Two SNEUCC pastors who took to Tik Tok to spread the word about God’s all-inclusive love found themselves targets of hatred and vitriol by those who disagree with their progressive messages. Here are their stories (click the title to expand).
Rev. Timoth Sylvia, pastor of the Newman Congregational Church, UCC in Rumford, RI, may not be preaching in a large stadium, but he is getting the word of Jesus’ love out to massive crowds and has over 100,000 people following him – on Tik Tok, that is.
TikTok, a social media venue that promotes itself as the “leading destination for short-form mobile video with a mission to inspire creativity and bring joy,” has become an important evangelism tool for Rev. Sylvia.
Rev. Sylvia had been exploring the app for his own personal interests when he discovered one of TikTok’s creators presenting live sessions called “the positivity lounge.” (This particular creator's live sessions are no longer being held, but you can see some of the related videos by searching on #positivitylounge). The session’s creator would hold live sessions every day and Rev. Sylvia found it a great space to come together and ‘hang out’ with like-minded groups. Rev. Sylvia believed this was a great opportunity to create relationships and build community, and in fact he has made long-lasting friendships with people all over the world through this venue. It also inspired him to create his own short videos and to hold live sessions.
“I realized that I could bring something unique to this platform as an openly queer pastor,” he said. “During these conversations, I was finding a lot of folks who were hurt by the church in the past and this shifted the intentionality of my content. I realized I could be a voice of love and compassion and support for the queer and trans communities, and could speak out in opposition of some of the really toxic theology that harmed them.”
Building an Audience
Rev. Sylvia started building an audience by posting short fun videos (15 seconds or less) under the handle @revtimoth where he would just talk. They only took a minute to produce, using his own phone and some of the app’s basic editing features to add captions or sound. His friends who followed his account would share his videos to others, which helped build his following. In addition, TikTok uses algorithms to decide where to publish the content, and how big an audience should be receiving it. Using proper hashtags and tagging helps push the videos to a wider, appropriate, audience, and if the algorithm ‘decides’ the content speaks to a great many folks, because they are liking and following, that helps TikTok decide to serve the videos to an even larger audience.
Rev. Sylvia tries to publish 1-2 videos a day. Sometimes he records a bunch at once, keeps them in drafts, and launches them later. Although many of his videos promote progressive Christian messaging – which he found people to be hungering for on that platform -- his posts vary from promoting ministries of the church to sharing aspects of his life with the world.
His videos include “stitches” (combining another video on TikTok with one you're creating) that address racial justice issues, fireside chats where he addresses the toxic comments he receives, rebuttals to others’ posts, thoughts on face masks, gun laws, reproductive health, and other news items, and even a video of his husband grilling pizza. His videos normally get thousands of views, but it’s not unusual for his videos to be watched by tens and hundreds of thousands. One stitch video resonated with both followers and the TikTok algorithm as it went viral – garnering over a million views and helped build his following faster than he could have imagined.
Going Live and Being Brave
After a TikTok creator’s account hits the 1,000-follower mark, TikTok allows you to start conducting live sessions. It was through these session that Rev. Sylvia was able to connect with those folks in a different way and to have direct conversations with them.
“I would do live sessions following our online book study gatherings on Monday and Wednesday evenings that would last a couple of hours. I promoted these sessions to be a ‘Brave Space’ -- an opportunity for us to come together, especially for the queer and trans community, and be brave… brave in supporting each other and loving on one another.” Rev. Sylvia ensured folks realized it was not regarded as a “safe space” because social media is open to anyone.
Unfortunately, they did encounter trolls -- people who deliberately provoke others online – who typed in scripture lines into the comments section to provoke others. The conservative evangelical groups were especially active in posting hurtful remarks.
“My eyes were opened in a way,” said Rev. Sylvia. “This railing against progressive Christianity is something I had not encountered before. It’s been eye-opening to see the hatred coming from the more evangelical conservative fundamentalist folks. I’m careful with that language because one of the things I love about the UCC is that we have our own conservative evangelical folks … and I love them and appreciate them. But the goal is always respectful dialog. But many on TikTok are not respectful, and see me as an abomination and false teacher.” Rev. Sylvia was called a false teacher so much he had t-shirts made with the title “#FalseTeacher: Dismantling Toxic Theology.”
Rev. Sylvia would mute some folks on the live sessions if he thought they were causing harm or were off-subject, and would block them if it continued.
Despite those toxic folks, Rev. Sylvia found that he was building a caring community.
Popularity Can Make You a Target
@RevTimoth’s diverse audience surprisingly includes those who are pagans, atheists, satanists, and witches. “It’s incredible,” he says. “These are folks who have done significant work to develop their own understandings, but they are just out there loving people and that’s not what I’m getting from the more conservative voices on that platform. There are people attempting to cause significant harm and that’s what I’m there trying to stop.”
TikTok has over a billion monthly users worldwide, and Search Engine Journal noted recently that it was the most downloaded app the first quarter of 2022 beating out Instagram and Facebook. Obviously those billion users may not be of like mind… and as we mentioned already, many may not be kind.
That’s when Rev. Sylvia found himself to be targeted by religious conservatives. Since anyone can report your posts to be inappropriate or violative of the platform’s policy, groups are able to take advantage of that report button in order to silence voices they don’t want to hear. As a result, there was a focused mass reporting of Rev. Sylvia’s account and videos by evangelical conservative Christians, which caused Rev. Sylvia’s account to be temporarily shut down.
Rev. Sylvia warns that if that happens, in an instant, you could lose all your hard work, your videos and your followers. Fortunately, the brave followers had his back.
“It’s a beautiful story of how I got the shutdown reversed,” said Rev. Sylvia. “The decision to close down an account can be appealed, so a joint effort of a bunch of folks whom I follow and who follow me, shared a video I have on a backup account, and drew attention to the fact that my main account was shut down and shouldn’t have been. Emails were sent to TikTok and its legal department. It was a concerted effort of this community to support each other, looking out for one another, and taking care of each other, that helped me get my account restored in less than a week.”
Representing or Protecting the Church
Rev. Sylvia had conversations at his church when he reached 20,000 followers on his personal account. Because he had been getting backlash from conservative evangelical Christians, he tried to protect the church, and did not promote any of its ministries. After conversations with leadership, they agreed this was a great opportunity for evangelism, so now Rev. Sylvia’s profile includes the website in his bio, info about the church, and links to their online presence. He has made videos about the church’s ministries and invited people to be a part of it. This crusade has been extremely successful for their racial justice work and book studies. Folks from 16 different states and several different countries have gathered online and read the Bible together.
All that being said, Rev. Sylvia warns that TikTok is not the answer for a church who is struggling to grow.
“It’s not that by creating an account promoting your services online that you will amass a huge following,” he explains. “It’s knowing what you want to use the platform for and what audience you want to reach. If you want to reach folks in a small geographic area, Facebook is better. But if you want to drive engagement from a broader audience, then TikTok may be the better choice.”
Newman Church streams its worship services live on TikTok and has folks watching from all over different geographic areas.
“Churches used to ask ourselves how we are engaging with people driving by our buildings. Now instead it’s about people accessing us online. We look at how many are engaging with our online ministries, not solely how many people are in our pews,” said Rev. Sylvia.
“What are we hoping they take away from their online engagement? On any given Sunday morning, between in-person and online accounts, we have between 500-900 people who engage in some way. Are they all staying for the full worship service, no. But they are all connecting in some way,” he said.
“That is the question for us and other churches. How do we increase that connection so that those folks who come in for a little while are getting something about who we are, and are taking something good away.”
Advice and the Future
Rev. Sylvia advises that before jumping into the platform, you should have a clear understanding of how you want to use it and what goals you hope to achieve. Keeping this in mind will prevent you from getting extremely overwhelmed and fed up with the challenge of using social media.
What surprised Rev. Sylvia? “Besides the fact that it’s shocking to see that I have over 105,000 people who want to hear what I have to say, nothing has surprised me,” he says. “I’ve seen the value of online community for decades. I see the value in creating, cultivating, and growing relationships through an online platform. What I have enjoyed seeing is more and more people experiencing that. There can indeed be a depth of relationship acquired on screen.” Rev. Sylvia himself has many deep friendships from folks he met via TikTok.
Editor’s Note: Rev. Timoth Sylvia is happy to be a resource to help folks navigate the platform. He encourages readers to follow #progressiveclergy and #progressiveChristianity and discover these ‘incredible creators.’
Old South Church’s experience with a TikTok ministry had similar perils outlined by Rev. Timoth Sylvia, pastor of the Newman Congregational Church (noted above), but had a different outcome.
During the pandemic, Rev. Shawn Fiedler of Old South Church in Boston decided to wade into the world of TikTok to reach new people, to make church less formal, more fun, more relatable, in order to grow discipleship.
However, as he delved deeper, he noticed many videos that were homophobic, racist, and hateful. So, he decided, with the help of members of the church, that he would make simple videos that would tell of the progressive Christian faith of the United Church of Christ. He initially had fun spreading this message on TikTok sharing it with people who were starving for God’s love.
One particular video went viral, for reasons unknown to Rev. Fiedler, and was seen half a million times. He gained thousands of followers and received hundreds of messages. He continued making videos that supported UCC values and he received messages from youth and adults who were surprised, and thankful, to know that a progressive church like Old South existed.
“I was reminded our normal is not the world’s normal,” said Rev. Fiedler. “This joyful Christian faith we practice is not mainstream, not widely understood, may not be known.” And he was delighted that the messages of progressive faith were reaching folks who may have needed them at this point in their lives.
But for every humbling, thankful comment he received, he also got comments that said he was destined for Hell, that he was a false teacher and practicing fake Christianity, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing who had never opened a Bible. He was called homophobic expletives.
Rev. Fiedler said those messages did not initially bother him. What did bother him, though, was that there were youth following TikTok that were also receiving these horrendous messages.
Messages became more worrisome, more uncomfortable: threats, terrible accusations, hateful language, long tirades sent to his work email. He was then doxxed (the publishing of private or identifying information on the internet with malicious intent). His home address, and those of his loved ones were published, along with birth dates and phone numbers; photos of his home were posted on nightmarish websites. His private personal information was shared on the same websites and apps used to plan the terrorist attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6th. His home internet was hacked and passwords revealed.
“It was a pretty horrific experience,” he said. “My sense of safety at my home was shattered. In that moment, the stakes of this Christian life became way too real. I became and still am afraid.”
He admits that the fear was crippling. For weeks, he didn’t open his computer, and even stayed inside. But with encouragement from his youth group, he felt less afraid each day that passed, and more willing to do the “work of proclamation.”
“When I first realized what was happening, I had a pretty big cry,” he said. “I felt afraid for my safety. I felt guilty for dragging my family through it. I felt vulnerable.” Rev. Fiedler connected with Rev. Laura Everett of the Massachusetts Council of Churches who connected him with an Episcopal colleague who had a similar experience. She told him to report it to the local authorities and it escalated from there, including to the FBI.
Rev. Fiedler spent a lot of money to have personal information taken down from the internet. He could get most of it scrubbed, but not all. “It carried on for a few weeks before fading away. On occasion I still get a nasty email or text message. The sad truth is that they found others to bully and eventually moved on.”
Unfortunately, Rev. Fiedler had to take a break -- for both his own good and the good of his family. “I left that ministry behind,” he said. “I still miss the joy, the connection and the impact.”
Rev. Fiedler likens his experience to the heftiness of sacrifice that the disciples were made to follow. He believes Jesus is asking that we who follow His way be willing to risk -- whether the risks be to our time, wealth, sensibilities, or sense of security. However, Rev. Fiedler believes those who risk will also find the joys in life, the joy of helping folks hear the progressive messages they have needed in their lives, the joy of freedom and richness of discipleship and the fullness of life with God.
Editor’s Note: You can view Rev. Fiedler’s video where he preached about his experience.
Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry.