Chris Wyatt wears many marks of the Internet generation. Her thumbs beat the text messages on her BlackBerry, while her 60GB iPod sang a soundtrack for her life. He also sprinkles his conversation with words like “guy” and “man.”
Yet Mr. Wyatt can still be found with another item that sets him apart from many in his thirties: a Bible. In fact, it has a hard copy and two audio versions, one of which features actors, music, and sound effects.
Now Wyatt is trying to merge his two passions, technology and God, in an endeavor that is changing the way millions of Christians communicate and harnessing technology as a force for worship and prayer.
Wyatt is the Founder and CEO of GodTube.com, a video sharing and social networking website. “We like to think of it as Christianity on demand, 24/7, right there when you need it most,” says the clean-shaven and imposing Wyatt enthusiastically.
Wyatt was raised by Presbyterian parents in Oklahoma and attended a Catholic high school. But for the most part, he said, he was just “going through the stages” in church and school: “Religion didn’t stick, period. After studying finance at the University of Southern California, Wyatt launched a career in broadcasting and led a life that was, he says, “very ungodly, to say the least.”
Then, in 2005, he was on the phone with his mother, confessing that something was missing. “It’s time you accepted Jesus as your Savior,” his mother told him. Wyatt listened. The following year he enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary. One day in class, he read about a decline in American church attendance and recalled the lessons he had gleaned as president of a company that rented Christian DVDs. As he went to churches and stores to digitize videotapes, he saw that churches were struggling to attract young people. While still a student in Dallas, Wyatt decided to reach out to teens and those 20 and older through a medium they use, also hoping to find “those who haven’t. heard the gospel of Jesus Christ “.
Wyatt calls him Jesus 2.0 and says GodTube doesn’t do anything different than “Jesus did when he was here”. The website, whose motto is “Broadcast Him” (as opposed to YouTube’s “Broadcast Yourself”), only “takes the most technologically advanced form to get the message out.”
Wyatt was surprised – and delighted – by the rapid growth of GodTube. After the website officially launched in August, media intelligence provider comScore ranked it the fastest growing US website of the month, with 1.7 million unique views. But those first clicks aren’t enough: Wyatt hopes that after watching videos, people will come back to the website and “ask questions about heaven and hell, drug addiction and divorce.”
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The neologist inspiration behind GodTube is obvious. But it’s not just a Christian YouTube. Unlike Facebook or MySpace, GodTube views each of its videos before uploading and does background checks – with the goal of excluding sexual or violent criminals – before giving someone a profile. Fourteen seminar students serve as a visualization board for the 40,000 videos posted by individuals, government departments and other organizations.
That’s not to say that the site is all smooth and bright. Next to a video of a little girl in a pink “princess” T-shirt reciting the 23rd Psalm (viewed 5 million times) is one attacking Mormonism. Alongside Felicia, 17, in an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt praying for her friend John, is a video of the kidnapping. It includes clips from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war, followed by the confusion of non-believers as spouses, children and strangers disappear from the earth.
The use of fear, violence and virulence has drawn criticism from some quarters. “There are a lot of Christian theologians who would disagree about using fear as a tactic,” says Ann Pellegrini, professor of religious studies at New York University. But, she adds, the use of fear, theatricality, and aspects of secular culture to win over the “unsaved” dates back hundreds of years.
Yet many GodTube videos lean on secular culture instead of condemning it. One series parodies the Mac vs. PC commercials, but here the cool guy is a “follower of Christ” and the nerd in the costume is a “Christian”. The Christian listens to Christian music, has Christian bumper stickers, and wears a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet. The disciple of Christ, while not against any of these things, says, “I’m just trying to follow Christ the way I live my life. The video, says Dr. Pellegrini, is an attempt to rename Jesus’ followers as “cool strangers.”
Among the latest additions to GodTube are the Virtual Bible (searchable for quotes) and the “Prayer Wall”: on a set of stone tablets in a grassy canyon, users can type their prayers or light candles for others. There are the usual misspellings, emoticons, and cryptic prayer headers (from “desperate” to “my relationship pt. 2”). Mothers pray for their sons to accept religion, grandparents pray for custody of their grandchildren, a child prays for a report card. A man prays for success in an interview, and there are dueling prayers for the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Ethereal music emphasizes the tranquility: it’s a panoramic view of the information highway.
With features like the prayer wall and space for user comments below each video, “GodTube provides a more democratic venue than televangelism was,” says Lynn Schofield Clark, professor at the University of Denver and editor of the book “Religion, the media and the market.”
But will GodTube win converts?
“They say, ‘Someone will stumble upon us and convert to Christianity,’ but sociological studies suggest otherwise,” says Dr Clark. “It’s through social media – friends, family, marriage, even prison – that people adopt beliefs.” In that sense, GodTube is like televangelism, Clark says, because it’s more likely to reinforce people’s beliefs than to change them.
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Comedian Michael Right, who goes by the stage name Michael Jr. and typically performs in nightclubs and churches, is the one who uses GodTube. He posted some performances online. Mr. Right does not preach in his act but hopes to “bring lightness” to the public. “GodTube shows how Christians crave quality content,” he says. “There is so much negative stuff on YouTube that you almost have to be shocking to get attention.”
Chris Bradley wasn’t meant to shock either. But he’s an atheist – a rare breed on GodTube – and wanted to explain that atheists are not by definition evil and immoral. Mr. Bradley posted a few videos and received mostly polite responses. But one day, his posted video on the relationship between religious leaders (including Jesus and Muhammad) and their governments was not uploaded. He hasn’t tried GodTube since.
So far, GodTube has yet to make a profit. Its investors, according to Wyatt, are “high net worth [people]who happen to be Christians. In addition, 50 of the groups that have uploaded videos to the website – Christian colleges, medical societies, singers, writers and others – have partnered with GodTube for a few years. GodTube publishes their videos (and collects ad revenue), and in return, these groups have a page on the site where they can solicit donations, sell products, and collect email addresses for their mailing lists.
While other Christian websites exist, like MyChurch and Conservapedia, there is no such thing as a Christian video site like GodTube. Currently, says Wyatt, GodTube’s competition is primarily MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. These sites “are great for what they are,” he says, “but this is not the forum for discussing religious material. I don’t think you want to have a theological discussion on a website with objectionable content.