#FaithTok: How Religion and Spirituality are Evolving in the Age of TikTok
January 21, 2022
Dressed in a blue shirt, denim jeans, and a cap, Pastor Noah Carr — @pastor.noah to his online followers — is running towards the camera shouting, “Wait one moment!” He is in a well-lit church; the aisle and teal-cushioned wooden pews behind him are empty, and three ceiling fans are revolving at high speed. He jumps mid-run as he reaches the camera, shouting, “Allow me to say a powerful bedtime prayer for you right now and when I am done praying for you, please share this with five other people … you never know who’s going to be blessed!”
Soft piano music plays in the background. He folds his hands in prayer, looks directly at the camera, and says, “Are you ready? Let’s pray.”
Carr’s video has amassed 40,000 views on TikTok in one day, which is typical for the hundreds of videos on his feed. With 1.9 million followers on the short-form social video sharing platform, and an audience ranging from the U.S. to Australia, Philippines, Korea, Germany and beyond — Carr is a part of a growing number of content creators using social media to engage a global audience in conversations around religion and diverse religious practices.
Using tags like #religion #interfaith #faithtok – which have over 6 billion views combined – millions of content creators from across the globe upload daily Q&As, explainers, skits, and music videos to inform people about their faith, dispel myths, and build community.
“I am an African-American pastor in a church that is majorly Caucasian and Hispanic,” says Carr, based in tiny Dilley, Texas, population 4,401. “So, I thought, if I can get received among people who don’t look like me, then I could go online and influence people, and share the Gospel. I put a video out there, and another, and another, and they went viral, and I said, maybe we are onto something.”
Carr didn’t grow up in a religious household; he went to church for the first time when he was 15 and felt called to God. He was moved by the power of prayer and by the knowledge that other people were praying for him when he faced challenges in his life. Inspired by his own relationship with faith, Carr wants to use his platform to spread positive messages from the Bible and uplift people through prayer. “The biggest way that I can help people from a distance is praying … it is one of the greatest ways to share faith,” he says.
He uploads two to three videos on the platform daily. To decide the content for the day, he sits down and asks himself a few questions: What am I struggling with? What am I going through? What have I seen people who are hurt talk to me about lately? He organizes his thoughts around those questions and writes a prayer. Then he presses record.
He says he feels moved and overwhelmed by the response he gets. Often, people tell him that his prayers helped them cope with their mental health issues. “People who didn’t know God before come to me and say … ’man, I was at the cusp of committing suicide and I heard your prayers, and man, it changed me. I wake up every day and make sure to tune in because I know somebody is praying for me.’”
A Space to Educate and Inform
While many content creators use their platforms to build community beyond their brick-and-mortar congregations, others use their platforms to dispel myths and break stereotypes, inviting people from diverse faiths to get a glimpse into their lives.
Mehdi Isa, a Muslim convert, and his wife Mubina, who wears a niqab, have received over 122.7 million likes across all their videos shared on their account @mehdinatv, which has 2.1 million global followers – making them one of the most popular religion content creators on the platform. Based in Canada, their content ranges from comedic skits to Q&As, aiming to confront stereotypes and inform people about their day-to-day life as a Muslim couple. Often, their content addresses questions from viewers, like: why does Mubina wear a face veil? Who can take pictures of her face? Are Muslim couples allowed to share a bed?
Another content creator, New York-based health coach Melinda Strauss, uses her account to share a glimpse into her Orthodox Jewish Life. Strauss takes her audience to kosher grocery store tours, educates them about religious holidays and rituals, and explains her views about what is and isn’t allowed in Judaism – covering topics from gambling to the LGBTQ community.
In one popular video, with 1.3 million likes and 7.6 million views, Sikh-American poet & videographer Navpreet Singh is filming himself combing his long dark hair while speaking to the audience: “One of the reasons I talk about my Sikh faith is to dispel the mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. Most people find out what little they might know from whatever they’re shown in media or taught in school.” He then starts wrapping his long hair into a bun, and shows how he wears his turban, explaining the importance of the turban or dastaar in his faith and how it’s a part of a distinct identity.
On his page, Singh offers a variety of content educating people about his Sikh faith. In addition to his videos, he offers playlists on Sikh hymns and holy scriptures, FAQs about Sikhs, an article on the struggles of being Sikh American, and even a guide to his beard care routine.
Thousands of viewers engage with his content daily, and some leave comments to show their gratitude for teaching them something new. “I really enjoyed this! Thank you for sharing this with us,” one commentator writes, while another says,” I didn’t realize how much effort went into putting on a turban, it looks great btw!” Others feel invited to ask more questions. One person asks, “When you put it on, does it last a whole day?” and another, “That’s awesome! Can women wear the turban too?”
Addressing Hate Online
Despite the positive responses, the creators are subjected to a lot of hateful vitriol in their comments too. Some, like Singh, choose to address them directly.
Under the turban video, one commentator writes, “And yet there is sharia law” to which Singh responds, “What does that have to do with me?” In another comment, someone asks, “So why y’all be blowing up stuff?” To which he responds, “We’re not. Why did you leave such an ignorant comment on this video?”
Other creators, like the Rev. Brandan Robertson, says he chooses to either ignore the comments, delete the cruel or xenophobic comments, or sometimes, reply with a video explaining why their fear or harshness is unmerited, and “how our faith is big enough to hold many different perspectives.”
“I try to think about who the people are on the other side of the phone screen,” Robertson says. “They are replying because they’re either fearful of their faith being challenged or they are truly unkind, and I don’t believe very many people are actually fundamentally unkind.”
Robertson views the hateful comments as a sign to keep creating content that challenges traditional understandings of faith and hopes that it will help people expand their perspectives.
He has personally witnessed the transformative power of responding to some of the hate with kindness. For months, a teenager consistently left critiques under his videos and called him a “false teacher.” Instead of reacting to her comments, Robertson nudged her into empathetic conversations, asking why she believed this way and if she had explored other ways of thinking about faith. Over time, she eventually joined his weekly Zoom Bible Study, and began engaging more openly with other progressive people of faith in the community.
“We still disagree on various beliefs, but instead of fear-based responses, she engages thoughtfully,” says Robertson. “This transformation is something we forget in social media spaces – relationships with our ‘others’ transforms both of us into more compassionate, thoughtful people.”
Building Communities Online and Offline
Esmé L. K. Partridge, a U.K.-based researcher, and interfaith coordinator at Good Faith Partnership explains that to understand the mixed reception of religious discourse online, one needs to understand how the age of digital spirituality can be destabilizing and overwhelming for many individuals.
Citing the work of Paul Heelas, a prominent British sociologist and anthropologist noted for his work in the field of religion, spirituality, and modernity, Partridge shares that when an individual is exposed to certain forces of modern society that break down the barriers of traditional forms of life, it makes them question their own validity and narratives. This phenomenon is known as detraditionalization.
“With the internet, you’re exposed to so many variegated, often conflicting images and ideologies,” says Partridge. “It’s not just the sensory chaos, it’s ideological chaos because you’re having all these different worldviews just avalanched over you. That can be very overwhelming … and undermines your own conceptions of reality and truth that you may have grown up with.”
Partridge describes online space as a marketplace of ideas and adds that the internet can be a liquidizing force, melting all the meta-narratives and cultural structures that often surround traditional forms of religion. “There are still a lot of taboos surrounding religion … a lot of negativities, and young people want to seek things that are beyond themselves … that’s why modern technology makes a lot of these spiritualities so appealing to them.”
Though online space can be challenging to navigate, Partridge believes it can be a chance for religious communities to break free from the secular narratives and see it as an opportunity for them to reach a much wider audience.
“The internet can destabilize communities, but it can also form communities,” says Partridge. “My advice to religious communities is that you should harness that potential and kind of turn it on its head and go, ‘Well, we’ve got all this freedom, let’s actually use it to make connections that transgress the usual boundaries of communities.’”
Reflecting on her personal experience, Partridge shares how on a recent visit to a dinner party, she met a group of young Catholics who became friends after meeting on Twitter. They had been interacting with each other on the social platform, and when they realized that they all lived in the same area, they formed a real-life community and began attending the same church together.
Pastor Noah Carr, too, has been witnessing the impact his online presence has made in offline communities. Every week, Carr live streams his church services and engages his followers in live Q&As. Inspired by his work, some of his followers, who weren’t affiliated with any church before, joined their local churches to become preachers. Carr says, “They are preaching in physical churches … which is the power of ministry, because if they hadn’t met us online, that would have never happened.”
Carr has also been invited by followers across the country, and globally, to visit their churches. This year, Carr plans to visit six different cities in the U.S., and then traveling to the U.K., South Africa, and Philippines, to baptize people, and help connect local churches with people who want to know more about their faith.