I had been hearing the name mentioned for a while. TikTok. Kid’s would be recording themselves doing crazy “trending” dances for this relatively new video and music based app at almost every speaking engagement I had. It was clear the kids weren’t interested in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or even Snapchat like they had been. TikTok was where they all wanted to be. It was a curious shift, but I wasn’t ready to explore it quite yet. It seemed like just another social media app teenagers were using to get away from the apps their parents were on.

Then coronavirus hit. People were stuck at home. Social media became one of the few places for un-interrupted social interaction. With Facebook getting so negative and Instagram being the locked down, big brother comparison trap that it is, people were looking for something more raw, more real, a place they could be themselves and find their people virtually…and TikTok was that place. It exploded.

TikTok wasn’t just an app for teenagers anymore. Tribes broke out. No matter what your interest, how you identify, what you are into, what age you are, you could find lots of people just like you clustered together by the TikTok algorithm. In a few short months, an app grew from relatively unknown to threatening the market power grip of Facebook and invoking (for a number of different reasons) an executive order from the President of the United States of America.

The number of users on this platform exploded. Trending and viral – words that had been killed by the algorithms of Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube – were alive and well on TikTok. People were going nuts over this app. They could follow and shoot videos with their friends but they could also attract a crowd of people to affirm and support them. I decided to jump in and explore what ministry could look like on TikTok.

What I found was shocking, dark and made me a better pastor and communicator.

Here is what I learned.

 

PEOPLE ARE DESPERATELY HURTING

It is overwhelming actually. The comment sections of the videos I have posted are full of some heartbreaking stories of brokenness, grief, depression, doubts, fear and loneliness. I find myself scrolling through the comments, trying to respond to each one, praying for each person and realizing that I just can’t keep up. It is too much. I have talked to other TikTok creators who feel the same way. It can be an overwhelmingly dark place.

Thankfully, light always shines brightest in the darkness and Jesus is the light of the world. I posted a video about letting go of your past so you can follow Jesus forward. That 50 second video at the time I am writing this article has over 100,000 views, 21k likes and 1150 comments. People are hurt, they don’t know how to get help and they are struggling to find the healing they need.

PEOPLE ARE DESPERATELY LOOKING FOR LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE

When I first jumped on the app I was appalled and vowed never to let a teenager I love and care for download the app. Talk about getting an education. I was jumping onto urbandictionary.com everyday to learn (to my horror) all of the new words I was hearing. When I finally let my shock subside and decided to really learn from what I was seeing and hearing, what I started to see and hear was a loud and desperate cry to be loved and accepted.

The first video that really blew up for me was accidental. It was a video I didn’t end well. It stopped kind of open ended. It wasn’t intentional I was still trying to figure out what the best type of content was for the people I was trying to help when I posted an 18 second video about not giving up, that there is more to life and something better is coming. Of course this was a clip from a sermon talking about the hope we can have in Jesus and how Jesus already came for us and how God moves in our circumstances to bring us the help we need and how he often uses His people to accomplish this. But the whole point was lost to those who wouldn’t watch the 18 seconds from the lens of faith.

Plenty of people got it. So many other’s tagged friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, etc, hoping for a person to give them the love they were missing, to take them to the “something better.” They viewed it through the lens of romance not faith. It jumped to 170,000 plus views,  43,000 likes and almost a 1000 comments. People are desperately looking for love and acceptance. The good news is a ton of them followed my account where they will find plenty of videos pointing to the true solution to the problems of our heart – Jesus.

PEOPLE DESPERATELY WANT TO BE PART OF A TRIBE

It took zero time for TikTok to break people into their own little TikTok worlds with invisible lines drawn by the algorithm, because people were so quick to identify through comments, and likes and searches who their people actually are (or who they think they are). People joined the app because it looked fun or they were looking for some laughs or superficial connection. Instead, once they joined and used the app for a week or two, they found a place they could be themselves, find acceptance and have people support and validate them. People found the virtual version of their tribe. Unfortunately, their tribe is often as hurting as they are and affirmation isn’t what we need. We need heart change. Millions of people jump on an app everyday to feel loved, accepted and supported. While they are posting videos they are finding voices that are telling them they aren’t alone. The problem is that while the love shown across the app may be real, it is always superficial. This isn’t real community. This isn’t healthy community.

WE AREN’T THE PLACE THEY THINK THEY WILL FIND ANY OF THIS

Don’t get me wrong there is a #TikTok church and hashtags like #christianTikTok are all over the place, but the overwhelming majority of people (even Christian people) are on an app looking for what the church has had to offer them all along. Instead of finding real and deep community in church, they are seeking out a cheapened superficial version. Church is something many of them have given up on. It isn’t a relevant option they are considering when it comes to exploring what to do with their hurt or desire to find unconditional love.

Instead, my TikTok inbox gets blown up with stories of hurt and disappointment from past church experiences. This grieves me so much. We are supposed to be better than TikTok. We have the answers to their hearts greatest needs. We have true community to offer.

When I started this journey exploring TikTok I was overwhelmed with how dark it was. I quickly realized what a big opportunity it presented to offer people the hope, forgiveness and freedom they can experience through Jesus. As I learned how to be a relevant voice on TikTok by speaking to my audiences fears, dreams, hopes, desires, and pain my understanding of people grew. I became better at communicating truth. I grew in my compassion for others. God has used this “experiment” with TikTok to teach me so much about people, to make me a better pastor, and by God’s grace he has been using us on TikTok to be salt and light.

Looking back I think there are three big reminders I needed.

 

GET OUT OF THE WAY

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” Hebrews 4:12. Scripture is always relevant and powerful (2 Timothy 3:16) and when we speak it in truth and love we grow to be more like Christ (Ephesians 4:15). Speaking truth with tons of love, patience, understanding and more love makes a powerful difference in the lives of others. Get out of the way. Don’t let your politics get in the way. Don’t let your opinions get in the way. Don’t let tradition get in the way. Don’t let your fear, lack of understanding, or discomfort, get in the way. Don’t let your desire to play savior get in the way. Don’t let your shock get in the way. Keep loving and keep sharing the truth in love.

THINK DIFFERENT

Spend more time thinking about the needs, desires, fear, and preferences of those you are trying to reach than those who are already reached. Spend less time (or no time) thinking about how to make comfortable sheep more comfortable. It is easy to devote so much time as a pastor to the found flock and so little time and focus to the lost sheep (Luke 15). I think the shift needs to start with our heart and our thinking. I want to grow in my love for and understanding of people who are different than me. I want to understand those I am called to reach on a deep level. I want to be able to speak to their fears, frustrations, and greatest need. I want to know how to communicate with them better.   

DO DIFFERENT

It’s time to pivot for the sake of the Gospel. What do I have to do different at church to make sure we have a relevant voice with the people in my community who may never show up to church. How can we change what we do to be seen as a place people can come to explore their greatest needs. Maybe it is time to be less concerned with being a Christian club and more concerned with how to create hospitals for the lost and hurting. I can do better as a pastor and we can do better as the church when it comes to shifting our focus and our tools to reach new people.

TikTok is not for the easily offended. Who knows, it may be banned in the United States by the time you read this. Regardless, I am grateful for the many conversations I have had with people about Jesus. I am grateful for the people who have jumped off of TikTok and joined our Grace Free Church Online location. I am grateful for the lessons I continue to learn that help me love people more.   

P.S. If you are up for the challenge and want to explore how you can reach people using TikTok, email me josh.ott@efca.org or follow me @gracefreechurch on TikTok.

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Joshua Ott
Josh Ott is lead pastor at Grace Free Church in Cressona, PA. He is also a speaker, coach and creator of the The Speaking Course for Pastors, Speakers and Church Leaders.

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