Youth pastors are profoundly uncool. Father David Peters, the Episcopalian priest who keeps going viral on TikTok, has managed to connect with internet culture in spite of that fact.
It isn't religion itself that's the issue — although being known as that church kid can dock a few popularity points in secular teenage social circles — but that youth pastors try so hard to relate to the kids they're teaching, the actual spiritual guidance gets lost among the outdated references. The reaches that youth pastors make in an effort to connect to their students are a running joke; if something is trending, you're sure to see a youth pastor trying to circle it back to the gospel.
[youth pastor voice] the kardashians are dumb thicc, but not as thicc as god’s love for us. in john 3:16—
— kelly (@kelllicopter) July 14, 2018
Teenagers are elusive enough, and connecting to them is like living through the (ironically outdated) "How do you do, fellow kids" meme over and over again. Convincing them that something is worth their attention is a challenge already, but convincing a teenager of Christianity's appeal is a Herculean undertaking in which very, very, very few succeed. As someone who spent their teenage years watching biblical skits at church camp and manning the projector for the religious youth group band, I've sat through many a sermon littered with Advice Animals-style block text. I can say with absolute certainty that most middle-aged clergy don't really get how memes work.
But Peters, a vicar in Pflugerville, Texas, managed to crack the code with his goofy, on-trend TikToks. He models various clerical outfits to the beat of the La La Land soundtrack, cheekily adding a #HotPriestSummer tag. He sneaks into photos of Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury as Justin Bieber croons, "That should be me, this is so sad." After listing theological characteristics like accepting the LGBTQ community and following Jesus, Peters jumps into frame and raps along with Saweetie, "That's my type! That's my type!"
"I'm old now, in my 40s — compared to the youth — and I think being fun and joyful and doing silly things is really a blessing," Peters said in an interview with Mashable. Over a FaceTime call, he explained that a fundamentalist upbringing and an eagerness to be seen as mature held him back from being embracing the pop culture-laden stereotype during his stint as a youth pastor. "I kind of wish I had some of that appreciation for joy back then, but I was in a religious tradition that did not value happiness or joy."
Peters said he doesn't like "a lot of the gimmicks of youth ministry" like pushing abstinence, ostracizing LGBTQ youth, and making strained references to trends that may or may not be relevant. Although he isn't a youth pastor anymore and ministers a congregation of all ages, his wholesome TikToks have garnered a consistently positive reception from TikTok users rarely found online.
It also helps that he's riding the coattails of two immense pop culture trends: the universal infatuation with the hot priest from Fleabag and Meg Thee Stallion's iconic Hot Girl Summer. Peters embodies the most extreme dad energy as he lip syncs duets and cheeses out on camera. His joy is almost infectious, and blending the two references guarantees a coveted spot on TikTok's "For You" page.
Before becoming a vicar, a priest in charge of a congregation, Peters worked as a youth minister. He noted that he took a more uptight approach to working with teenagers then, because he wanted to "get some respect." Growing up as a fundamentalist, minors were to listen to their elders, never question authority, and avoid premarital temptations like the plague. Peters coped by "wearing a lot of tweed at the time."
"That whole coercive thing, they didn't do that to the grown-ups," he said. "They didn't tell them to follow all these rules and not date. I didn't like being a teenager, so I wanted to run a youth group that wasn't for teenagers."
(youth pastor voice) Do you understand why we stan Jesus? Well, here's the tea… He went off on that cross so that your sins would be cancelled. Does that snatch your wig? pic.twitter.com/84uaoVvVX9
— im ash? (@ashastral) August 31, 2018
That's a stark contrast to the slang-riddled sermons youth pastors are usually memed for. Maybe they're trying to get hip with the kids, or maybe they're trying to overcompensate for the fact that applying the stricter religious tenets is frankly, not fun, but pastors and pop culture rarely overlap. While influencer-pastors do get cozy with celebrities like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber, there's something tragically corny about gospel-themed streetwear merch.
But Peters' TikTok content is so heartwarming because he leans into the corniness. It wasn't until after he worked as an army chaplain in the U.S. Marines that he loosened up, since his parish was made up of 18 to 21 year olds facing their own mortality on a daily basis.
"Everyone had guns ... it was like a big, armed youth group," he said. Humor became something of a coping mechanism.
His TikToks are the equivalent of that one teacher in school who just wants everyone to have a good time, and is OK with making a fool of himself while doing so. His page is refreshing; it isn't in pursuit of clout, but in genuinely sharing a message of acceptance and love. Although he claims he's the "least funny" priest he knows, Peters is so well-loved because he understands TikTok's trends and how to emulate them. His bio proclaims "vsco girl for Jesus" and "Jesus stan."
Although he receives crude jokes and disapproving comments from more conservative TikTok users, an overwhelming majority are supportive.
"Dang I'm atheist but he seems pretty chill where does he preach?" one TikTok user commented under a video seeking churches that "include everyone."
"Bro I’m so happy this was wholesome and not rude or anything," another user commented under a duet with trans TikTok user @smartsmore.
Gen Z is statistically the least religious generation, according to Pew Research, and will undoubtedly end up more tolerant than their predecessors. In the past #HotPriestSummer, Peters has racked up 57,100 fans on TikTok, but he's ambivalent toward being labeled an influencer.
"I think the word influencer has reached mainstream now, and it's something you don't really want to be because it's a false facade," he said, wary of being lumped in with the influencer pastors who preach in $5,000 Yeezys. "That sort of takes something good and twists it, and then creates a sort of worship of the person who's empowered by that."
While he began using TikTok to bring church planting — the practice of starting a new church — to social media, Peters' presence has expanded well beyond the suburb of Austin, Texas. He may not proselytize through cleverly edited videos, but in the end, he is on a mission.
"But of course I want to influence people to love their neighbor as they love themselves, and to love God with their whole heart," he said. "I want to influence people to think about how their ideas and prejudices impact the world around them."
Will he actually convert anyone through TikTok? That's between the believer and the deity they're turning to. No matter the spiritual outcome, Peters' videos are a welcomed break from the typical chaos that TikTok holds.