would accept trans persons, etc.)

What started out as a way to make people laugh and kill time has become a source of real ministry ­ – and my follower count pales in comparison to so many other creators.

Thoughts for potential TikTok creators – and for the rest of us

So here’s the thing: I want to offer two exhortations – one to anyone who might be reading this and thinking the last thing they have time to do is to join another social media platform and create content (trust me, I get it) – and another to folks who might want to explore what TikTok and it’s weird algorithm and community have to offer.

For Potential Creators: If you love Jesus and you love the Church and you love the tradition, but you also did some serious work to get to the place where that was true. If you’re not afraid of “deconstruction” within a framework of traditional belief and the Gospel. If you have a heart for people severely hurt and burned out by the church. If you are fully LGBTQ+ affirming. If you can make fun of yourself. If you have a weird amount of knowledge about a weird part of church. If you have a thickish skin. If you just want to try – for Jesus and for a broken world – do it! You totally can. There are some amazing groups of clergy/laypeople out there that we can connect you with to help support your ministry and work. The world needs you. TikTok needs you. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few!” You might very well be the laborer being prepped to be sent into the harvest.

For Everyone Else: Okay, here’s the truth – the more important work is ours. Not everyone is “called” to be a TikTok content creator. However, the work done on TikTok can’t stop there. I know for a fact that all of the Episcopal clergy on TikTok are constantly helping connect people to local parishes. This means that we, the local parishes, need to be ready when these folks show up! And it can’t just be The Episcopal Church Welcomes You type of greeting. It’s way more than that – it needs to be real, vulnerable, hospitality. A hospitality that takes seriously where folks are coming from and what they need. Because here is what I have learned from TikTok:

● People don’t want a watered down Gospel—they want one that speaks to the real hurt, burden and struggle they are facing in their lives. This means: strong preaching, excellent spiritual formation, teaching the Anglican/prayerbook tradition, Bible study.

● People need to know explicitly that your church is open and affirming. The time for general statements is past, because so many TikTokers have been badly burned by churches who told them that their very identity was a one-way ticket to damnation. There can be no “well it’s complicated,” no “let’s get coffee,” no obfuscation at all. If asked “does your church accept LGBTQ+ people,” the answer needs to be emphatically, “Yes. LGBTQ+ people are included in the full sacramental life of the church.”

  • Make it easier for folks who are looking and make it obvious on your church website. It doesn’t have to be tacky. Just say it.
  • Don’t force traumatized people to risk being retraumatized because we’re trying to walk some broad line.
  • Also, I know not every church is here yet—but start having the conversation. Because the kids know the way we talk around affirming LGBTQ+ people. And they have no time for it.

● Lastly, just remember that there’s grace in the whole thing. It’ll be weird and awkward. You won’t know what to say or how to make sense. You might worry what other folks will think. But if you love people – like Jesus loves us, with all of our own mess obviously on display – we can’t go wrong.

Look, I still don’t entirely get this. But I do love Jesus. I trust the Holy Spirit. And I assume most people are probably laughing at me already. That’s what it takes to be on TikTok.

That, and a love for people, who are like “sheep without a shepherd.”

Point them to the Shepherd or open up the gate.

The Rev. Ben Maddison is a South Jersey native and the Rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Wenonah, New Jersey. He believes deeply in the healing power of the Gospel, independent films and great meals at local restaurants. He is married to Ashley, a public interest attorney helping people in need avoid getting evicted, and is a foster parent (currently) to two amazing girls (3 -1/2 and 11 mo.) and a dog dad to two Great Danes – Rufio (12) and Blueberry (1.5). He is a contributor to Mbird.com, Earth & Altar, the Anglican Digest, and published in several magazines and devotionals. He also maintains a (slightly less) active TikTok presence at @holytrinitywenonah. To contact him, email info@holytrinitywenonah.org.

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This article is part of the May 2022 Vestry Papers issue on Beyond the Pews