Rev. Grant Merrell, Senior Pastor of Coalbush UMC in Mishawaka, has an interesting way of doing ministry in the digital age. Since March of 2019, Grant has been posting short videos on the app “TikTok,” and reaches millions with his message.
TikTok is a short-form video sharing app that allows users to create clips up to 60-seconds long on any topic. Any app user can view these videos and interact with the content by commenting, sharing, building on the video by recording their own alongside the original (called “duet”) or clipping and integrating scenes from another’s video into their own (called “stitch”).
TikTok has been popular with teenagers for quite some time, but since the COVID-19 pandemic caused shut-downs across the globe, the app’s popularity among older generations has soared. TikTok now has over 800 million active users worldwide.
Like many of TikTok’s users, Rev. Merrell downloaded the app out of curiosity. For months he scrolled through the videos others had posted, and noticed he scarcely saw any clergy or religious content at all. Grant was active in theater, opera and show choir earlier in life, so he knew he could put creative spins on trending songs and videos while also highlighting his passion for Christ and Christ’s Church. Publishing under the user name @Pastor_G, Grant began creating content by posting humorous videos and funny dance trends but quickly found purpose in encouraging others and healing wounds that the Church has caused.
Much of Grant’s TikTok ministry is about affirming and encouraging – as well as demonstrating that Christians that “make the evening news” are not examples of the heart and love of God. Grant explains, “Unfortunately, the Church has done so much damage. Theologically, socially, and politically, much of Christ’s Church has come across as unapproachable, judgmental, and caring more about doctrine than people.”
He continues,“For many of my followers on TikTok, finding Christians that aren’t closed-minded and that can have a good time is a first-time discovery, and it is slowly changing the perception of who Jesus is.” Since Grant began posting on TikTok in March 2019, he has been able to connect many individuals with churches in their communities that are like-minded and willing to receive them with open arms. Many of Grant’s videos include messages like, “God loves you, and I do too.”
Along with fun dancing videos, Grant has many videos educating viewers on subjects such as communion or baptism. He has posted videos explaining particulars about The United Methodist Church or John Wesley. He frequently answers questions that viewers post in the comments by creating a new video to address their query. You can often find Grant showing off his vestments, and as a special treat, he will sometimes post a video of him singing a favorite hymn acapella.
Grant says,“I have found that ministry can and will be done digitally in the future as our world is so rapidly changing. Connections must be fostered in any way possible for the transformation of the world through Jesus Christ.” Today @Pastor_G has almost 300,000 people following his account, and his videos have received over 30 million views and 5 million likes.
Grant is part of a growing group of progressive clergy on TikTok. As a group, these individuals have banded together and undertaken the task of helping to demonstrate healthy and faithful understandings of scripture and a life of discipleship. The #progressiveclergy group has hosted Zoom worship and Bible studies for people all across the globe, supported important social justice organizations and efforts, and provided a safe space for individuals seeking to hear about God’s love for them. This group of over 100 clergy and seminarians from all over the world is comprised of United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Uniting Church of Canada, Disciples of Christ, Mennonites, Quakes, Cooperative Baptists, Old Catholic, Non-Denominational, Jewish Rabbis and others. Grant comments, “Our devotion to Christ has brought us together, despite theological differences…Together, we demonstrate that the kin-dom is bigger than our own expression of Christ’s Church.”
Although creating short-form videos is not something he ever planned on doing with his ministry, Grant has embraced TikTok as a creative outlet. The app is a space where anyone can have a voice. With a camera-phone and a few minutes, it’s easy to record and post videos for the world to see.
AndGrant’s church is supportive too. He explains, “[The congregants] enjoy the videos that I share and find it a source of pride that their pastor is ‘TikTok famous.’ Coalbush United Methodist has been incredibly gracious and loving to the individuals who ‘check in’ to our Sunday services in the comments, and my congregation is in a very real way a partner with me in showing Christ’s love to the world around us…even in a digital age!”