Where is the Synodal Church heading? A female Protestant pastor shows the Synodal Way.

Church in Pipi Longstocking style

Maike Schöfer is a pastor in Berlin-Adlershof and has a second church: on the internet. How do influencers shape the digital church?

A woman bites into an apple

She wants to seduce people to faith: Pastor Maike Schöfer

This is the Pastor.  She thinks this is being clever.

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When Maike Schöfer speaks, it doesn't take long before the first Anglicism is used. "Thank God", she likes to say, or "inner-churchy." The 34-year-old Berlin pastor is one of the so-called Christian influencers, even though she rather dislikes the word. Her Instagram account "ja.und.amen" is followed by over 25,000 people. In the world of influencers, that may not sound like much. Among German Christian accounts, hers is one of the bigger ones. Her posts on menstruation and queer church are well received. Her loose, rocky look and her preference for fashion work on the platform.

Maike Schöfer's account is an example of how church can also take place in the digital space. In her case, the Protestant Church. Last year, 380,000 members left the church, and the Catholic Church even lost half a million people in 2022. In terms of membership, the analogue church has been in decline for years. Are high follower numbers the future?

During the Corona pandemic, the digital church suddenly became more important: Zoom services were held and internet presences were expanded in order to have a congregational life despite contact restrictions. Even after the pandemic has subsided, the digital church is trying to break down barriers and include people who cannot or do not want to participate locally.

The Protestant Church has recognised that social networks are becoming more important. In many congregations there are attempts to use them more professionally. At the Church Congress 2023 in Nuremberg, there was a lot of talk about digitality, numerous events took place with livestream and digital audience participation.

"I kissed a girl and God liked it."

To make a positive impact on social media, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) also engages the Gemeinschaftswerk der Evangelischen Publizistik (GEP). In 2020, the media company of the Protestant church founded, among other things, the content network "yeet".

It is intended to help larger Christian influencer accounts "communicate the Christian message in an appropriate language and promote the exchange of Christian content creators and the visibility of their content", according to its own description. Does the evangelical church want to keep the reins in its hands with the help of such a network and thus control what content is at the centre of the digital church?

Pastor Maike Schöfer emphasises: "I do Pipi Longstocking style in the digital space. I just write about what I'm up for and when I'm up for it." That could be, for example, a post with two people kissing and the caption: "I kissed a girl and god liked it." The yeet network responds with heart. But fundamentalist Christians are also rallying under the post.

Schöfer sees her Instagram presence as part of her preaching ministry as a pastor: "If I take my job description seriously, i.e. to go where the people are, then it is also the digital space," says Schöfer.

Democratisation of the church?

Nathalie Eleyth also sees it that way. The theologian researches sexual ethics and theology critical of racism at the Ruhr University in Bochum: "Millions of people in Germany move in the digital space. If the church has to worry more and more about its own loss of meaning, but has the claim to show that it has an important perspective on society, then it has to pick up people where they are."

Many Christian opinion influencer accounts do self-initiated and activist educational work on racism, inclusion sensitisation or, as in Schöfer's case, taking people on their own personal journey as a queer new pastor.

"Christian influencers can contribute to the democratisation of the church," says Eleyth. Because in the digital space, the question of power in the church is being renegotiated: Who speaks about what and when? And who reaches many people with it? It is clear that personal accounts work particularly well, especially those of younger pastors. The pages of the official institutions have a harder time getting people to interact. Their postings are more boring, more expectable, more well-behaved.

Schöfer describes that she tries to break down complex theological content on Instagram. Not everyone in the church likes that: "I also hear the criticism that an Instagram post shouldn't be enough to reflect the theological discourses in depth."

Fundamentalists are also expanding into the net

Maike Schöfer sees this positioning as excluding many people: "Not only academics believe in God. She herself comes from a non-academic family and has long struggled with the ritualised language used in church services. In the digital space, she has the freedom to express Christian content in her own words.

But the abbreviation of content on social media is also being exploited by Christian fundamentalists. "Many high-reach evangelical, biblical accounts post polarising content on social media. They convey terse messages in short slides, rip biblical quotes out of context and thus naturally abbreviate," says Eleyth.

This content is often anti-feminist and anti-queer and, in Eleyth's eyes, highly problematic. According to her, the Protestant Church has the task here of presenting stronger counter-positions, acquiring good media expertise and thus being more digitally present.

EKD hardly thinks of creative possibilities

But little has happened in this regard so far. On the EKD's official Instagram presence, mainly edifying Bible quotes are posted. The interaction is clear. "As far as its own design possibilities in the digital space are concerned, the EKD has given almost no thought to this yet," says Eleyth.

Influencer Maike Schöfer also acted on social media privately and of her own accord in recent years. The Berlin pastor has not yet been paid for this. Her presence on Instagram means additional work for her, which she enjoys, but which is sometimes too much for her.

In addition to her pastorate and being a mother, the Berlin resident by choice has founded a feminist devotional collective, participates in an interreligious podcast of the "House of One" in Berlin and writes columns.

Church leadership does not know how important digital work is

Time and again, Schöfer therefore talks to her regional church that she needs resources, especially for pastoral care of people in the digital space. From September 2023, she is to receive these: Her work in the digital space will be rewarded by her church district of Berlin South-East with 25 per cent ministry: "I have wanted this very much for years," says Schöfer. She is especially happy that she will be able to "continue with the same content as before".

The Berlin pastor hopes that the Protestant Church will move forward here in the next few years and develop a legal framework and a concept for pastors in the digital space: "On the church leadership side, it still hasn't quite penetrated how important work in the digital space is."

The prospect of a sweet life of luxury, financed by lots of advertising on Instagram, does not apply to Schöfer and her account. She is not allowed to earn money with it: "The parish office protects me from doing paid advertising at some point," says Schöfer: "So I'll never drive up to the service station in a fat BMW," she says and laughs.