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Life's Rich Pageant

Everyone At The Christian Influencer Convention Was Trapped

1:31 PM EDT on August 11, 2023

No one’s heard of the Christian Influencer Convention (CIC); how the few people who showed up to the inaugural event, held on July 26 at the South Point hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nev., apparently did is a mystery. I found out about it thanks to an ad online (perhaps my attendance at Matthew McConaughey’s virtual life-coaching session put me in the sights of the right online marketing algorithm). What was promised was communicated more in the design of the ad, and by extension the convention’s website, than any out-and-out mission statement. As with most sites pulled together quickly in the age of Squarespace and Wix, there was a boilerplate aesthetic neatness to the CIC landing page that conveyed nothing immediately specific about its reason for being. A dark blue background, red buttons for contrast, badges with “As seen on Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC,” along with a 30-second YouTube video made up entirely of stock footage asking if I wanted to meet up with like-minded influencers using their platform to spread the gospel. No, but obviously yes.

Then there was the lineup, a group of terminally online Protestants who specialize in nothing except their own enthusiasm. One woman, an interior designer named Anh Lin, appeared by herself, while the rest, Hannah and Sarah and Devin and Sophia and Chenoa, appeared as wives to husbands named Regal and Hunter and Taylor and Micah. 

Christian influencers are a peculiar breed, straddling the line between bland defenders of the gender binary, domesticity, and “values” on the one hand, and visibly ardent evangelicals on the other. The visible aspect is key given that these are people—mostly young couples with children, but also self-appointed culture warriors who argue with people on Twitter about vaccines and deconstructionist philosophy (not worth your time)—who, like any other influencers, seemingly spare no aspect of their life from their cameras. White teeth, shining brown and blond hair, white walls, prefab floors, grass lawns, cursive decor, cross-shaped earrings, bad Christian rock. Christian influencers are like youth bible camp counselors trapped in stasis.

Because so many of them are white, barely out of their early 20s, and utterly uninterested in reaching audiences who don’t already agree with them, engaging with these people, watching as they mug for the camera with bright teeth and blissful self-assuredness, feels like having a child tell you about the sanctity and importance of having children. These are people who have lived limited yet widely viewed lives of conspicuous virtue and faith, who lecture without lecturing on the sacrament of the family, the importance of scripture, the danger of sin. They also do a lot of unrelated TikTok challenges and trend-chasing because, though they don’t want their audience to think otherwise, they are just as beholden to the algorithm as anyone else. 

There were maybe 100 people in attendance, barely enough to fill five bifurcated rows of chairs. Half of them wore cargo shorts. The other chairs were filled by pairs of mothers and their patient daughters, older loners zoning out, various married couples with newborn babies, packs of young men humming with what I can only describe as “youth group energy,” and a few bedraggled folks who looked like they walked in just to have an air-conditioned place to sit. After the lunch break, all of us came back to the main convention floor to see that most of the chairs had been taken away: the illusion of crowd density delivered by the reality that we now had to sit closer to each other than we wanted. 

I had expected something akin to a peek behind the conservative evangelical curtain. Though the website and its minimal ads promised a social media-forward and inspiring day of panels and camaraderie, I suspected, really hoped, there would be cracks in the smooth veneer on display. There are sizable minorities of Muslim and Jewish devout in Vegas, but the bumper sticker, blue stripe, Don’t Tread On Me Christian contingent make themselves visible wherever they can. Nevada is a gun-carrying state, a right to work state, and, crucially, a frontier state. What Nevada presents to evangelicals is what it presents to most people who believe in manifest destiny without saying it out loud: a propped-up continuation of the mythical narrative of westward expansion, liberation from the government, from the guilt of doing as one pleases wherever one pleases. Eventually, the water’s going to run out here, but for now, there are unsaved souls to scold. One of the through lines of the convention was turning Sin City into Save City. 

The day opened with a warm-up devotional performance from a band singing what I can only assume were modern Christian classics. Which is to say, songs I had never heard before, but ones everyone in the audience was singing along to. In elementary school, I listened to a lot of Relient K, a Christian band from Ohio that had some crossover appeal on non-Christian radio. This, along with some scattered, even whinier Christian rock at a youth retreat in middle school, makes my point of reference for this music minimal at best. At the convention, everyone sang full-throated.

Two photographers floated throughout the room, singing along, forcing perspective with their cameras from angles that made it seem as if there were many of us instead of a noncommittal handful. Jesus made us a promise, the songs proclaimed, he wouldn’t leave us behind. Jesus loves us, we love him, Jesus saves us, we worship him. Jesus Jesus Jesus. Hands were raised in the air, palms open, eyes closed. One guy in front of me, with braids down to the small of his back and an all-denim outfit, swayed in place, arms suspended at his waist before he was joined by a tall balding man in business casual clothing who immediately started shouting the lyrics to the song playing.

There was a dusty carpet on the convention floor, which did nothing to suck up the sound bouncing around the space, a sparse, slightly clammy room big enough to drop a couple two-story houses into with space on every side. It smelled vaguely like the aquatic section of a Petsmart. At the back, white cloth tables hosted a row of the convention’s sponsors: a local Christian television network, a merch stand selling clothes and posters with invective like “Communism is Satan’s religion,” and a “pregnancy services clinic” that was really a pro-life center focused on persuading those seeking abortions to carry their unborn children to term. 

The opening minutes of the convention were the most moving. Sometimes, I'm reminded of what it’s like to be part of a unified crowd when I’m at church. Compared to the decorum of Catholic mass, an evangelical or non-denominational service with a decent band and a few eager participants is enough to lay bare the anguish and joy of ordinary life. There is no self-consciousness and the fervor with which someone might wring their hands in private prayer, squeeze their eyes, burst into tears and still sing—it is an unabashed, encouraged, and cathartic display of public emotion. Perhaps what was so weird about the CIC was how utterly bored everyone was after the band left. Thumbs were twiddled, phones taken out and scrolled, bathroom breaks were seized at the slightest twinge of distraction.

The remainder of the day was broken up into a series of 90-minute panels, none of which had names, just numbers, all of which were meandering in theme and focus, with next to no audience participation. This was the convention’s first year. That the organizers clearly didn’t have much money to spend was made apparent by the location, a hotel and casino frequented by the elderly and people who still own time-shares, and the roster of speakers, none of whom are famous enough to break through the Christian TikTok bubble into non-Christian virality. No comment was made about the sharp dichotomy between the older attendees sitting, arms crossed or politely disassociating on their phones, and the dewy young influencers who took the stage. Time passed like we were rehearsing a play no one wanted to be in. It made me wonder: Why would a conference about people who project their lives through a screen not be virtual? 

The first and third panels were nearly identical: pairs of married white lifestyle/relationship influencers who only went by their first names (Sarah & Micah, Hunter & Devin) squeezed tight at a long table, the emcee at least 10 feet off to the side for some reason. The husbands wore snapbacks, expensive plain t-shirts, and gold chains with crosses dangling on their chest. The wives fidgeted in long, flowery dresses or athleisure-adjacent summer wear, eager to cede the mic to their spouses, who were loud enough on their own not to need it.

After the panelists were introduced, at every single event on the schedule, we were asked to give a round of applause to the man who saved us, the man who’s always with us wherever we go, especially at CIC, your friend and mine, Jesus Christ. The questions: softball. How do you uplift Christ in your work? What was it like going viral? The answers: incoherent. That each of these people live their life in front of a phone camera was made clear by the fact that there, in person, every one of them was flying off the cuff, giving confused answers, asking for the emcee to restate the question, “just echoing” what the person before them said for want of an original answer. God works through them to make viral videos, God influences the algorithm, God blesses their families and their ideas for videos and their dreams. Rather than flood the stage with their raw charisma or make us feel as if we were learning something truthful and honest, the influencers addressed their answers only to each other, the audience spectating with disinterest. 

The Christian variety of influencer lives the same frenzied, blue-lit life of any other. They film every moment, spare every thought for what they’ll post next, exploit all aspects of their precious short lives for attention. One panelist, Regal, a ginger-haired aspiring musician married to a ginger-haired housewife, Hannah, that, gun to my head, I would have thought was his sister, lamented that they could never fully enjoy their vacations because they needed to film how much fun they were having.

What seems to separate Christian influencers from other varieties is not necessarily a belief in a higher power. The dark rabbit hole of wellness TikTok and Instagram turns up any number of devotees to the law of attraction, or the power of energy and intense thought to transform life. It’s just that Christian influencers have Jesus to thank, not the manifold incentives of the algorithm and the tech companies that own everyone’s data. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that an evangelical convention wouldn’t be the site of intense debate about the ethics of digital surveillance or self-commodification. I did, however, find it odd that a room full of conservatives had nothing to say about data mining by non-American corporations or the unreality of faith maintained by proxy. The couples featured at the convention tiptoed up to the point of personal revelation: wondering aloud how often they should show their newborn child’s face in their videos, complaining about constantly being on their phones, pontificating on the advantages of tangible, physical community versus anonymous chattering feedback. One would have thought they were about to quit the game. 

But self-promotion is also Jesus-promotion. These influencers have taken it upon themselves to model the righteous, God-fearing, heteronormative life that marriage is supposed to be. There they were, with the bland homogeneity of their faith, nervous laughter at their ignorance of scripture, unacknowledging of the fact that they were really in a throuple with Jesus, all the while barking out gender essentialist jokes and asides about domestic life. After a while it all started to feel like a live performance of camp heteropessimism that no one found amusing.

At one point, the emcee, a former atheist in his 40s who opened the day recounting how he found Jesus via a homeless man who stopped him on the way to literally trying to murder someone, earnestly said, “This one’s for the guys. God created Eve from Adam’s rib. How did you all find your perfect rib?” To their credit, the influencers laughed at the question. They found it ridiculous but didn’t challenge it. No one was there to challenge anything.

When representatives from the “pregnancy services clinic” gave a brief statement about their work and how many unborn lives they had saved, a brief mention of the overturning of Roe v. Wade got a half-hearted cheer. An ad from Turning Points USA drew mild, approving interest. What the convention lacked in energy or attendance was made up for with the knowledge that this was merely a small part of a nationwide push to combat evil, to dig in and be afraid of a world made hyperreal when filtered through the internet. Other than that, we were there to quietly let out farts and text friends who weren’t attending. 

At lunch, I walked around the hotel and casino outside the convention—slots, cards, bowling, a crowded buffet. The annual rodeo is held nearby. In an empty stairwell just outside the main convention hall, I could hear the whinny of horses echoing off the concrete walls. Succession’s Kendall Roy came to mind, specifically a moment in the final season when he yells at his ex-wife, “You’re too online!”

What the CIC advertised and what it actually put on seemed diametrically opposed. On one hand, a pitch deck for a game-changing interactive faith experience that would, as these things hope, start a movement. On the other, a room full of strangers whose relationship to each other was that of passengers on a stranded bus, spending the middle of the week in a hyper air-conditioned room, letting the buzz of lights and the sheepish, vaguely Christ-inflected offerings of a few sheltered young people mix together. There was no sense that a passion project was finally being realized. The CIC felt perfunctory, a matter of due diligence. Charitably, it could have been an attempt by concerned parties to arrest a younger audience, to inject a sense of relevance and newness into the routine of church and everyday life. By the end, it seemed more like a tax write-off pulling double duty as a rallying cry for conspiracy-friendly conservatism. 

The culture wars once existed in a weird corner, not so much lurking as beside the point. Now they bleed onto the nightly news, social feeds, and regular conversations. The fourth panel of the convention, unfortunately the most interesting and the one that the audience actually perked up for, featured three guys named John and a YouTuber from the former Soviet Union named Ruslan. All four men, bearded or attempting to be, were self-styled apologists. Apologists for what, one might ask. In that context, it was rhetorical, though I don’t think they realized that it would behoove them to specify that they were Christian apologists. Anyway, the panel was overrun with testosterone. Here were the culture warriors, the Twitter pundits just asking questions about the vaccine, praising Elon Musk, paying extra for their too-long tweets, defending Andrew Tate, crying about Sound of Freedom’s suppression by the liberal media, getting into fights with deconstructionists (still don’t know what this means) trying to water down the Bible’s message, vociferously agreeing with actual evil person Matt Walsh about the relative insignificance of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compared to the deaths of the unborn. Idiots need community, too. 

Safe behind their overconfidence and self-important intellectualism, all four panelists praised each other’s work, their bravery in fighting the Lord’s fight. Talking about heresy, they reminded us that the Bible says members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve our love even if they are an abomination. Answering a question about loved ones who don’t believe in Jesus, they recapitulated their commitment to saving as many people as possible with the strength of their belief. One particularly Aryan panelist warned that we wouldn’t be judged by our good works or our actions, but by our faith, which maybe explains why these specific evangelicals, bloviating and yet clearly accustomed to being listened to, love to hate the poor and believe in the sanctity of the free market. There was no shyness here. The men spoke directly to the audience, pointing their fingers, apologizing if they offended anybody even as they received applause. Disconnected in every way from the panels that came before, the conversation that shifted to politics and the damnation of sinners approached something like a victory lap. But then it was over. 

The day closed out with a prayer, a plea to donate, a reminder to spread the word, to help the CIC make next year even bigger and better. The online donation ticker set up a $100,000 goal. Last I checked, they had only raised $100, which I suspect was really just the convention organizer trying to get the ball rolling.

Though many of the panelists kept urging us to think of ourselves as influencers, the message got muddled by their lack of sincerity. Wide-eyed youths trying to sell a perfect image can convince themselves of anything. Why we had to be there for it didn’t make much sense. These people have already latched onto a highly responsive, anxious network of Christians terrified of modern life, of being alone. Meanwhile, the bullish online fighters go to bat for the truth of genetic differences across race groups and traditional masculinity's ability to keep society from collapsing. These are foolish, arrogant, belligerent people, sure, but they have also figured out a way to finesse their so-called belief into something with the appearance of legacy and theological heft. It’s just that, when they do so disconnected from monied interests, from the conservative leaders unafraid to court provocation and hatred, little gatherings like the Christian Influencer Convention can appear tame, thankfully pointless. Still, if something like the CIC is underwhelming as a site of true oppositional insight, it’s because the thinking and convincing, the stoking of fear and disgust, have already happened elsewhere. All there was to be found here was a brief burst of joy, then boredom, then strident punditry meant to reinforce one’s feeling of superiority. It was a progression that should be familiar to anyone who's spent more than a few consecutive minutes scrolling on their phone.

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