Pastors in Brazil worry that a weekly sermon is not enough to compete with the popular social media personalities their congregants listen to the rest of the week.

They recognize the internet has played a key role in the rise of evangelical Christianity in Brazil. But it’s also made heretical teachings and the Christian-influencer industry more pervasive than ever before. How might orthodox churches and institutions respond?

Two recent surveys show that Brazilian Christian YouTubers and podcasters have more influence than the country’s denominational leaders and megachurch pastors.

Public opinion research institute Quaest found that top evangelical leaders were outranked by influencers on measures of fame, engagement, and mobilization.

In its research, the JesusCopy YouTube channel was more popular than Edir Macedo, the founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the fourth-largest denomination in the country. The theology podcast Bibotalk scored higher than bishop Robson Rodovalho, founder of the Sara Nossa Terra churches, a neo-Pentecostal movement.

Another survey—carried out by Nosotros, a consultancy group created by anthropologist Juliano Spyer—found that traditional evangelical voices tend to be more isolated and less significant to online debate.

“Influencers like representative Marco Feliciano and bishop Edir Macedo do not stand out in relation to other evangelicals who play a central role in this network,” says Spyer. “People like singer and pastor Eyshila, pastor Camila Barros, singer and composer Anderson Freire, and pastor and singer Midiam Lima may be less known to those who are not evangelicals, but they are some of the most influential voices in this field.”

At its best, social media has helped bring evangelical Christianity to a place of relevance and acceptance in contemporary society. Rather than being known for old-fashioned stances against Carnival, TV, soap operas, and football, evangelicals on social media have broken stereotypes and presented themselves as cool and connected.

But with the enthusiasm for a new way to communicate the gospel, however, came some abusive leaders and unorthodox teachings.

Movimento Galpão—which means something like “the Warehouse Movement,” a reference to its building—was founded in 2021 in Alphaville, an affluent suburb of São Paulo. It held weekly services for young people and streamed them for thousands of viewers on social media. The face of the movement was Victor Bonato, an influencer with 145,000 followers on Instagram.

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Galpão’s story ended in scandal last September when Bonato—an alias used by Victor de Paula Gonçalves, a 27-year-old digital marketing professional—was arrested under allegations of sexual assault against three women. Galpão then stated that Bonato was no longer part of the movement. A week later it closed for “renovation.”

“This reform means a new time, a time of connection, of accessing new levels in God, a time of alignment,” reads a statement on Instagram , “and we invite you to do the same on your own; we will soon be returning with our new schedule.” The movement hasn’t posted since.

Evangelical leaders are eager to see young people join and grow in the faith but caution against leaders without proper theological training, pastoral experience, or oversight.

One of the reasons for the problem, says Pentecostal theologian Gutierres Fernandes Siqueira, is the lack of proper theological training and pastoral experience.

“Apostle Paul warned about the danger of neophytes in the faith becoming a leader or a teacher,” he said, recalling that an elder “must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6).

“As a consequence of the rapid growth of evangelical Christianity in Brazil, there are people who have just converted and are now taking on the role of influencer.”

Historically, a leader would need a background in studying theology or years of service in a local church before getting a chance to preach before a congregation. Even as Christians look beyond their own pulpits for teaching, they should be asking questions about creators and their content.

Pastor Sérgio Queiroz, founder of Cidade Viva, a Baptist church in João Pessoa, recommends Christians consider an influencer’s spiritual formation, qualifications, and motivations.

“Content producers are always in a dilemma between uploading in-depth and carefully produced, researched content and editing short videos that are easy to consume and have a greater chance of going viral,” said Queiroz, also a professor at Faculdade Internacional Cidade Viva. “A respectable producer should always prefer depth over virality.”

For newcomers to the faith, temptations are many. Brazilian Christian social media constitute a business ecosystem that feeds itself on a large scale.

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With the growing popularity of influencers, social media has become a tempting business opportunity for Brazilian Christians.

The number of people aspiring to the activity is so large that it has given rise to movements such as O Retiro, which promotes itself as “the largest gathering of Christian influencers in the world” and whose “mission is to mirror the gospel throughout the land through social media.”

Created by pastor and evangelist Guilherme Batista, O Retiro holds events for hundreds of Christian influencers, charging up to R$600 ($150 USD) per ticket.

But these influencer accounts tend to offer a kind of self-help content—less evangelism and more motivational quotes. In the Nosotros survey report, 30 percent of Christian influencers could be tagged primarily as motivational speakers. (Of the rest, 25 percent share political content and 45 percent produce devotional content.)

“Wherever there is a theology prone to stimulating self-esteem, to individualism as an ethical doctrine, and to entrepreneurship as an economic rationality, coaching will be there as an instrument or as an ecclesiological possibility,” said Taylor de Aguiar, an anthropologist whose doctoral thesis is about coaching practices in the evangelical environment.

“On Instagram, people seem always happy and willing to share everything that is good for themselves and, by extension, for others,” he said. “Who would be capable of being critical when receiving videos with well-spoken, sensible, and emotional words about overcoming procrastination, overcoming grief, or growing in professional life, leaving obstacles behind?”

Messages like these have their place in Christian teaching, but critics worry that the economics and algorithms of social media are overemphasizing them and that the church is growing too dependent on self-help content.

Besides, such content reinforces an inclination of part of the church to the idea that it is possible to preach online without theological study. “The evangelical tradition in Brazil has this anti-intellectual side,” said Siqueira, the theologian. The presence of this digital activism, he concludes, is a kind of inheritance of this tradition.

“These influencers may even think that [preaching] doesn’t need preparation, just rhetoric and a good slogan. But church is much more than that.”

[ This article is also available in Português and Français. ]