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The Prodigal with 128,000 Twitter Followers

Sammy Rhodes is a campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at the University of South Carolina, but he's best known by his Twitter handle, @prodigalsam. Though Rhodes, 32, spends much of his week meeting with students, preaching, and teaching, you won't find RUF-related info on his Twitter feed. Instead, it's a steady stream of hilarious, self-deprecating comedy that's gained him a six-digit follower count, the kind reserved mostly for celebrities and news organizations: 128,000 and growing.

CT contributor Joel Oliphint spoke with Rhodes by phone about his progression from gospel tweeter to comedy tweeter, his book project, and whether he really does spend most of his time thinking about pizza. (Updated the afternoon of June 3 to include Rhodes's response by email to the recent Twitter dust-up over his "stealing" jokes.)

Update: On Friday, June 7, 2013, Rhodes announced via Twitter that he would "step away from Twitter for a season, for the sake of my family, ministry, & own soul...."

When did you first start tweeting?

I think it was 2009. I started trying to be a gospel tweeter, like Scotty Smith and Jared Wilson—pastors who were sometimes funny but mainly just tweeted quotes and encouragements about the gospel. I did that for probably the first two years. Every now and again I would try to say something funny. Finally a friend, probably sometime in 2011, said, "You should just try to tweet funny things. I think that's what Twitter is for." That was a lot more interesting to me than gospel tweeting.

But also, when my wife was about four or five months into the pregnancy [of my youngest daughter], we found out she had a condition called Dandy-Walker, which is a neurological condition. Her cerebellum wasn't developing like it should. There's a really wide spectrum of outcomes. On the worst end of it, it can cause severe motor disabilities. And at the other end, you may not even notice that someone has it. They couldn't tell us where on that spectrum she was going to come out, and inevitably the doctors brought up the option of abortion. Tig Notaro is a comic I like, and she says, "Tragedy plus time equals comedy." I think that's true. I needed something to laugh at, so I thought, well, I'll just try to be funny.

You're quite prolific and remarkably consistent. Do you have a goal for how many tweets you try to get out per day?

My goal is to do five to 10. But typically I've been doing 15 to 20. No more than 20, because the people in RUF that I work for start to get concerned. The way I write a tweet is spontaneous. It just comes and I write it and send it. I literally spend maybe two, three minutes on it, but people can't know that unless they watch me do it. So I can see how they think I'm on there all day long. Some of my bosses get concerned that I'm spending my time well. The reality is, it's in between meetings from my phone.

Whenever I have a big bump in my following, I'll repeat tweets that I've done before. I've always been a repeater. At least once a day someone will say, "You've done that tweet before." I wrote a Tumblr post about it, saying why I do it. It's the same reason we like show reruns.

You've been accused this year of "stealing tweets." What happened and how have you responded?

When I started trying to be funny on Twitter, I was like a kid getting his first acoustic guitar. I tried to tell tweets in my own words that were definitely inspired by some of my favorite comedians on Twitter. I definitely have been inspired by tweets, but have never intentionally stolen a tweet.

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The Prodigal with 128,000 Twitter Followers