avid W Peters has been set a unique task: travel to a growing suburb in Austin, Texas, and get the people there to join him in starting a church. “I’m sort of making it up as I go along,” says the author, Episcopalian priest and one-time marine. “I’ve never done it before.”
The practice is officially known as “church-planting” and is not easy, least of all in a divided country and an age defined by mainstream suspicion of organised religion. But modern problems call for modern solutions, and Peters has struck upon one of the most modern of all.
Inspired by the viral success of a young local veteran he knows, the priest has taken to making videos on TikTok – the latest app taking over social media where users share eight-second clips scored to pop music.
Peters has combined the trends of TikTok with what he calls his brand of “churchy” humour. The result is a strange, intoxicating mash-up of the old and the new, the sacred and the silly.
In his most popular clip, Peters cycles through his church vestments, jumping up and down in gowns while Another Day of Sun from the La La Land soundtrack plays and the words “Hot Priest Summer” flash on screen.
In another, he gently pokes fun at the people who’ve suggested he just write a bestseller, rather than his dense but illuminating treatises on God and PTSD.
The videos were designed to draw young Austinites to the church, but their popularity has been much wider. Peters has become one of the viral stars of TikTok, an app that is only just expanding into the mainstream after years as an open secret among pop music-obsessed teenagers.
“There’s downsides to social media,” he says. “It can connect us to people really far away, and disconnect us to people really close. But never before have humans been able to amplify very simple messages. And TikTok is the simplest message of all. It has to be really, really boiled down.”
It helps too that Peters is genuinely funny, something that might surprise those who picture the church as lumbering and anachronistic. “There’s a lot of comedy in church,” he says. “When I was in the marines years ago, some of the greatest moments of comedy came in the greatest moments of seriousness. Church is like that. Humour is a way of reminding us that not everything stays the same. There is a shadow in the valley of death, but there’s also moments where we’re by the springs of living water.”
That humour is light and gentle, but oddly affecting. Take Peters’ version of the bottle cap challenge. A meme that saw users film themselves kicking a cap off a soft drink bottle in increasingly outlandish ways, Peters’ contribution involved glancing a thurible against the top of a bottle of port.
On paper, his success might seem bizarre. After all, TikTok’s audience is a youthful one, and your average teenager harbours a suspicion of middle-aged people that borders on the pathological. Certainly Peters does receive a degree of pushback, most of it in the form of crude jokes. But he credits the largely welcoming and supportive audience he has found on the app to his missionary experience.
“I don’t have an office,” he says. “I’m going out to where people are … I try to do it speaking their language and being a listener. The videos I’ve made for TikTok, I’ve tried to use the language of the medium. Which is like going to any new culture. If you show respect and listen, you’ll learn a few things.”
As with Vine, the now defunct video-sharing app, the key to popularity on TikTok is sincerity. Its trends are mundane for a reason: users are encouraged to film themselves how they really are, whether that be lip-syncing to pop in their room or messing around with soft drink bottles. The only crime you can commit on the app is being fake. As a result, although the content across TikTok is diverse – some of it is deeply bizarre, some is hilarious, some is vaguely horrifying – there’s a zero tolerance policy in the way of artifice. Teens can sense a narc in their midst from a mile away.
Perhaps this goes some ways to explaining Peters’ success. Although most of Gen-Z would cross the road to avoid a friendly middle-aged person eager to talk to them about faith, they understand Peters is not trying to dupe them.
“As churches, we lead with our vulnerability,” Peters says. “We share our stories and our experiences and encourage others to as well.The symbol of our faith is a cross, which often has a figure of a man dying on it.” He laughs a little. “If that isn’t vulnerability, I don’t know what is.”
Written by: Joseph Earp