What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
When YouTube first recommended the video to me, I couldn’t bring myself to click on it. I had heard of such “wedding night” videos, but it wasn’t until after I pitched this article that I finally forced myself to watch one: “Our First Time,” a storytime YouTube video created by a Christian influencer couple, Chelsea and Nick Hurst, about their wedding night.
Chelsea and Nick—who are both young, white, and exceedingly sincere—have 1.5 million YouTube subscribers and upload weekly videos with titles like “Realistic Married Morning Routine” and “What to Look for in a Future Husband/Wife.” “Our First Time” opens with a promotion for the resort where they got married, then segues into the actual storytime, during which the couple informs the audience that their first time together occurred in a treehouse amid the sounds of pouring rain. At the end of the video, Chelsea encourages viewers to buy her latest book, a sixty-day devotional from HarperCollins. Both are endearing and earnest: even with the obvious plugs, you can tell that they genuinely want to help people by creating content that centers on Christian living.One of the reasons Christian influencers make videos about their newly minted sex lives is almost certainly to get views, which begets both more followers—more impact for Jesus, naturally—and also more money.
Then again, their video, which was uploaded less than a year ago, has garnered almost half a million views. The lesson? Sex sells. Christian sex sells, too.
Though to the casual observer these videos might seem overly personal, they’re actually quite common. Because the influencer’s general goal is to build a following by appearing likable, relatable, sympathetic, or aspirational, many of them do this by cultivating a sense of intimacy with their audience. Therefore, sharing personal details on the internet—like the story of one’s wedding night—helps forge stronger connections with their followers.
But underlying these connections runs an awareness that the relationship, to a certain extent, is transactional. After all, when a follower is both someone you can encourage and someone to whom you’re selling something, where does the encouragement end and the selling begin? How do you distinguish between the two, particularly when it comes to your own personal motivations? Furthermore, the more time I spend on “Christian” social media, the more I wonder how influencers, consciously or not, balance the ideas of monetization and money, genuine faith and semblance of it, particularly when they create and market their content.
It’s a tricky field to navigate. Entwined with the explicitly spiritual content that Christian influencers promote in their videos and captions is the implicit, underlying image of the “ideal Christian lifestyle,” which looks fairly similar across the board. Many Christian influencers post professional-looking photos of their spouses and families, then sell you photo preset packs so your Instagram feed can look like theirs. They write books and host workshops, teach you how to travel the world as virgins and how to catch a guy’s attention. In all cases, their personal branding encompasses their faith, which they then use to help propel their careers forward. While this is not necessarily bad when done from the right motivation—it is their job to sell things—these trends can emphasize aesthetic over substance and make it hard to separate the cultural from the biblical. If my thirteen-year-old self watched these videos, she would have at least partially bought into certain reassurances promised inherently within the clickbait titles and edited photos: that God would someday write her love story; that the Christian life would always look dewy and desirable. She would have aspired to live up to these ideals, then become disheartened when she realized that real life lacks the polished veneer that seems so attractive on the internet. What needs to be more distinct is the separation between biblical living and keeping up with the Robertsons—a line that’s difficult to navigate, particularly when the two concepts are muddled together.
Additionally, we need to consider the systems in which Christian influencers operate. Social media is not a neutral system; YouTube’s algorithms generally favor the kinds of content that will generate the most reaction. All the “wedding night” videos I’ve seen have contained some element of clickbait in their titles and descriptions—an indication that the influencers who created and promoted these videos understood how their followers would react to them and also how the algorithm would distribute their content. Within this logic, one of the reasons why Christian influencers decide to make videos about their newly minted sex lives is almost certainly to get views, which begets both more followers—more impact for Jesus, naturally—and also more money. Whether they lean more toward the mercenary or against it, I will never be able to say. Whether that motivation is necessarily wrong, I also can’t say. To a certain degree, it’s their job to generate reaction. But the systems in which they operate inherently urge content creators to segment their faith and experiences into separate pieces and market them as individual concepts. At least some part of that feels icky to me.
This ultimately ties into what Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, calls an intersection between the ideas of American capitalism and evangelical culture. Speaking within the context of Christian ministry, Pearcey writes: “In their marketing strategies, many Christian organizations borrow heavily from commercial enterprises, creating idealized images of their ‘product’ to motivate people to ‘buy’ it.” She argues that many ministries view marketing and business practices as philosophically neutral, which leads them to employ the latest innovations in their own ministries without consciously thinking about how to approach them biblically. By using secular tools of persuasion in order to “sell” Christianity to the masses—all for the sake of the Gospel, of course—these ministries then use those generated levels of engagement to measure how “successful” they are as ministries.
Pearcey talks specifically about Christian ministry, which is not necessarily something that each Christian influencer claims. But the more “social media influencing” becomes integrated into other traditional vocations, including ministry work, the more we should understand that being a Christian on social media means not only thinking about your image, impressions, and engagement, but also about why you’re posting and how social media itself might influence your own creative output and habits of consumption. Even though the rules of the internet might measure success by the size of one’s audience, Pearcey argues that this desire for a larger influence is precisely something that Christians should actively work against. Our “success” is not defined by the number of people we reach; rather, she writes, we should “let go of the worldly motivations that drive us, praying to be motivated solely by a genuine desire to submit our minds to God’s Word—and then to use that knowledge in service to others.”
This is not, however, a problem that’s easily solved or even easily navigable. Even though people’s darker motivations often become clear with time, no one truly knows the desires of man’s heart except God. What I’d look for, I think, is a general self-awareness of the different factors at play. If a content creator and influencer’s job is to build a following and a brand, then it’s understandable why someone would actively make cohesive, aesthetically pleasing content to gain views and followers. Contained within every vocation are layers of murkiness that make it hard to practically understand what it means to be a Christian trying to work within given systems for the glory of God. But ultimately, while our faith should influence the way we act online, our ultimate foundation isn’t our own portrayal of our lives or the engagement generated in reaction to it. Rather, living in light of the Gospel means living with a pervasive consciousness that neither we nor our accomplishments are our own, and that, in fact, we should place greater weight on biblical success over any human definition of it—even if that means forsaking the numbers.
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