Spitting, screens and sneakers: the rise of the preacher-influencer | Religion
IIt was meant to be a sermon on the importance of having faith in God’s vision, even when the task seems difficult. An object lesson from the book of Mark, in which Jesus heals a blind man by spitting in his eyes. But it was the way Pastor Michael Todd brought that message home that made the sermon unforgettable.
Addressing worshipers and a live audience, Todd placed a hand on the shoulder of a closed-eyed worshiper on stage before letting out a deep sniffle and twice hacking the phlegm into his other hand. Audible gasps inside Transformation Church, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based mega-ministry firmly rooted in Black Baptist tradition, turned into an outcry when Todd smeared said loogie on the face of the adorer.
“The way you just reacted is how the people in your life will react when God does the right thing for the miracle,” the pastor reassured the horrified onlookers. That the man playing blind on stage turned out to be Todd’s brother, Bentom, didn’t make the pastor’s brutal display any less revolting.
The internet erupted in crises at the first sight of this clip. “God wasn’t far from that,” squeaked Root’s Shanelle Genai. “If your pastor spits in your face,” joked the Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister, “find a new pastor.” Still, a few have come to Todd’s defense, some arguing for the medicinal properties of saliva and others arguing more broadly for more serious offenses that other shepherds have committed against their flocks. (See Commandments 8 and 9.)
Within days, Todd predictably reappeared on camera to apologize for his “too extreme and too disgusting” example. “It is never my intention to distract others from the Word of God and the message of Jesus…even with illustrations!”
In this Covid-related chapter of the internet age, Todd, 35, embodies a new brand of holy man – the preacher-influencer. In South Carolina, there’s Oprah-endorsed John Gray. In Georgia, there’s Jamal Bryant, the child of a preacher-turned-megachurch leader who occasionally appears alongside his ex-wife on The Real Housewives of Potomac.
But none are as current as Todd – whose second book, Crazy Faith: It’s Only Crazy Until It Happens, might as well describe his viral music video. He promotes family on TikTok and parades fashion on Instagram. When memes like the Silhouette Challenge go viral, Todd isn’t just aware; he has a whole tangent in a sermon on “men anchoring their families” in which he discourages young women from “being impressive” with their bodies – an aside met with considerable pushback from secular feminists who had long considered the black church as too paternalistic. It’s definitely not the kind of thing you might expect to hear from Jesse Jackson.
How social media became a new stage
For more than a decade, these preacher-influencers have been spreading the gospel to reach the souls who spend more of their lives in front of screens. And it was only a matter of time before Todd joined them. “The principle of what he’s doing is very, very difficult,” says Cean James, the 47-year-old leader of Salt & Light Ministries in Philadelphia.
Previously, the Baptist preacher didn’t need a lot of frills; he (usually a he) was the show – all it needed was a bit of gospel organ, a catchy chorus and a dash of holy spirit to move the crowd. With his father as his mentor in the pulpit, Martin Luther King Jr elevated this speaking style into a historic second act as a civil rights icon and touring speaker. It’s a style that black politicians — notably Barack Obama — often adopt when preaching to the choir on the campaign trail. And even though African Americans remain the highest church-attending demographic — with an attendance rate of 40%, nearly 10 points higher than the national average, according to a Barna survey — young black people are well lagging behind older generations in their weekly church commitment.
Long before the pandemic, black churches were striving to capture those short attention spans with flashy PowerPoints, studio-quality musicianship, bright concert-quality displays, and equally high production values. Increasingly, they come face to face with the likes of Kanye West, whose viral Sunday Service productions have only further blurred the line between spiritual and secular.
Todd’s Sunday sermons, which saw him perform against an Imax-quality screen, sometimes standing on a water-filled stage or in pouring artificial rain, are as ambitious as anything you’d see on a proscenium. of Vegas. Parishioners don’t just want a tongue of silver, holy hands, and a puff of fire and brimstone. They want to feel this.
There has always been an expectation of performance in the black church. “I know stories of preachers who on Palm Sunday led donkeys to shrines, hoping the donkeys had cleansed their intestines before going on stage,” says Bill Lamar, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington DC. Lamar does not apologize or excuse Todd’s behavior. But as an incisive historian of the black church and its preaching traditions, he argues that technology has played a role from the dawn of print publishing. “The only difference between this young man [Todd] and the others is that we now have technology that makes things go viral.
Social media is just another step. Gone are the days when pastors got away with writing best-selling books and peddling sermons on CD. The competition to win souls became more intense once Covid hit and church services were forced to move to a streaming-only setup. “Churches that had younger clergy or younger people who were already leaning into a lot of technological advances before Covid were really at an advantage,” says James, who is also an associate conference minister for the 66 United Church affiliates. of Christ from southern Pennsylvania. “I had encouraged our congregations to go virtual in regards to worship services and giving three years before Covid.”
However, it is not enough to simply take care of the Internet. A preacher-influencer must appeal in other ways. The @PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, which posts screenshots of pastors in their sneakers with the market price attached, has more than 269,000 followers. Among other clothing horses, the account featured Todd in his Nike Air Fear of God 1s (down to $760 at press time). Even Paula White, Donald Trump’s former spiritual adviser, has been singled out for wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers; in fact, this trend is not exclusive to black preachers. To those who say fashion photography images are just as likely to offend as they are to inspire, recognize the messages for what they are: the new gospel of prosperity.
Not every preacher-influencer can pull a dollar Creflo, a notorious old-school televangelist who raised eyebrows seven years ago with a six-minute video soliciting donations for a $65 million private jet – a goal which he had no problem reaching, by the way.
Before cracking down on social media, some pastors tried to proselytize through reality TV projects like Oxygen’s Preachers of LA, a kind of real cloth husbands that ran for two seasons less than a decade ago ( and spawned a Detroit-based spin-off). But it can just as easily destroy an image as restore it. Gray and Bryant’s separate forays into reality television have only invited tabloid scrutiny over personal indiscretions that contradict their stated beliefs.
“The church is hybrid now”
Todd, however, isn’t just telegenic and exploited. He can also deliver compelling sermons that seem to defy the evangelical practice of sermonizing with metaphors and parables “like Jesus did”, says James, who believes he could have relied on visual aids as well. “Think of the parable of the sower. Imagine Jesus standing beside a field. So people listening to this sermon could have literally watched someone sow seeds. Or at least they were familiar with this process. If He didn’t have the physical illustration right there, He was painting a picture on their mind. It’s really the old technique of preaching.
But these days, says James, preacher-influencers rely on visual examples to attract audiences in the room and followers online. And whenever one of James’s peers asks him how to strike that delicate balance, he offers the same recommendation: watch old-school televangelists work.
“Whether you agree with their theology or not, they were really good at being there for the crowd that was in person and there for the crowd that was on camera,” James says, adding that the video feed is not only part of the Internet game. . “The chat section has really become the new Amen corner for worship. In our church, we have a group of people in our production room who literally just go through the chat responding to what people say. people will put prayer requests in the chat.The church is hybrid now, and you can’t make either group feel like an auxiliary.
Nor can a preacher-influencer become too shocking in the pulpit, at the risk of eclipsing his good intentions. Much less publicized than Todd’s coughed up miracle attempt, his efforts to raise more than a million dollars for survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. “God is a God of reparations,” he told the parishioners last year at an outdoor service held the weekend of June 19. “Reparations means that someone will take up the torch and implement the process of repairing something that has been destroyed. If God is the God of repairs…and I am part of God’s people…then I am responsible to be part of the restoration of what has been torn down.
This sermon would seem to prove that about the modern preacher-influencer: their most significant impacts don’t have to be so heavy.