A teenage girl dances in a wood-paneled living room wearing a T-shirt and ripped jeans, with a scrunchie wrapped around her wrist. She’s blasting Rihanna’s “Take a Bow.” It’s a timeless scene—swap that song for an older track, and the moment belongs to any American girl, anywhere, at any time.
But there is something inherently 2019 about this video, which lives on the popular lip-synching app TikTok. It stars an 18-year-old from Oklahoma named Nakelle Garrett. She made the clip, adding captions to her video and turning it into a half-meme, half-parable, all in a tight 15 seconds.
The TikTok has such a clear beginning, middle, and end that it very well could be taught in a beginner’s film editing class. First, Garrett pantomimes cheering, with onscreen text telling viewers that she’s imitating, “Satan after Jesus died, thinking he won.”
In the next shot, Garrett plays Jesus, waving to the camera, after his resurrection. One jump cut later, she stands in as God, mouthing along with Rihanna’s snarl, “You look so dumb right now.”
The diss is directed at Satan. In less than half a minute, Christ has risen.
According to her TikTok profile, Garrett, who is off to college this fall, is “jus[t] a gal who loves Jesus.” She’s hardly alone. On TikTok, the hashtag “Christ” has been viewed over 13 million times. “Jesus” boasts 85 million hits.
There are bona fide religious influencers on the platform such as Aatiqah, a YouTube crossover star, who shared her “re-baptism” online and regularly posts slam poetry reminding fans that Jesus loves them.
The comedian Trey Kennedy has over 600,000 TikTok followers, and his profile directs to “John 3:30,” the Bible verse for, “He must become greater; I must become less.” But he’s not quite monkish—Kennedy also sells $24 T-shirts which read, “Do Less God Bless.”
(He declined The Daily Beast’s interview request; Aatiqah did not respond to an inquiry.)
“Cool” churches are nothing new, nor are evangelical influencers. Hillsong, which counts Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber as part of its flock, touts a come-as-you-are acceptance to its young, stressed, and often very attractive urban fellowship. (So long as they are not LGBTQ—The Daily Beast has previously documented the mega-church’s history of conversion therapy.)
Kanye West, aka Yeezus, who once sat for the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns, has gone from emulating the Son of God to exalting him—via his ultra-exclusive “Sunday Service” concerts, where he hawks $70 “Trust God” T-shirts in his typically beige-on-beige color scheme.
Such normcore, performative prayer thrives on Instagram, flaunting preachers who look they could front an indie band. But TikTok testimony is clumsy and awkward, a nod to the fact that its tween and teen creators grew up laughing at meaningless memes.
One video, viewed over 70,000 times, finds a shady Jesus side-eyeing Judas, while lip-synching the song “On a Roll” from Black Mirror. In another, a young woman drapes herself in a white bedsheet with her arms spread like Jesus on a crucifix.
When “atheists” doubt Jesus' existence, she replies with lyrics from a Chris Brown song: “I don’t see how you can hate from outside the club, you can’t even get in.”
Such weird, irreverent, and eyebrow-raising humor is TikTok’s bread and butter. The app has cornered the cringe market. Users frequently film themselves trying out viral challenges like arranging Haribo gummy bears while Adele plays in the background or announcing their divorce online.
The platform formerly known as Musical.ly was relaunched by the Chinese company ByteDance under its current name one year ago, and has since become a virtual wild west in the content creation world. (Sometimes a literal one, too—the country-rap artist Lil Nas X got his start on TikTok with his record-smashing single, “Old Town Road.”)
According to Digiday, 50 percent of Musical.ly users were between 13 and 24 years old, though a few minutes spent on TikTok will show children much younger dancing around. (To be fair, the app’s terms and conditions say a user has to be at least 13 to set up an account.) Representatives for TikTok did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Over one billion people have downloaded TikTok, and of course, not all of them are Christians. #Islam has over a billion views, with a video of one man’s conversion garnering 30,000 likes. “Hinduism” has an audience of more than 3 million. “Where all my Hindus at?” reads the caption of a video filled with iconography.
Over 110,000 people have seen videos tagged “Judaism,” and one TikTok tells the Passover story to the tune of Redbone's “Come and Get Your Love.” Atheists seem to be less present on the app, garnering just over 10,000 viewers.
The catch-all “Religion” hashtag, with 2 million viewers and counting, presents videos made by practicing Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and interfaith believers.
Like many TikTok believers who spoke with The Daily Beast for this story, Garrett said that she first downloaded the platform “as a joke” when she was bored. She lurked around for a while and watched other videos without recording her own before a recording of her high school senior prank went viral.
“After that, I realized there were a lot of people on TikTok,” Garett said. “I realized that this could be a light for the kingdom, so I started uploading a bunch of Christian content.”
Garrett’s TikTok vignettes are also slice-of-life moments many young people can relate to with a holy twist. She details the perils of teen dating—such as breaking up with a boy when she finds out he isn't Christian. She also mourned the untimely death of the Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce, posting a video of him “entering heaven.”
“I remember when I was that age and I had no idea what was going to happen,” Garrett said. “I wish I had influences to help me. So I have this platform and I am a couple steps ahead, I can help [followers] out and tell them about Jesus so they don’t have to figure it out themselves.”
Chani Davis, who is 30 and lives in Utah, has a following of over 280,000. Though she mostly posts lifestyle content about beauty tips or her upcoming wedding, the practicing Mormon does post about her faith.
“I’m Christian!! Be proud of ur beliefs!” she captioned a recent video of her exuberantly dancing to the song “Sweet Jesus” by gospel singer J. Moss.
“I would like others to feel loved, or if they’re being bullied for their religion, they can remember, ‘Oh, Chani’s a Christian too,’” Davis said. “There is a conception that religious people are exclusive and superior, and I want to go in the direction of it being an inclusive and loving thing.”
Elise, a 21-year-old TikTok user from Virginia who asked The Daily Beast to withhold her last name, also feels compelled to serve as an example for her tween and teen fans. “On Instagram, my following are people who are my age,” she said. “On TikTok, everyone is my younger siblings’ age. I can make a difference with this.”
But a few seconds of vaguely religious, feel-good fare is hardly gospel. Davis admitted that her videos are not intended to convert viewers. “It’s only a tiny little drop,” she said. “I’m planting a seed of another positive thing in their head. I’m not a reverend or anything, but people can see me and say, ‘I know Chani and she’s a really kind, accepting Christian.’”
That may be so, but there is ample room for hate speech on all social media, and TikTok is no exception. One influencer who makes his allegiance very clear by his handle, KylerLovesJesus, was banned from the platform last month after making anti-abortion remarks. (He did not respond to The Daily Beast's request for comment.)
“Killing innocent babies is not okay,” he said. “If you don’t want to have a baby, do not have sex. Wait 'til marriage or use a condom, bro. If you think having an abortion is even close to a thing that’s not abortion — yeah you’re right, it’s called murder, and it’s legal. Yeah, you’re right; it’s not called abortion. It’s called murder. And it’s legal in four states. It’s disgusting.”
Before his account was suspended, KylerLovesJesus was rightfully dragged online for spouting not just hateful, but extremely incorrect, information, such as the legality of abortion (precarious as it may be). According to HollywoodLife, KylerLovesJesus ultimately apologized for his remarks via an Instagram caption which also read, “I do not stand for any type of sin or support the LGBTQ community.”
His comments were vitriolic, but the TikTok rant did lay bare the church’s troublesome track record when it comes to abortion and gay rights. Many other Christian influencers conveniently ignore those issues on their pages, promoting a fluffy religion, with no mention to fans of how faith can be weaponized against them.
“It’s problematic to give children 15 seconds of someone who is their age talking about how Jesus is love, and glossing over other things like theology or what the religion teaches,” Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, said.
“There’s this squishy, New Age-y perception of religion that says, ‘God is love and that’s all that matters,’” Fish added, describing the primary theme of most TikTok preachers. “It’s not theologically consistent with anything, but people don’t care because it feels great and gives them solace.
TikTok influencers liken themselves to fun older sisters or brothers who want to be the role model they never had as a tween, but they are hawking religion to a vulnerable demographic.
“Teens and tweens are looking for belonging and a sense of connection,” Dr. Lauren J. Hoffman, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, said. “They are looking for role models to shape their behavior, look up to, and help figure out their own identity. Teens are more likely to be influenced behaviorally to people who are easy to identify with in some way.”
There are plenty of kindred spirits on TikTok, the relatable cousin of Instagram, which sells a more aspirational reality. Fish compares Christian influencers to youth pastors and faith groups, a phenomenon that has long existed in the ministry.
“Groups like the Cru [formerly the Campus Crusade for Christ] are explicitly built, funded, and run to target young people who are in a vulnerable, impressionable point in their lives,” he said. “TikTok is another avenue or tool in the toolbox, but reaching out and targeting children is by no means a new phenomenon.”
Nick Touma is a 17-year-old non-denominational Christian from Connecticut. He peppers scripture into his feed, which is usually filled with the viral challenge du jour. Touma has over 28,000 followers and told The Daily Beast that his goal is to reach 100,000 “by Christmas.”
“I think God gave me this audience because he’s giving me a message to share,” Touma said. “I’m not going to force it to people. When I make videos of Christianity, I integrate it into what’s trending. I feel that’s a better opportunity to make the message relevant, versus saying it outright.”
Other TikTok influencers are less strategic when it comes to their messaging.
“I’m hoping that not everyone is trying to get converted on TikTok,” Elise said. “It should just be a supplemental thing [for Christians]. My stuff is Christian every once and a while, but mostly it’s my cat.”