Lonely no more: Questioning Christians find belonging on TikTok

(RNS) — “Deconstruction” may not be the flashiest clickbait search term, but the hashtag is a portal to a diverse and dynamic community on the video app TikTok.

The TikTokers — known as creators — within this community come from different religious backgrounds and have different beliefs. But together, they are dissecting and rethinking the Christian theology they grew up with — a process many progressive Christians and former evangelicals call “deconstruction.”

Deconstruction is a big word, and the movement is a big tent. For some, the goal is to dismantle Christian teachings that are not LGBTQ-affirming, for others it’s to challenge racism and colonialism within church structures. For others still, it’s about questioning biblical inerrancy, fundamentalism or a punitive image of God. For many, it’s all of the above.

But why TikTok? How did these seekers find a home on the video app?

Deconstructing the faith of one’s childhood can be a lonely undertaking — often leaving people alienated from friends, family and a church that may have once been the center of their community. TikTok, for many of these church exiles, has filled a gap. Several creators said they didn’t even know the term “deconstruction” until they found a community on TikTok of people asking the same questions they were and processing similar experiences.

TikTok’s platform is governed by a mysterious algorithm that distributes videos of interest to users regardless of how large or small a creator’s account is. The speed with which small accounts can go viral and garner a large following attracts many to the app.

The plethora of options for interacting with the app’s 60-second videos also creates a sense of community. Users can respond to video comments with an entirely new video, enabling easy dialogue between creators and viewers. Creators can interact with each other through “Stitching” — attaching their original work to someone else’s. “Dueting” a video is similar to retweeting — creators can amplify others’ voices, add their own comments or respond in real time to someone else’s video monologue.

Although there’s a sense of kinship, there’s plenty of ideological diversity on Deconstruction TikTok. Some creators are publicly pastors. Others are proud atheists. Still others don’t make their personal beliefs public but let their ideas do the talking.

The connections made on the app have even gone beyond TikTok — many of the creators interviewed are part of weekly calls with one another, where they share ideas, talk about their own faith journeys and build community.

Can an algorithm designed to promote dance memes and internet spats really promote serious religious reflection? These seven members of the TikTok deconstruction community say: yes.

‘I didn’t have anyone in my life who I could talk to about it’—@m0ther0fdogs_

Jesseca Reddell, 32, left the Pentecostal church she grew up in about 10 years ago. As part of her departure, she began researching the belief system she had left behind.

Read Jesseca’s profile

‘They’re looking for a pastor on this journey’ — @PastorPaul

Paul Swearengin, 56, who goes by Pastor Paul on TikTok, said he doesn’t consider himself necessarily a deconstructionist, but he’s been roped into the fold.

Read Paul’s profile

‘One belief kind of fell after the other’ — @Captaindadpool86 

Ricky Brock Jr., 34 , is the father of four children. He joined TikTok last fall to make “stupid videos.”

Read Ricky’s profile

‘Not everyone loves me’— @JeGaysus

Before he was Jesus with pink eyeshadow and a rainbow scarf, he was a political TikToker pushing out videos during the 2020 election. “People kept telling me, ‘You look just like Jesus, except you’re gay,” said TikTok creator JeGaysus.

Read JeGaysus’ profile

‘God isn’t surprised by our questions’ — @ToryBae

ToryBae, 34, is a creator whose account has one toe in a variety of TikTok communities: sticker TikTok, adoption Tiktok, deconstruction TikTok.

Read Tory’s profile

‘The last time we had a communication shift this drastic was the printing press and that gave us the Protestant Reformation’  @cfc_pastorjeff

Jeff Baker, 36, was an ordained minister in the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec for nearly a decade. He kept his queer identity a secret while he was working as a Baptist pastor.

Read Jeff’s profile

‘I knew absolutely nothing about my own religion. Everything I knew was basically hearsay’ — @Mya.J0

Mya Jo is entering her senior year of high school in the fall. There aren’t any religion courses on her roster for this school year, but that hasn’t stopped the 17-year-old from embarking on an independent study.

Read Mya’s profile

Source: Religion News Service, By Renée Roden