ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Justin Khoe, founder of the popular YouTube channel ThatChristianVlogger, is among a small group of Seventh-day Adventist videographers, speakers, and content creators who are pushing the boundaries of traditional Adventist evangelism in an age of digital disruption. Earlier this month, at the 2018 ASI convention, I spoke with Justin to find out how he got started in YouTube ministry, and what lessons the Adventist church can draw from his successes with the platform.
A Transition in Ministry
Justin is far from a novice when it comes to front-line ministry. He joined a summer canvassing program during his first summer out of high school, and then attended the Prescott, AZ—based Seventh-day Adventist Outreach Leadership School (SOULSWest), where he was trained in literature evangelism and Bible work. After his graduation from SOULSWest, he spent eight years serving the Adventist church as a Bible worker and evangelist, including a stint teaching discipleship and evangelism at REACH Columbia Union—a one-year evangelism school based at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland.
At first glance, YouTube evangelism and Bible work may not appear to have a great deal in common. However, from Justin’s perspective, his transition to YouTube was merely a natural progression from his earlier lines of ministry. As he explains it, his life was changed by the Adventist message during his first summer canvassing program, and “from that point forward, my goal in life was to try and recreate that experience in other people, to help them experience what I had experienced.”
Ever since that first pivotal experience, he has continually asked himself the question, “How can I impact the lives of as many people as possible?” That question first led him to literature evangelism, which gave him the ability to impact thousands of lives with the Adventist message. However, YouTube provided the opportunity to potentially reach tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of people with that same message.
Building a Virtual Church
When Justin first explored the possibility of using YouTube as an evangelistic tool, he approached it from the perspective of a church planter. He reasoned that if, after 12 months of church planting in an unentered area, he had baptized 12 people, he would consider that a successful outcome. To take the analogy further, if he, as a Bible worker, were able to study the Bible with 12 (or even 20) people on a weekly basis, he would consider his work to be an astounding success, at least from a quantitative standpoint.
With that in mind, Justin set a 12-month goal of 250 subscribers. After being impressed to set a “faith” goal, he subsequently doubled the number to 500 subscribers. However, even this ambitious figure was an order of magnitude lower than the roughly 10,000 subscribers he picked up within his first year. After a little over 2.5 years of YouTube ministry, his subscriber count currently stands at just over 61,000.
While most of his videos average 2-5,000 views each, his most popular videos (including “Should Christians Kiss Before Marriage” and “How to Study the Bible for Beginners”), have exceeded 100,000 views. By way of comparison, there are only 283 churches in the United States with a weekly attendance exceeding 5,000. In fact, if Justin’s audience was a church, not only would it be classified as a megachurch, but it would also exceed .9993% of American congregations in regular attendance.
Engaging with Viewers
Justin’s videos are on the shorter side—most are 10-15 minutes in length—and typically focus around deep, relevant questions that young people ask about Christianity, faith, and how to live the Christian life. When he was first getting started, the selection of topics for videos tended to be more haphazard: “At the beginning of it, it was very simple—it was just an extension of whatever I was experiencing.” He would base videos around lessons he had gleaned from Bible study, helpful discussions with friends, or experiences from daily life.
As time has progressed, his audience members have played an increasing role in topic selection by asking questions in the comments, and by requesting that he cover certain areas of particular relevance to them. This has allowed him to shape his videos around the needs and questions of his viewers.
A Great Need
One of the reasons Justin is so passionate about the need for “digital missionaries,” as he terms them, is due to the rising percentage of young Adventists leaving the church (a 2011 Barna study estimated that 59% of young people who grow up in Christian churches leave after they turn 18).
As young people in the Western world are consuming increasing amounts of online content (a recent study estimates that young people are spending a cumulative 18 hours a day on various social media and streaming platforms) in comparison to time spent in church (126 hours per week vs. 2 hours per week), Justin sees a great need for the Adventist church to begin actively engaging young people on the platforms where they are being influenced.
As an example of the sharp contrast between different approaches to reaching disengaged youth, Justin noted that 77 percent of his audience is under the age of 34—the same demographic that Western Adventism is rapidly losing.
Although a shift in the church’s methodology will no doubt take time, one evidence of shifting opinions is the interest that many church entities have taken in Justin’s work. Within the last year, he has been invited to speak at the Reaching Millennials Conference at Andrews University, the Digital Discipleship Conference in Australia, Fruition Lab in Texas, the Young Life Camp in Portland, OR, the Glendale Filipino Church and Pacific Islanders Convocation in southern California, and, most recently, the 2018 ASI Young Professionals networking event.
Using YouTube Effectively
His advice for Adventist organizations, churches, and individuals aiming to use social media for as an outreach (or inreach) tool?
- Firstly, put your content directly on the platform itself. Local churches, as one example, will often use Facebook to announce upcoming meetings and events, but people primarily engage with social media to consume content—on the platform. If you have material that you want to share with a wider audience, put that material on the platform itself, instead of merely advertising it there.
- Secondly, contextualize your content to the platform you’re using. Live-streaming your church service on Facebook or YouTube is certainly better than nothing, but social media is a far more engaging and intimate platform than, say, television. As a result, your best bet is producing content that’s shorter in length (around 5-15 minutes) and intimate in style (e.g. all of Justin’s videos involve him speaking close and directly into his camera—face-to-face with each viewer).
For those looking for additional resources and training on using YouTube as an evangelistic tool, Justin has created a $150 training course, the “Christian YouTuber Creator Course,” which walks participants through the basics of purchasing the correct gear and software, crafting your message, and building your subscribers—all from lessons Justin has learned from building ThatChristianVlogger over the past 2.5 years.