Episcopalian priest and former marine, David W. Peters has been set a unique challenge: travel to an emerging suburb in Austin, Texas, and get the people to join him in starting a church. “I’m sort of making it up as I go along, I’ve never done it before”, he said.
The custom is officially known as, “church-planting” and is not easy, but modern problems call for modern solutions, and the priest has struck upon one of the most modern.
As with Vine, the now obsolete video-sharing app, the answer to popularity on TikTok is in sincerity. Users are urged to film themselves how they really are, whether that is lip-syncing to Korean pop in their bedroom or messing around with soft drink bottles. The biggest crime you can commit on the app is being fake. The content on TikTok is diverse, some of it is genuinely bizarre, some is hysterical, some is frankly horrifying but there is zero tolerance in the way of artifice.
Perhaps this goes some ways to explaining the priest’s success. Many of the Gen-Z would rather choke on their smashed avocado rather than engage a middle-aged theist eager to talk to them about faith, but they understand Peters is not trying to dupe them.
The videos Peters posts were intended to draw Austinites to religion but have also made him a star of the new social media app that most his age, still don’t quite understand.
Motivated by the online success of a young local veteran he knows, Peters has taken to making videos on TikTok, the newest app taking over social media where users share eight-second clips.
The Episcopalian priest has fused the trends of TikTok, with what he calls his own brand of “churchy” humour. The result is a strange, heady mash-up of the new and the old, the silly and the sacred.
In his most popular vid, Peters cycles in his vestments, jumping up and down while, Another Day of Sun from the, La La Land score plays and the words, “Hot Priest Summer” burst onto screen.
In another, he pokes fun at the people who’ve suggested he just write a bestseller, instead of his dense but revealing treatises on both God and PTSD.
— David W. Peters (@dvdpeters) August 9, 2019
The posts were aimed at drawing young Austinites to church, but the popularity of them has been much wider. Peters has become a star of TikTok. “There’s downsides to social media,” he says. “It can connect us to people really far away, and disconnect us to people really close. But never before have humans been able to amplify very simple messages. And TikTok is the simplest message of all. It has to be really, really boiled down.”
It helps that Peters is genuinely funny, something that might surprise those who picture the Episcopalian church or any church for that matter as clumsy and out-dated. “There’s a lot of comedy in church,” he says. “When I was in the marines years ago, some of the greatest moments of comedy came in the greatest moments of seriousness. Church is like that. Humour is a way of reminding us that not everything stays the same. There is a shadow in the valley of death, but there’s also moments where we’re by the springs of living water.”
Peters’ version of the bottle cap challenge for example saw him skimming a thurible (incense burner on a chain) against the top of a bottle of port.
TikTok’s audience is a youthful one, so on paper, his success might seem odd. After all your average teenager embraces a natural suspicion of the middle-aged that can border on the pathological and Peters does receive a certain amount of pushback, most of it in the form of coarse jokes. But he says the audience has been largely welcoming and supportive on the app.
“I don’t have an office,” he says. “I’m going out to where people are … I try to do it speaking their language and being a listener. The videos I’ve made for TikTok, I’ve tried to use the language of the medium. Which is like going to any new culture. If you show respect and listen, you’ll learn a few things.”
“As churches, we lead with our vulnerability,” Peters says. “We share our stories and our experiences and encourage others to as well. The symbol of our faith is a cross, which often has a figure of a man dying on it.” He laughs a little. “If that isn’t vulnerability, I don’t know what is.”