By Andrew Blustein, Reporter

February 10, 2021 | 5 min read

Religious messaging was once the preserve of the clergy, but influencers big and small are using their Instagrams, YouTubes and TikToks to open up authentic dialogue around faith.

You can find almost anything on social media, be it political memes or Pomeranian puppies, highbrow humor or lowbrow smut – and all with ads sprinkled between. There really is something for everyone. Even the religious among you.

And while that might come as a surprise as you watch your 15th cat video of the day and silently LOL at another Captain Picard gif, it really shouldn’t. 18 million people follow the pope on Twitter. As Daniel Bortz puts it: “If the goal of a religious or spiritual leader is to reach people with their wisdom, they have to be pragmatic where that is.”

Bortz is an Orthodox rabbi from California who runs two non-profit Jewish organizations for teens and young adults. Online, however, he is the Millennial Rabbi, preaching to his flock on social media.

His social embrace began in 2011 when he found success using Facebook Events and Messenger to invite people to community events. “But when I asked some of the kids I was working with: ‘Guys, I put the event on Facebook, didn’t you see it?’ They said: ‘Facebook? We don’t use Facebook any more. We’re all on Instagram.’”

Instagram is now Bortz’s biggest channel, where he has 26,000 followers. He’s also on Snapchat and has made his way to TikTok. “When you work with young people, they’re always the first to be on the cusp of trends and that kind of helps me help me stay on top of it.”

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Bortz isn’t alone in the world of religious influencers. Elena Nikolova, the Muslim Travel Girl with over 42,000 followers on Instagram and 34,000 on Facebook, wants to help the Muslim community be more confident in their identity as she shares her halal gallivants. ‘Messenger of Christ, author and fashion designer’ Dephne Madyara, meanwhile, has 167,000 followers of her YouTube channel, where she posts videos with titles such as ‘Prayer to Dismantle Demonic Strongholds’ and ‘Prayer for your Future Husband’.

More mainstream influencers are infusing religion into their content, too. A trio of sisters, Brooklyn, Bailey and Kamri Noel McKnight, have more than 8 million YouTube followers between them. Summer Mckeen has over 2 million. They’re all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Over on TikTok, meanwhile, you’ll find the Jewish Hype House – a collective of young Jewish content creators. One member “goes by kosherb0y and has a gold Torah fuckboy earring”, according to New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz who has been writing and tweeting extensively about the Hype House phenomenon. Another goes by “JewishGuy69” and one calls himself “the Sheriff of Jewish TikTok”.

While the Millennial Rabbi is overtly spreading a religious message, these other influencers are instead bringing real parts of their lives – including their religious background – into their content to create something more authentic.

“In the past, you could only hear from the leaders of the clergy,” says Bortz. “Now you can hear from anybody who wants to share. I think it’s great.”

The internet is changing religious practices all over the world. Some within Buddhist and Hindu communities in Asia practice their religious rituals online. Chabad, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, has taken to the internet to expand its reach and find new members.

“Religious movements outside the mainstream, and nontraditional religious and spiritual influencers, can have a larger audience than they might otherwise have thanks to social media,” explains Paul McClure, a professor at the University of Lynchburg who does research on technology, religion and culture. Although in his view, the internet in America is still a pretty secular place. He points to a 2017 study from Baylor University that found 55% of Americans never use it to access religious or spiritual content. But with social media, he adds, “we’re seeing an increased willingness to tinker and experiment with a number of religious options”.

It’s not quite the same as observing the sabbath though, says Bortz. “It would be kind of like setting up a synagogue on the Las Vegas Strip or South Beach.”

But the internet is global, and social media allows users of any faith to interact with religious influencers. “People in every continent have reached out to me,” he says. “There are people who don’t have rabbis or people they can ask questions to and this gives them an opportunity to ask someone virtually.”

But experimenting can be hard when the principals of religion are (in some cases, actually) set in stone. Balancing the conservatism of Orthodox Judaism with the open, party-like atmosphere of social media can be a challenge. “I struggle with it,” Bortz admits. “I try to put on more than I’m consuming. There’s a risk to my spiritual growth in spending too much time on social media.”

Like everyone else in this world, religious influencers have to worry about how they make a living. Bortz’s full-time job is running his non-profits, so he doesn’t rely on ad dollars from brands that support influencers across social media. And advertisers already have enough to worry about when it comes to brand safety, so aligning with a personality so overtly religious could prove a stretch.

“I’ve never really taken sponsors on because I don’t want to come across as trying to advertise,” Bortz tells us, but he admits he would consider partnering with a brand if it aligned “really well” with what he believed in.

Sponsored or not, secular or devout, religion is making its way on to your social feed.

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