Society

Two billion views and counting: meet the stars of TikTok’s religious community

The most viral-friendly platform ever created meets the most virulent content of all time. Does TikTok have the power to change the religious landscape for good?

By Amelia Tait

19 March 2021
I

n a four-second video uploaded to TikTok last December, 28-year-old Hillary Phillips stares at a green apple in abject horror. The voice of the late rapper XXXTentacion speaks: “I feel like I’m dead, I’m alive but I’m dead,” Phillips mouths.

So far, so TikTok: this video is similar to the vast majority of content posted on the short-form video app. It’s quick, it’s a skit, it involves miming. In one crucial way, however, it is very different.

Phillips’ post is a nod to the Book of Genesis, specifically the passages about humanity descending into sin. In the video, a blue bubble above her head reads, “Eve after she ate the forbidden fruit”. This is the type of content Phillips’ 401,300 followers have come to expect from the California-based creator, who has the words “I 💙 Jesus & Laughter and joy!” in her bio.

“I’ve made videos specifically for other religions, telling them to come and talk to me… before I started this platform, I didn’t realise that people had this very narrow-minded thinking around Muslims”

“I do believe that this is what God has really put in my heart to do,” Phillips says of her recently found TikTok fame. “And so, I really love it.”

A growing number of people like Phillips now use TikTok to share their faith, either through skits, testimonies, explainers, or Q&As. Collectively, the millions of videos tagged #religion have gone from two million viewers to more than two billion in just over two years on the app.

Gabe Poirot, a 20-year-old Christian TikToker currently studying at Bible college in Texas, has an easy answer. He says his nonprofit “online ministry” has seen “more than 8,000 first-time salvations” (counted by tallying up comments, messages, videos, and other correspondence sent in by his followers). Since starting his TikTok account in April 2020, Poirot has gained 1.5 million followers (although he’s had a YouTube account since 2012, he only has 130,000 subscribers there).

Technology has, of course, long enabled religion to go “viral” – Martin Luther’s The 95 Theses (published in 1517) would have gotten nowhere without the printing press, while the invention of the television allowed evangelism to flourish in America in the 20th century.

But neither of these reached two billion people in the space of a couple of years.

While religious figureheads have been using social media for years – it’s not unusual to see a nun like Sister Theresa Aletheia with a blue tick on Twitter (42,500 followers) or a “millennial rabbi” like Daniel Bortz on Instagram (25,200 followers) – TikTok's algorithm, which doesn't take into account follower numbers when it recommends new videos, means relatively unknown individuals can, and do, regularly go viral.

Poirot believes TikTok’s algorithm is invaluable for spreading his religious message. “What’s crazy about TikTok is if someone pauses at a Christian video or starts thinking about God, they’ll start seeing more Christian videos.”

For many religious TikTokers, conversion isn’t the aim. Much of TikTok’s religious content is centred around discussion and education – more RE teacher than preacher. And from the comment sections alone, it is clear that a number of teens are finding comfort in religious accounts and content.

Phillips says most of her followers are women and girls aged between 14 and 25. Young girls reach out to her about their relationship struggles and their religious doubts, and she regularly replies via voice notes. Sometimes, she makes videos in response to distressed comments such as, “I don’t really think I’m important to anyone” and “I’m struggling and feeling like [God] doesn’t care about me”. Phillips says TikTok is “the first time I’ve ever seen so many Christians on an app, like, unapologetic about their faith.”

TikTok’s algorithm is so personalised that it has been argued it creates filter bubbles and echo chambers by constantly feeding its users content and creators based on those they already like. The app could be a comfortable space for religious users to find like-minded people and avoid detractors. Pauline Cheong, a human communications professor at Arizona State University, says faith-oriented TikTok personalities do appear to be on the rise, and notes that the “authentic” and accessible nature of content on the app may appeal to both believers and those seeking out religion.

For believers, this authenticity can help reinforce and reframe their pre-existing, or perhaps lapsed, beliefs. Z Jacobi, a 21-year-old from LA who makes TikTok videos about Judaism and Jewish mysticism, says she receives around 20 direct messages a day from her followers, the majority of whom are aged between 18 and 26 years old. On the day we speak, a teenager messaged her to say her videos helped them connect to their faith in a way “I didn’t ever think I could”. Jacobi attended an Orthodox synagogue growing up, but drifted away from her faith for a few years in her early teens after experiencing antisemitism. “There’s nothing better than knowing that what I wanted to see when I was 13, 14, 15, I’m now doing for someone else,” she says.

Jacobi considers herself a “Jewish educator” and rejects labels like “faith star” or “religious guru”.

‘Poirot believes TikTok’s algorithm is invaluable for spreading his religious message. “What’s crazy about TikTok is if someone pauses at a Christian video or starts thinking about God, they’ll start seeing more Christian videos.”’

Regardless of the nomenclature, educating comes with a lot of responsibilities – with almost 34,000 followers on her @kittenqueen account, Jacobi feels compelled to target misinformation via her videos. While 86 per cent of her followers on Instagram identify as Jewish (according to a poll she conducted through the app; a further ten per cent are in their conversion process), she says many people who interact with her on TikTok are not Jewish. “People will message me multiple times a month saying: ‘Okay, but do you guys actually have horns? Because my pastor taught me that Jewish people do have horns,’” she says. “Most of these people don’t hold some deep-seated hatred for Jewish people, they’re just uninformed. And I can’t blame them for it, which is why I spend so much time trying to answer the basic questions.”

Sidra Ashraf is a 29-year-old from Toronto who similarly uses TikTok to teach 818,800 followers about Islam. While she says she does help Muslims reconnect with their faith, her videos are mostly targeted at non-Muslims to help tackle misinformation. “I’ve made videos specifically for other religions, telling them to come and talk to me. And I have asked them questions about their faith,” she says. “Before I started this platform, I didn’t realise that people had this very narrow-minded thinking around Muslims, because I was always in my own circle.”

Ashraf has two series called “No-No in Islam” and “Yes-Yes in Islam” where she will explain different Islamic principles in quick succession. She says videos about her niqab are some of her most popular – she has answered questions about whether children are allowed to see her face and even whether she has to wear her veil at her own funeral.

Ashraf started her TikTok account in May 2020, and her growth on the platform has been rapid. She believes the coronavirus crisis has brought people online and led them to think more about their own faith. One recent comment on one of her videos says: “Even though I’m not Muslim, your TikToks are super-comforting.”

1/4
TikTok: @whatsuphill

Ashraf started her TikTok account in May 2020, and her growth on the platform has been rapid. She believes the coronavirus crisis has brought people online and led them to think more about their own faith. One recent comment on one of her videos says: “Even though I’m not Muslim, your TikToks are super-comforting.”

Jacobi believes targeting misinformation is crucial in today’s online landscape. “While misinformation on its own seems harmless, it’s paired so frequently with antisemitism that it just snowballs so quickly. What I’m trying to do is stop that snowball before it starts.”

But are 60-second TikTok videos always the best way to tackle the complexities of religion? Every religious TikToker I speak to has other online accounts where they can go into more detail – Poirot notes that “a 30-second video doesn’t really change someone’s life,” arguing that his YouTube videos are where most conversions occur. As Cheong says: “Micro-video formats don’t lend themselves easily to intricate theological debates or sustained religious reflection over time.” She adds: “It is questionable if new or rising Tiktok stars can keep up with a production trail of attractive or profound religious content to feed their following.”

Religion remains a contentious subject, and many people online and off say contentious things in its name. In August 2020, a Christian TikToker with 16.4 million followers said he lost followers after asking people of other faiths to pray to Jesus (in another video he also said: “Me being a Christian, can I support the LGBT community? No, I cannot.”) Another Christian TikToker caught the internet’s attention in July 2019 after he ranted about abortion. While many religious TikTokers feel it is their personal responsibility to discuss these issues, others prefer to avoid controversy or wrestle with their stance on a video-by-video basis.

‘Jacobi believes targeting misinformation is crucial in today’s online landscape. “While misinformation on its own seems harmless, it’s paired so frequently with antisemitism that it just snowballs so quickly.’

Poirot says he doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, though he does not like to criticise others. “What the Bible says about a certain issue, I will talk about,” he says. He says when he made a video talking about “how the devil uses certain songs” to “degrade our culture” he was widely mocked by Satanists and atheists. Poirot, Phillips and Ashraf have all had videos removed by TikTok in the past, although some have been reinstated after an appeal. TikTok removes videos that violate its community guidelines, which ban hate speech, hateful behaviour, sexually explicit content and misinformation, among other things, although the app has only recently begun specifying which rule a user has broken when a video is removed.

All of the religious TikTokers in this piece have also experienced hateful comments and trolling. Jacobi says she also had neo-Nazis sending her bomb threats on other social media channels after she made a TikTok video about Jewish stereotypes. “There are such highs and such lows,” she says of creating religious content on TikTok. “It’s a whirlwind and it’s exciting and it’s terrifying, truthfully.”

So will those two billion TikTok views truly shift the religious landscape in a meaningful way? Many who view religious content on TikTok are already religious, so a huge number of views does not necessarily equate to shifting attitudes. Cheong says it is too early to tell whether the popularity of religion on TikTok is ephemeral. She also says that some may be troubled by the fact many religious TikTokers don’t have formal theological training and therefore might misrepresent their religion. This is a concern shared by Stewart M Hoover, a media and religious studies professor at the University of Colorado.

“Charismatic religious leaders have led many people into negative and dangerous things in the past. And in the online environment, there aren’t the usual guardrails and sanctions, so anything can happen,” he says. But Hoover doubts whether TikTok will truly transform the religious landscape long-term, arguing that making religion accessible online has a “double edge” as the content can turn people off. He also adds that traditional religious authority has a lesser role on TikTok.

“Beyond community building online, what happens next?” he says. “Will traditional religions benefit? Will new institutions emerge? Will it have lasting effects in terms of those young people [who became] involved that way becoming more involved in religion than the earlier generations did? I doubt it.”

For now, religious TikTokers are taking things one day at a time. Phillips hopes her content will “help people know that there is hope” and wants her account to grow “as big as the Lord wants it to grow”. Sometimes she’ll spread her message through serious discussions, other times, she’ll mouth along to XXXTentacion while holding an apple. “It feels shocking at times,” she says of her large following, “because I just see myself as this goofy girl who loves Jesus.”

The Short Stack

Organised religions have always found innovative ways to spread their message. But TikTok’s algorithm supersizes the reach of its religious stars – is it time we started paying attention to what they’re preaching?

By Amelia Tait

More from Society
Join Our Newsletter
Sign up to our Daily Newsletter where we curate the best news stories from around the world. You’ll also have early bird access to our events, discount codes from our favourite brands and our culture round up of what to read, watch and listen to. Sent every morning to your inbox. No Spam.