Katherine Ajibade explores how celebrities and religious influencers are engaging young adults online. 25/06/2019
Two months ago the rapper, singer and producer Kanye West gained widespread media coverage for bringing his ‘Sunday Service’ to Coachella Music Festival. The Sunday Service is Kanye’s approximation of a Christian Sunday worship service orientated around music. The service offers gospel formations of West’s religiously inspired songs, as well as covers of other gospel songs. Taking the Sunday Service to Coachella was as monumental for West as it was for religion in popular culture, because it was the first performance of its kind to debut a mainstream festival such as Coachella. In case anyone missed that this was a religiously inspired performance, West took to twitter to announce that it would take place on Easter Sunday and launched a Sunday Service inspired clothing range. The sold–out range includes sweatshirts with slogans such as ‘Trust God’, ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘Holy spirit’. With over 50,000 people in attendance and an additional 214,000 live streaming the performance on YouTube, the numbers speak for themselves. Kanye’s version of Christianity appeals to people who are looking for representations of faith that they find socially and culturally relevant, now made easily accessible by social media platforms.
West is just one of a large number of celebrities and religious influencers who have gained followers by vocalising their religious faith on social media. Religious influencers, like celebrities, have large followings on social media, but have gained their followers organically from social media activity alone. Both, however, use social media to share content that creatively and personally depicts the role of faith in their lives. This is proving popular with young adults, who find content reflecting the nuances of contemporary lived experiences engaging.
When Justin Bieber posted on Instagram asking his 114.1 million followers to pray for him, online media outlets focused on his candid reliance on faith and prayer. However, it was his open admission that he was ‘struggling a lot’ and going through ‘the most human season [he’d] ever been in’, that gained nearly 5 million likes and 18,000 comments from followers who empathised with his experience. The post was made even more powerful by Bieber bringing his followers with him on his faith journey through the act of prayer, saying, ‘God is faithful and ur prayers really work, thanks’. Intimate posts such as this not only encourage the interdependency of fan–celebrity relationships, but also stimulate conversations that inspire new understandings of the personal and social relevance of religion in contemporary society.
The propensity for a message of faith to reach millions of people at a touch of a button is astounding, and this made possible by the global reach of social media. According to the Pew Research Centre, nearly 90 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 used at least one form of social media in 2018. Given such high levels of social media usage from those under 30, it is unsurprising that religiously centred content on social media is not only enabling young adults to engage directly in faith–based conversations, but also forming their views. The ‘show and tell’ nature of influencer–follower relationships becomes formative, because social media platforms allow influencers to show how faith is relevant to the social conversations young adults are tuned in to. In this way, religious influencers and celebrity faith culture are challenging the narrative that religion is irrelevant to the lived experiences of young adults.
Social media, and the internet more broadly, is changing the game when it comes to how young adults are forming their values and beliefs. A recent book by Hussein Kesvani, and its subsequent Theos launch event, explores this by charting the shift in how a generation of Muslims are forming their religious identity online. Within this space, celebrity faith culture and religious influencers are raising the awareness of religion by using social media to highlight the vibrancy of living according to faith. Now, the role of the religious influencer is being taken on by religious figures themselves. Pope Francis has amassed 18.1 million followers since joining Twitter in 2012. This signals a recognition from religious institutions that as the online conversation regarding faith is changing, now is the time to establish a strong online presence. What’s more, it is also the time to start accompanying people in their faith within the spaces they routinely find themselves, which is now largely online.