In real life, Matthew Pierce is a normal adult. He has a wife, three daughters, and a boring job. He lives in Alabama, where he grew up, and he’s slowly becoming like his father.
Online, it’s different. Online, Matthew Pierce plays a character named Matthew Pierce, and that character is a youth group kid hanging out with his homeschool crew, stuck forever in the evangelical subculture of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Steven Curtis Chapman looms large in his imagination, as do Carman, Beth Moore, VeggieTales, LifeWay Christian bookstores, his youth pastor’s ubiquitous advice to “save it for the wedding night,” and the recurring thought that Adam in the Bible had humanity’s first penis.
If you meet him on Twitter, he will ask you one urgent question: “do u like switchfoot? y/n.”
If you don’t know who Switchfoot is or don’t understand what could be so urgent about an indie Christian band that crossed over to mainstream success in 2000, that’s okay. That’s part of the joke with “weird evangelical Twitter,” which embraces absurd earnestness and overcommitment. And Matthew Pierce—the real one and the character—is the undisputed king of weird evangelical Twitter.
“I find it kind of silly,” said Pierce, who has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter. “I’m just making jokes. I have an anonymous job, I come home and play with my kids and make dumb jokes on Twitter.”
The dumb jokes, however, have developed into a style and sensibility among some evangelicals online. Their humor has gone far past the satire and parody of earlier evangelical humor into the realm of the absurd. Fans and followers say the sillines serves as an antidote to political polarization and self-serious posturing. It may also be the most visible part of a generational change, as millennial evangelicals approach middle age and grapple with their parents’ public witness.
“In 2016 there was so much fear and anger,” said Tyler Huckabee, a writer for Relevant magazine. “Things seemed completely upside down. And then in the middle of that, I stumbled on weird Christian Twitter. It was a relief and it was funny, but I also found myself inspired and comforted.”
Before the election, the most dominant form of evangelical comedy was satire. More than a decade ago, on the website Stuff Christians Like, Jon Acuff made fun of the way evangelicals could turn any conversation into an opportunity to witness with the “Jesus Juke.” In viral YouTube videos, John Crist (who was later accused of sexually harassing multiple women) made fun of worship music and Christian jargon like “check your heart.” Cartoonist Adam Ford, creator of the Babylon Bee, joked about evangelicals peppering their prayers with filler words like just.
In the broader culture, too, satire seemed to be everywhere, following the success of TV programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. But there was a growing sense that something was wrong with that form of humor. It seemed, to some, like just another aspect of outrage culture adding to the polarization.
“I got burnt out on satire,” Huckabee said. “It got so cynical, most people are pretty bad at it, and it creates such a toxic atmosphere.”
For young, anti-Trump evangelicals in particular, satire seemed insufficient to the moment. It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t an effective social critique.
“For evangelicals like me who grew up in fundamentalist or very conservative churches—and I still attend a conservative church—we were seeing Christian leaders bend the rules that we were taught growing up in the ’90s, like they applied to Bill Clinton and not to Donald Trump,” said Alan Noble, an English professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and the editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture. “What do you do with that? One of the things you do is lean into the surrealism and embrace the absurdity.”
Some corners of the internet were already nurturing that alternative Christian humor. In 2014, Daniel Lavery, the child of megachurch pastor John Ortberg and cofounder of the website The Toast, started inventing dialogues between anonymous medieval monks, imagining the discussions behind odd works of art.
In the first one, Lavery wrote:
MONK #1: what do babies look like
MONK #2: ….huh good question
MONK #1: kind of like a very old man?
MONK #2: but also baboons
The same year, Pierce self-published an e-book about his childhood called Homeschool Sex Machine.
David Regier, the Baptist music minister behind the parody Twitter account “Church Curmudgeon,” drew in tens of thousands of fans with his one-liners satarizing grumpy old people at church. But in 2015, he started pushing his jokes in a new direction.
“I don’t want to be one of those people who is part of the polarization. There is plenty of that and I don’t want to be a part of it,” said Regier, who now has more than 100,000 people following the @ChrchCurmudgeon Twitter account. He started experimenting with wordplay and making his jokes weirder.
“You put two random things together and get a pun in there, I love that,” Regier said. “And it sort of rounded Church Curmudgeon out as a person. I wanted to make sure he’s not just a grumpy old man because that’s true of the people in your church. Those people have whole and full lives. They’re not just one-dimensional creatures in the back row.”
The absurdist humor flourished on Twitter, and attracted fans. Pierce started spinning stories about his homeschool crew and tweeting his character’s pressing question at celebrity pastors, asking Jimmy Swaggart, John Piper, and others, “do u like switch foot? y/n.”
Others followed him into the weirdness. Jake Raabe, a graduate student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, inserted himself into heated Twitter fights, especially when they involved Southern Baptist pastors, demanding to know people’s position on updog.
If anyone took the bait and asked, “What’s updog?” he’d reply, “Not much, what’s up with you?”
“It can just lower the temperature,” Raabe said. “It’s like, conversations happen in unhelpful ways, and absurdist humor can be a way to ask people to re-contextualize and not take themselves too seriously.”
The jokes can also spark new debates framed in ways that pull people into the humor. Raabe did this with a joke about Baby Yoda. Images of the new character from the Star Wars franchise were spreading around social media, and Raabe retweeted one.
“Baby Yoda is so cute,” Raabe wrote, adding a smiley face. “Please do not baptize him until he is old enough to make that decision for himself.”
Soon, social media was roiling with arguments about the nature of baptism and how the theology would be best applied to the fictional creature. The debates were serious but also bizarre, and for a few days whole swaths of public discourse were co-opted into this strange corner of the internet.
The heart of weird evangelical Twitter isn’t the juxtaposition of pop culture and theology, though, or the funny trolling. The key to the sensibility is in the specific references to evangelical youth culture from the 1990s and early 2000s. The sense of community is built around that shared knowledge and the experience of becoming an adult and realizing your childhood was strange.
“It was such a narrow culture and there were so many weird little shibboleths,” Huckabee said. “You make an obscure reference, and if that worm catches any fish, it’s like, gosh, I’m not as alone as I thought.”
The writer D. L. Mayfield, who posted a video from coronavirus quarantine of her lip-synching a Carman song, said making an evangelical pop culture reference can be like shooting off a flare to find the people who relate. And those people can help you process your past. It takes time and work to evaluate the culture that formed you and figure out what part of the faith that you learned as a child was the gospel, and what part was the spiritual struggles of your parents.
“There are some things that I was raised with, including stuff about fear and power, that I would not like to replicate in my life,” Mayfield said. “But I was also really immersed in the Bible. You get to the point in your life where the easier answers aren’t going to cut it, and then you go back and read the Gospels and think, oh my gosh, this is really good news.”
Jokes can be a way to re-assess as you find yourself slowly turning into your parents. And the absurdism of weird evangelical Twitter can help people separate the serious things from the things that don’t actually matter.
Pierce, for example, is working on a joke about Steven Curtis Chapman authorizing him to lead an army of Awanas in the war on Christmas. It might involve Bill Gaither or Russell Moore, Relient K, the Rapture, inappropriate sexual thoughts, homeschool moms, angels, Presbyterians, and maybe Testamints. He’ll imagine Matthew Pierce the character obsessed with the things he used to be obsessed with, fighting ridiculous battles that he used to think were serious.
But in real life, Pierce will go to church and sit in the back. He’ll go to his job and then come home. He’ll go see his parents, who have a hazy conception of weird evangelical Twitter and a polite agreement not to talk about it with their son. Pierce will think about how he’s becoming like them in some ways and not in others, and how, on balance, he’s okay with that.
Daniel Silliman is news editor of Christianity Today .
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