As some of you may know, in addition to my regularly scheduled duties as minister of music at my church, this past Sunday I was also in charge of the message. Supposedly we are going to start live streaming and/or podcasting these things, but since that has not happened, and many people have asked for it, I am posting it here. It was way too long to tweet, and nobody wants to read a 5 page Facebook status, so this seemed like the proper place to share it. So in case you interested to see what I think about YouTube, blogging, and the church, here it is, slightly edited for print.
The most popular video on YouTube has, as of this morning, over 1.7 BILLION hits. We saw a clip from it before the service. It’s the video for the song “Gangnam Style” by South Korean singer Psy. I don’t know how many of you in here have seen the video, but statistically, amongst all the people of Earth, about 2 in 7 of us have seen it. So maybe 20 of us. Or, as is more likely the case, my daughter Ruby has watched it 20 times. But why? The SECOND most viewed video on YouTube has 878 million hits. HALF the number of the Psy video. What made this video so popular?
Well, people shared it. To some it was a joke. His crazy dance moves, the over-the-top choreography, the sheer absurdity of this video drove people to post it to their friends’ Facebook walls and twitter feeds, and those people shared it as well.
But how did it all begin? People share a lot of things online that don’t get billions of views. Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, rapper T-Painwas among the first to have “sent [the video] to the stratosphere” when he tweeted about it on July 29. It was then featured on the Gawkerwebsite, and then tweeted about by celebrities including Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Tom Cruise, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And Katy Perry is the number two person in terms of number of followers on twitter. Britney Spears is number 8. Between the two of them they have over 70 million followers, so when they share something, a lot of people see it.
So it went viral. But what does that mean? Is it good? Is it bad? What does it mean for Psy? Is his life better? His message has been shared with the world. He is an instant celebrity. According to these numbers he is the most popular person on the internet.
But to look at it another way, do you know whose YouTube channel has the most subscribers? This means that people sign up to be updated when you post a new video. These are your hardcore fans. Psy has about 6 million subscribers. Not even in the top ten. Out of the 1.7 billion people that saw his video, 6 million stuck around for more. That’s only .35% Three and a half out of every thousand. So maybe he’s not so popular after all. No, the top YouTube channel in terms of subscribers is Smosh. What is Smosh? I had no idea, so I went over to their channel and watched some of their videos (There are over 300 of them). Smosh is two guys who make silly videos about pop culture. A lot of video game parodies, movie spoofs, and basically two guys being crude and silly. And they have almost 12 million followers. 12 million people are notified when these guys put up a new video, such as “What if Cartoons were Real” and “The Legend of Zelda Rap Video.” None of their videos comes close to Psy’s record, but unlike Psy, each of their videos gets between 20 and 30 million views. I would show you some, but I don’t want this service to deteriorate into us just sitting around watching YouTube videos. I’ve been to a lot of parties that end that way, and believe me, five minutes later we will have been here for three hours. But trust me when I tell you, Smosh videos get a lot of views. Now, Psy has several Gangnam Style related videos that have tens of millions of hits, but most of his videos are relatively unwatched.
So which is better? To go massively viral and have the most popular video in the world? Or to build a huge following and have consistently impressive numbers on each thing that you post? Or perhaps, like Jesus, we don’t have to choose.
I have gone viral twice in my online life, though certainly not to millions of people. The first time was in December of 2010. I posted a video on YouTube, and was quite surprised the next morning when friends started posting on my Facebook account that I was on the front page of the Huffington Post. I browsed over there as fast as I could go, and sure enough, there was my video. It’s a video of me cutting down a Christmas tree. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:
Most of my videos get between one and two hundred views. The Christmas Tree Falling On Me video has over 31,000 views at the moment, thanks to the Huffington Post. I know it’s not 1.7 billion, but it is a lot to me. The second time I went viral was a few weeks ago. I write a blog every day called Tenor Dad, which I describe as the adventures of a stay-at-home-dad/opera singer, and I mostly post things about parenting or music. I have some loyal followers and I have a couple of hundred people reading each of my posts at a minimum. In July I wrote a piece called “TheTop 15 Signs You Might Be an Opera Singer,” and somehow (and I still don’t know how), it was discovered and tweeted out by several major opera sites and companies. That post got over 6500 views and it’s still climbing.
But there is a huge difference between what happened a few years ago, and what happened a few weeks ago. And I think it’s the difference between what church sometimes is, and what church maybe ought to be. And if you’re paying attention, it’s the model that the Bible gives to us. Because Jesus went viral. And I think I know why.
When I posted that YouTube video, I was not ready for it to go viral. There weren’t really any other similar videos on my site, and I didn’t have a clear vision for what I wanted my YouTube presence to be. Which was fine. I just thought it was a funny video that I wanted to show to my friends, and so that fact that 30,000 extra people saw was just kind of a fun bonus. I did not get any new subscribers to my channel. I did not get new likes or comments. My fan base did not grow. I was not suddenly the most popular tree-accident place on the internet. People came, saw something funny, and left.
On the other hand, when my blog post went viral a few weeks ago, I was ready for it. Not ready in the sense that I could predict that some big company was going to share my list, but ready in the sense that I had spent three years working hard on my writing and slowly figuring out what I wanted to be about. I consistently post new articles every weekday, and I am on-message most of the time. I have built a small but faithful community of fans who like what I write, who share it with their friends when the mood strikes, and who comment and discuss my articles online. Therefore, when 6000 extra people were suddenly directed to my site, many of them found something that they liked and decided to stick around. My likes on Facebook doubled. My daily numbers are consistently higher. No, most of those people didn’t stick around for the long haul, but many of them did. And if and when I get another high profile re-tweet or Facebook share, my following will be that much stronger and my message that much clearer.
And this is exactly what The Bible tells us to do as well. Jesus started his mission with a small group of people and grew them into a following, and after His ascension, the Apostles did the same thing. Did you hear what was just read from Acts? All the believers were together and had everything in common. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This is the story of a small but growing community of faith. But in order to go viral you need more than that. You need a celebrity endorsement. You need Britney Spears. You need Paul. Paul was a well known guy. The fact that he started out being well known for persecuting the very people he was now representing made his story even more compelling. And this guy was all over the place! He was in Rome, he was in Philippi, he was in Corinth, and he was spreading the message of Jesus Christ everywhere he went! Talk about going viral, this guy was Patient Zero. He was a one-man Outbreak. But even he couldn’t do it on his own. Peter was out there spreading the word, but he couldn’t do it on his own. None of the apostles would have gotten anywhere without the communities of faith, growing and learning and keeping themselves together. I don’t care how many letters Paul wrote, if there had been nobody left to receive them, they wouldn’t have done a bit of good. As the New Testament documents the spread of Christianity, it gives us the template for what the church needs to be, and who we need to be in it.
I’ve heard before that the difference between Disciples and Apostles is that Disciples are called, and Apostles are sent. That has a ring of truth to it, but it’s not quite exactly right. A Disciple is a student. Someone who learns and studies. Someone who is open to receiving something. And an Apostle does mean one who is sent. An emissary, or, in other words, a teacher. Someone who goes out and brings something to someone else. And the lesson we can learn from both The Bible and the internet, is that you need to be both.
Too many churches end up being defined by one end of the spectrum or the other. Maybe they form a tightly knit community that is healthy and faithful, but that does not easily let others in. Because letting others in means new ideas and new opinions. It means compromise. It means change. But without new members and new ideas, the church will die along with its members. On the other hand there are also plenty of churches who define themselves by the work that they do. They have a mission. They are out in the world doing good deeds and making a difference. But they lack that sense of community and personal interconnection amongst the larger church body that is essential to a thriving congregation. What good is it, sending people back to your church, if everyone is out of town on a mission? How can the church possibly grow when everyone is on a committee, but no one is truly present in worship?
There is no other choice. We haveto be both. And when I say “we” I am talking about the church, but I’m also talking about you. And me. The church is the people, right? And almost anything that applies to the church as a whole applies to us as individually as well. We need to be disciples andapostles, opening to both sharing and receiving. We need to learn from each other as well as to teach each other. We need to be out there in the community walking in the way of Jesus and inspiring others to do the same, and when they ask us how, and why, we need to have something to point them to. A warm and welcoming family The body and presence of Christ in the world.
Now, I don’t know if this is true or not, because I did not do any research on it, but, at least anecdotally, it seems to me that most churches are more comfortable being the first example. It is much easier to sit here and love our neighbors when our neighbors have sat in the pew behind us for 23 years. More churches err on the side of discipleship, rather than being far too apostolic. And why is this, other than the fact that receiving is often easier than giving? Well, all I can do is tell you what I think, and what I think is, it’s scary. It is scary to go up to someone, whether they are a stranger or a co-worker, or a friend, and tell them that you are a Christian and invite them into community with you. But, like most scary things, this gets easier when you have some idea of what you are doing and how to do it. And again, we can look to Jesus for help in this area.
The first scripture that was read this morning (Mark 4:30-34) was the parable of the mustard seed, which seems like a very applicable parable when dealing with the subject of going viral. But I didn’t want to stop there. What was even more interesting to me was the second half of that passage. With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anythingto them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. Did you catch that? He didn’t say ANYTHING to that crowd without using a parable. A story. And yes, back in the community of the disciples Jesus explained everything and they discussed the meaning of what was said, but when he was out in the world teaching, in apostle mode, Jesus told stories.
And we tell stories too. Our sermons tell stories and use metaphors. Our music in worship often tells us a story too. But those are for us. Those stories are things we can all talk about and dissect amongst ourselves, like Jesus did with his inner circle. But what stories are we sharing with the world? And how are we supposed to share them anyway? Just go to a street corner with a megaphone?
Well, Paul has that covered for us as well. In the verses from 1Thessalonians that we heard earlier, Paul tells the church that, while he could have asserted authority over people and and acted in a way that was superior to them, instead he went into the world and worked alongside the people that he was trying to reach. Not only did he share the Gospel with them, but he shared his life, his labors, and his love. He worked in their fields. He met them where they were. And where are the people today? Well, 1.7 billion of them are on YouTube watching a South Korean man dance like a horse.
Facebook and Twitter are places for quick thoughts, conversation, and updates. But YouTube is a place for stories. Blogs are where you can get the full version of what had previously only been said in two sentences. And it is a place where things can go viral. Many of you have maybe heard the term “viral video.” We don’t generally hear about “viral tweets,” or “viral status updates.” If you have a message that you want to spread, a carefully crafted YouTube video may be the way to do it.
I’m going to show you one more clip. This is from a video that went viral last year, and I’m not going to show you the whole thing, partly because this is family friendly sermon. But this basically unknown person wrote a poem that he called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” and he recorded it and he put it on YouTube. And 25 and a half million people watched it. Here’s a little bit of it. (or, if you are reading this online, here is the whole thing!)
So he has some ideas. And he wrote a poem. And now he has thousands of followers and a book deal. Maybe you like what he said, and maybe you don’t, but no matter what people think of his words, there’s no denying that people are listening. He found a way and a place to get his message out there. What message do we have to share? How are we going to share it? And do we have the strength to welcome into our community those who hear it and respond?