How can church leaders build an inclusive community of faith? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff interviews Brandan Robertson, the “TikTok Pastor,” about social media ministry, intersectional inclusivity, and the challenges of building inclusive community.
Jessica Anschutz: Before we talk about your book, Brandan, share how you came to be known as the “TikTok pastor.”
Brandan Robertson: It’s a surprising story to me every time I go back and think about it because it really centers on the pandemic. The pandemic shifted so much for so many people. I was pastoring a community in San Diego, and we had shut down our offices and Sunday worship and were figuring out what going virtual meant. This meant I had a lot of extra free time on my calendar because pastoral care became all virtual. There was a lot less traveling around.
I started exploring, trying to find inspiration for how to pastor during the pandemic. I’d seen this app, TikTok, pop up but thought it was for kids to post dancing videos or whatever, and I wasn’t very interested in it. I saw a fellow clergy colleague in San Diego posting fun videos in her clergy collar talking about theology. Seeing TikTok used that way, I wondered what it would look like for me to use it. So, I started a TikTok account, and my first 20 videos were pretty terrible. I tried to be funny, hip, and cool, and do all of the things that I thought the kids on TikTok would resonate with. And none of that really worked.
About a month into it, I started talking about theology, my passion. I see myself as a teacher and public theologian, and I love helping people articulate a progressive version of Christianity. I started recording videos about various aspects of progressive Christianity and noticed these videos getting 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 views and my follower count was growing. I was blown away by how theology resonated with the audience of TikTok, and that really lit a passion in me for re-evangelizing.
Most of the people I talk to on TikTok are people who walked away from church or are turned off by Christianity because of what they see in the media. They discover my account and now the hundreds of other progressive clergy accounts that are on TikTok and begin to consider what it would look like to follow Jesus. TikTok has become part of my calling and my ministry, and I’m just really blown away by how this platform has enabled me to live out my calling as a pastor and someone proclaiming the good news of Jesus.
Jessica Anschutz: I love that story and think it’s a wonderful story of innovation, of trying and failing and pivoting and sort of finding your place. What tips do you have for others who may want to use TikTok as a tool for ministry?
Brandan Robertson: I think the easiest thing is to just get TikTok and start doing what you do. So many people, especially pastors, are paralyzed by feeling like they don’t know the ins and outs of a platform, so they never begin to experiment with it. There’s really no way that you can use TikTok or any other social media platform wrong. There are ways that are effective and get your content in front of lots of people and some that are not as effective and won’t be seen by tons of people. All of it is good knowledge and can help you learn how to be an effective digital minister.
People tend to think when they get on TikTok that they have to create really highly curated content that’s been edited, has perfect captions, and the best lighting. In my own story of “success” on TikTok, my videos are unedited and off the cuff. I record 10 videos in 20 minutes because each video is about a minute long. I sit down and I speak from my heart what’s on my mind and post that immediately. Those videos get more traction because what people are looking for on TikTok more than anything is a sense of authentic connection. The person on the other side of the screen wants to feel like they’re FaceTiming or Zooming or are connecting with you in a very real way. Content that is overly produced and overedited on TikTok doesn’t perform well, so it’s a super accessible platform for people to turn on their cameras, say what’s on their hearts, put it out into the world, and see what happens. People are starved for good news and inclusive Christianity, so more voices on a platform like TikTok is better for the mission that we’re all called to in the world. So, get on TikTok!
Jessica Anschutz: I appreciate your endorsement of TikTok and your endorsement of being our authentic selves when it comes to leadership in the church and in the community. I know that your social media presence and your messages of inclusion have not only brought millions of views but also quite a bit of critique, which often comes for those of us who are in the spotlight of public ministry. What practices have helped sustain you in the midst of the criticism that comes along with your presence?
Brandan Robertson: I would be lying if I said that the criticism doesn’t always get to me. When we enter into the digital realm, we need to be mindful that this is global. Everything you put on the internet is available to anyone in the world. There are lots of people in the world who will oppose what you’re saying or who you are or how you’re doing ministry, and there are a lot of people in the world that will do that in ways that are pretty horrendous. On the one hand, I think most pastors have to learn how to have a thick skin and take some critique. But when you are also in the digital space, you’re going to come across people who go out of their way to do very unkind, sometimes scary, things. I’ve had people email me threats.
I’ve dealt with that personally by having other friends in this space with me who I can talk to about how to respond if there is a particularly bad troll attacking or if I am getting a kind of threatening email. Having a community of support around me and talking to other clergy about what to do and how to respond is very helpful because a lot of times when you’re responding to something that’s so negative you get into flight or fight mode, and that is not helpful for making decisions. So, having a sounding board is helpful.
Since my ministry has moved primarily into the digital realm, it is only recently that I stepped back into a brick-and-mortar church. I’ve really relied on therapy, which all pastors should have but especially if they’re doing digital work because digital platforms expose you in a way that you aren’t exposed in the four walls of your church. People will know things about you. On the positive side, if you get on TikTok and even if you just get a couple thousand followers, you might get recognized in public. As pastors, I think it’s important for us to have people to talk about those instances, good and bad, to help keep our egos in check, to help keep us humble, to make sure we’re staying healthy.
Social media can also become addictive. We can also very quickly utilize it for the wrong reasons. If it becomes a way to get some more views, you’re going to find that your content begins to be inauthentic. You’re going to start saying things that you know people will respond to. Having a therapist in my life to talk about criticism but also to talk about what it means to do ministry in such a public way has been a really helpful way to keep me grounded and keep me motivated to come back and do this ministry for another day.
Jessica Anschutz: The importance of personal and professional support in the midst of ministry is certainly key and I appreciate your willingness to lift both of those aspects up — the friends and colleagues and therapy. I want to shift now to your book, True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace. If our listeners haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I encourage them to do so. Your book focuses on intersectional inclusivity. How did you come to write about this?
Brandan Robertson: True inclusion as a book was not my idea. I stepped into pastoring a very diverse church, probably one of the more diverse churches I’ve ever seen before, and I was wrestling with a question. I’d spent so much time in my life and in my ministry advocating for LGBT inclusion in particular. Now I was pastoring a church that was fully inclusive and hired me as an openly queer pastor and had racial diversity and was very mindful of people with different abilities and disabilities. We had all of it going on already. When I stepped in, I kind of breathed a sigh of relief and thought this wasn’t a conversation we were really going to need to have.
Then my publisher, Chalice Press, reached out to me and said, “Hey, we know that you’re doing inclusive ministry, but we’re getting a lot of people asking, what do you do next? Once your church becomes fully and ultimately inclusive, once your church embraces racial justice, once your church has women in leadership, what happens? Does the work stop there or is there more that we should be doing? After the publisher asked me to do that, I spent about a year looking at my community and asking that in the midst of our community. What does it mean for us to say we’re inclusive and to have done a good job building an inclusive community thus far? But does it end here? Is that all the work? Do we just get to put that on our sign out front and be done with it?
What emerged was a clear “no” to that question. There was always more work to do. In True Inclusion, I explore both practically what we had to do as a community when we became aware of more blind spots and people we were excluding and how we wrestled with those questions as an inclusive community. I looked back at the theology of Jesus and his call to take the gospel of inclusion to its logical conclusion, which means that we’re always looking beyond the four walls of our church and asking: Who isn’t showing up here and why? Who aren’t we thinking about the needs of and therefore making it harder for them to step into the four walls of our church? Also, how are we utilizing our resources to those that will never step in to the four walls of our church? We’re rooted in this community for a purpose, and it’s not so that we can build a more wealthy, bigger church. It’s so that we can bless and serve and heal this community.
True Inclusion is a small book, but it’s meant to reflect on both those theological and personal experiences I had in my first few years pastoring that community. I include some of the steps and practical processes we implemented to help us continue to see inclusion as a process that was actually fundamental to what it meant to be a progressive, inclusive community. It was something we were always thinking about, always doing, always expanding.
Jessica Anschutz: What are some of the risks that church leaders must be willing to take in order to be fully inclusive?
Brandan Robertson: That’s a great question because the truth is that becoming inclusive is not a strategy to grow your church. It’s one of the things I say first and foremost in the book. A lot of people tend to have the idea, as they begin thinking about moving their churches towards inclusion, that this is going to be a way to invite more and more people in. In one sense, you will get more diverse people in your church when you start leaning into the inclusion imperative. But when you become a truly inclusive church and center inclusion as your community’s core value, people in that church who are comfortable with the status quo, who are comfortable with the way things have been, who are comfortable with the people that have been showing up, are going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.
I’ve seen it time and time again in every church I’ve pastored. As we pushed towards inclusion, we’ve lost people. I also talk about the revolving door principle in True Inclusion. In my experience, and every other inclusive pastor I’ve talked to has had an experience of, once your church commits to inclusion, the front door of your church becomes revolving, meaning membership isn’t really a thing in radically inclusive churches. In very few, you might have a core group of people that become members and stick around and form the basis of the community.
More often than not, your community is going to be made up of people who are coming into the doors of your church for a place of healing because they’ve been harmed by the church, rejected by their religious family. They’re looking for a way to heal from their religious trauma. They come and be a part of your church for a while, and then they might move on. I think we need to reframe that as success.
I think we need to shift how we view what the role of church is: not building massive Sunday morning services but having a community that’s a touch point for many people, where they know they can come and show up and get healed. They can come, show up, and do justice in the community. But they might not be there every Sunday. As you lead people on this journey towards healing and radical inclusion, membership shifts. The way we look at who makes up our church needs to shift. That can be really shocking if you’re not prepared for it. I’ve had so many consulting calls with pastors who are devastated and frustrated because they’ve done the right thing and they’ve lost a lot of people. But I think that’s what we’re called to do and it’s all about reframing.
Jessica Anschutz: In thinking about your own experience on the journey down the path of inclusion, how have you been changed as you’ve led congregations to be more inclusive?
Brandan Robertson: I’ve been changed in two ways. One, by being inclusive and teaching inclusivity in the way that I’ve gotten to over the past decade, I’ve become a more radically honest and authentic pastor and person, meaning now, when I show up to a church again (I started at my new church a couple of months ago), I own my biases and my beliefs and who I am and areas that I’m working on. I’ve had to learn to own that very clearly and publicly and not be ashamed of it and also to extend that same grace to everybody else. By demonstrating that as a pastor, it helps other people show up and be authentic. Inclusive communities need to be willing to have safe space for people to say: “I actually don’t know what I think about XYZ type of person. I have struggles around that. Can we work on that together?” So, I’ve become more authentic, and it feels so liberating and freeing, honestly, to get to show up, to lay all my cards on the table, to be an authentic real person with the communities I pastor. And I hope that those communities are also invited to that same sort of authenticity.
Also, the blessing of inclusive community is that I view the church as either a classroom or a gymnasium for our souls. It’s not meant to be a place that we show up for community alone. We should be growing. We should be challenged. Being in inclusive community puts you in proximity with so many people who have such different life experiences, such different beliefs and ideologies and backgrounds. My own beliefs have shifted dramatically and continue to shift weekly being in community with diverse people because I’ve had to take a posture of listening and learning from other people, being challenged on things that I’ve helped to be core beliefs or core ideas, and be willing to let them go and shift based on experiences of other people that I would have never otherwise heard or learned about in my own kind of silo of monocultural churches. Inclusion has helped me become a more well-rounded and truly intersectional person, which has proven to be a gift and allows me to minister in a more effective and humble way to people who do things differently or believe differently or have a different way of thinking about religion and church and all of those good things.
Jessica Anschutz: Share a little bit with our listeners what it means for you to think in an intersectional way.
Brandan Robertson: Intersectionality simply refers to the reality that each one of us has multiple identities. Therefore, when we talk about how we show up in the world and how we relate to our society or to the church, there are different levels and ways that each of us are relating to different aspects of the society. I’m a white, cisgendered gay man. I have a lot of privilege being white, man, and cisgender, and I don’t experience a lot of the microaggressions and the oppression that transpeople or nonbinary people or women or nonwhite people experience. It’s hard for me to relate to that on a personal level. But as a gay man I do experience some forms of oppression and microaggressions that cisgender and straight people would never experience on a personal level. That reality causes me to relate differently when I’m talking to a person of color who’s gay or a nonbinary person who’s white. It shapes the way that I think, especially when talking to people about inclusion and their experience in the church, in the world.
To think intersectionally simply means you’re always willing to analyze the circumstances that you’re in or the people that you’re with and willing to understand the multiple identities that are at play and allow that to change the way you relate to them. I have to understand all the cultural backgrounds and the ways that privilege and power have worked in this community and changed the way I’m going to relate to this group of people. In the apostle Paul’s words, it’s learning to be all things to all people. It’s learning to relate to people where they’re at and understand the ways that my own identities can make other people uncomfortable or have a history of oppressing other people and therefore should temper the way that I engage and probably calls me to listen more than I teach in those environments.
Jessica Anschutz: The importance of listening. Often, we’re too prepared to speak and react rather than hear what’s being shared. As we think about church leaders who may or may not be engaged in intersectional inclusivity, especially those who are thinking about beginning those journeys in their congregations on any number of issues, you lift up in the book that often congregations start in one area and then, as they seek to be inclusive, they move into other areas and recognize that there’s more work to be done. What words of wisdom do you have for church leaders as they begin to do this important work?
Brandan Robertson: You touched on something there that I’ll comment on really quickly. I think the only wrong way to do inclusive ministry is to take the one-thing-at-a-time approach because that negates the intersectional experience. In the book, I talk about a lot of churches that will say “We’re going to do racial justice. We’re a racial justice church. Or we are all about LGBT inclusion and that’s what we do.” And it’s like, great, so you’re for LGBT inclusion, but what about black LGBT people? Are they going to feel welcomed in your church because you’re not considering the way your church has participated in racial injustice. What about people with disabilities and different abilities? Have you considered them? Just because you’re a racial justice church doesn’t mean that a person of color who has a disability is going to be welcomed into your church.
So, one, recognize that this is an overwhelming task that you are stepping into. It is through the call of the Gospel and the strength of God that we can lean into this task together and recognize that we should be asking our communities, “What are all of the ways that we are being exclusive to all of the types of people that we’re being exclusive to?” and recognize we’re not going to get all of them all at once but have an intersectional lens.
Most importantly, if you’re a clergy member and you’re about to start leading your church through this process, you need support. Even if your church is already a more progressive or moderate church that’s kind of open to these kinds of conversations, it’s so helpful to have a friend, a mentor, another clergy person who has done this work who can help navigate through the pastoral concerns because becoming inclusive is one of the most exhilarating and important things a church can do. It can also be very traumatic because there’s a lot of change very quickly. The language that we start using when we start being inclusive requires us to own our own sin, power, and privilege. It becomes a very fraught situation very quickly, so having somebody else that can help support you and help speak into your own church from the outside is essential.
Don’t do inclusive ministry alone. Make sure you’re supported by other people. The good news is most of our mainline denominations have programs or committees that do some version of inclusive ministry and there are a lot of resources. I recommend leaning on them. All of the denominations that I’ve interacted with, which has been pretty much all of them, have great people and great programs around this kind of conversation. Use the resources that are there for you and embark on this journey with bravery.
Jessica Anschutz: You have to be courageous and brave and willing to take the risks and have the support systems in place as you take those initial steps. Brandan, I could probably sit here and talk with you all day, but we have to draw our time together to a close. I want to remind our listeners that your book is True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace. As we close, I would like to invite you to share what your hope is for the church.
Brandan Robertson: The big question. In this moment of reconfiguration and reformation, it’s my hope that the church will lean into a spirit of innovation, meaning to be willing to let the old things go, be willing to change the way we think about what it means to be a church, to look like a church, to exist as a church, to be willing to experiment and pay the price sometimes when the experiment goes wrong, but also experience the blessings of unexpected innovation. If the church can be innovative and willing to reform, the church has a future. If the church stays rigid and doesn’t allow all the rapidly changing technologies and experiences that are coming in our modern world to help influence the way we do our ministry, … that’s the only way that we’re going to continue to be able to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the coming generations — stay open to reforming.
Jessica Anschutz: What a hopeful message. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Brandan.
Brandan Robertson: Thank you for having me.
- 10 Ways to Make Your Church More Inclusive by Brandan Robertson
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- Diverse Congregations Are Stronger Congregations by Faith Communities Today