Chris Wyatt bears many marks of the Internet Generation. His thumbs beat out text messages on his BlackBerry, while his 60-gig iPod croons a soundtrack for his life. He also sprinkles his conversation with words like "dude" and "man."
Yet Mr. Wyatt can always be found with one other item that sets him apart from many 30-somethings: a Bible. In fact, he carries a hard copy and two audio versions – one of which features actors, music, and sound effects.
Now Wyatt is trying to fuse his two passions, technology and God, in a venture that is changing how 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, there when you need it most," says the clean-shaven and imposingly tall Wyatt, with excitement.
Wyatt was raised by Presbyterian parents in Oklahoma and attended a Roman Catholic high school. But for the most part, he says, he was just "going through the motions" 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 godless, to say the least."
Then, in 2005, he was on the phone with his mother, confessing that something was missing. "It's time that you accept Jesus as your savior," his mother told him. Wyatt listened. The next year, he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary. One day in class he read about a decline in American church attendance and recalled lessons he'd gleaned as president of a company that rented Christian DVDs. Traveling to churches and stores to digitize videotapes, he had seen that churches were having a hard time attracting young people. So while still a student in Dallas, Wyatt decided to reach out to teens and 20-somethings through a medium they use, with hopes, also, of finding "those who haven't heard the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Wyatt calls it Jesus 2.0, and says GodTube isn't doing anything different from what "Jesus did when he was here." The website, with the motto of "Broadcast Him" (as opposed to YouTube's "Broadcast Yourself") is merely "taking the most technologically advanced form to deliver the message."
Wyatt has been surprised – and delighted – by GodTube's rapid growth. After the website's official launch in August, media-intelligence provider comScore ranked it that month's fastest growing US website, with 1.7 million unique views. But those first clicks aren't enough: Wyatt hopes that after watching videos, people will return to the website and "ask questions about heaven and hell, and drug abuse and divorce."
• • •
The neologistic inspiration behind GodTube is obvious. But this isn't just a Christian YouTube. Unlike Facebook or MySpace, GodTube views each of its videos before putting it up and checks people's backgrounds – aiming to exclude sexual or violent criminals – before giving someone a profile. Fourteen seminary students act as the viewing board for the 40,000 videos posted by individuals, ministries, and other organizations.
That's not to say the site is all sweetness and light. Alongside 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 17-year-old Felicia in an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt praying for her friend John is a video on the rapture. It includes clips of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and war in Iraq followed by nonbelievers' confusion as spouses, children, and strangers disappear from earth.
The use of fear, violence, and virulence has drawn criticism from some quarters. "There are many Christian theologians who would disagree on 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" goes back hundreds of years.
Still, many of GodTube's videos rely on secular culture instead of condemning it. One series parodies the Mac versus PC ads, but here the cool guy is a "Christ-follower" and the nerd in a suit is a "Christian." The Christian listens to Christian music, has Christian bumper stickers, and wears a WWJD (what would Jesus do) bracelet. The Christ-follower, although not against any of those things, says, "I just try to follow Christ in the way I live my life." The video, says Dr. Pellegrini, is an attempt to rebrand followers of Jesus as being "cool outsiders."
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 out their prayers or light candles for others. There are the usual misspellings, emoticons, and cryptic prayer headings (from "desperate" to "my relationship pt. 2"). Mothers pray for their sons to accept religion, grandparents pray for custody of grandchildren, a child prays for a straight-A report card. One 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 underscores the tranquility: It's a supernal scenic outlook on the Information Superhighway.
With features such as the prayer wall, and with space for user comments below each video, "GodTube provides a venue that is more democratic than televangelism was," says Lynn Schofield Clark, a professor at the University of Denver and editor of the book "Religion, Media and The Marketplace."
But will GodTube win converts?
"They say, 'Someone will stumble upon us and be converted to Christianity,' but sociological studies suggest otherwise," says Dr. Clark. "It's through social networks – friends, family, marriage, even prison – that people adopt beliefs." In that sense GodTube is like televangelism, says Clark, because it's more likely to reinforce people's beliefs than to change them.
• • •
Comedian Michael Right, who goes by the stage name Michael Jr. and typically performs at nightclubs and churches, is one who uses GodTube. He has posted a few performances online. Mr. Right doesn't preach in his act but hopes to "bring levity" to the audience. "GodTube shows how thirsty Christians are for good content," he says. "There's so much negative stuff on YouTube that you almost have to be shocking to get some attention."
Chris Bradley wasn't aiming to shock, either. But he's an atheist – a rare breed on GodTube – and wanted to explain that atheists aren't by definition unkind and immoral. Mr. Bradley posted a few videos and received mostly polite replies. But then one day, his posted video about the relationships between religious leaders (including Jesus and Muhammad) and their governments wasn't uploaded. He hasn't tried GodTube since.
For now, GodTube has yet to turn a profit. Its investors, according to Wyatt, are "high networth [people] who happen to be Christian." Additionally, 50 of the groups that have put up videos on the website – Christian colleges, medical companies, singers, authors, and others – are in a partnership with GodTube for a few years. GodTube posts their videos (and collects advertising revenue), and in return, those groups have a page on the site where they can solicit donations, sell products, and collect e-mail addresses for their mailing lists.
Although other Christian websites exist, like MyChurch and Conservapedia, there isn't a Christian video site like GodTube. Currently, says Wyatt, GodTube's competition is chiefly MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. Those sites "are great for what they are," he says, "but it's not the forum to discuss religious material. I don't think you want to hold a theological discussion on a website that has objectionable content."