The Rise and Fall of Evangelical Influencers | Religion & Politics (2023)


By Katie Gaddini | March 15, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Evangelical Influencers | Religion & Politics (1)

(Getty Images/The Good Brigade)

In early 2021, social media influencer and pastor’s wife Caressa Prescott made the startling admission that she had just come out of rehab. Prescott told her followers on Instagram that her ongoing mental health struggles, including an eating disorder and substance abuse, had led her to seek help in a treatment facility for several weeks.

Prescott’s audience of nearly 50,000 followers received the news with equanimity. Many wished her well and applauded her bravery in coming forward with such a personal and vulnerable admission, especially as a prominent and public Christian woman. At the time, Prescott had a significant social media following due, in part, to her husband, Ben Prescott, the affable, somewhat goofy Australian pastor of Free Chapel Orange County in California. On top of that, her father, Jentezen Franklin, is a well-known televangelist who was one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers and serves as senior pastor of the multi-sited Free Chapel Church in Georgia. In evangelical Christianity the role of pastor’s wife (and to a lesser extent pastor’s daughter) carries its own authority and prominence.

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A few months later, Prescott made another shocking revelation: She was divorcing Ben. Her followers reacted to this news less positively, as divorce is highly discouraged within evangelicalism and generally considered a valid option only in cases of infidelity and abuse. Since then, Prescott has deleted and restarted her Instagram account several times, a series of stop-starts that hint at her uncertainty around where she fits on the internet these days. Whereas her Instagram feed once featured photos of personal training sessions, Parisian shopping trips, and holidays with Ben at five-star resorts, her account is now very simple, understated, and mostly comprises photos of her children.

Prescott’s story of evangelical fame and destruction, played out through real-time photos, highlights the vicissitudes of social media—that one can be loved and then hated at lightning speed, that behind each perfected photo lie countless imperfections. It also reveals a curious shift in evangelical culture over the past five years, as believers now turn to digital media for religious engagement, potentially changing evangelicalism at its core and raising the question: What else are these women influencing?

Over four years of in-depth research, I learned about the many struggles and joys of being a single woman in evangelicalism today. I document these findings in my new book, The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church, which also includes everyday women’s reactions to Christian social media stars. Having grown up in the faith, I knew most of these gendered norms already, including the importance of modesty and purity, the unspoken codes of conduct around socializing and “accountability,” the value placed on heterosexual marriage and children. But I quickly realized that many aspects of evangelical womanhood had changed since my time. Although female-specific books, magazines, and Bible studies still flourish in evangelicalism, the advent of social media has changed the way that women live out their faith. Especially during the last two years when the pandemic has moved many churches online, devout Americans now practice their faith digitally. Evangelical influencers represent a new avenue of religious engagement for women. Although female evangelical influencers existed before the pandemic, the shift online means that they have gained even larger followings and become even more savvy with how they use social media.

Evangelical influencers share a few traits in common: Most are pastor’s wives or “co-pastors” with their husbands, they belong to evangelical churches, and many are charismatic evangelicals, meaning they believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and healings. Their posts fuse fashion with faith, a luxury lifestyle with Christian values of family. Kids feature often in their social media, and their identity as “mother” reigns supreme. They are beautiful, polished, and well-presented, like social media influencers everywhere, yet they also convey Christian messages; whether by quoting Scripture, thanking God for their blessings, or posting photos of themselves at church worship services.

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Most importantly, as I have argued in the journal Religions, social media has afforded evangelical women a newfound authority. Only 3 percent of evangelical churches in the U.S. have a female senior or lead pastor, according to the latest National Congregations Study from Duke University. It’s an ongoing battle within evangelicalism that has re-emerged recently with author and teacher Beth Moore’s public rebuke of the Southern Baptist Convention. But even in the “co-pastoring” model, popular with many of evangelical influencers, it’s the male counterpart who holds the power. He’s the visible figurehead, the one who primarily preaches, who makes the decisions, and who leads the church. Social media presents a loophole, a backdoor through which evangelical women can gain authority on their own terms, while still respecting Biblical mandates of female submission. Through social media, women gain their own following, and exercise their voice, without violating church doctrine or usurping their husband’s position.

One such influencer is Holly Furtick. In her early forties, with light brown hair and an easy smile, Furtick maintains a significant online presence. She’s married to Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church, a megachurch with multiple campuses in North Carolina. In addition to her large Instagram following of almost half a million, Holly runs an online book club, hosts a YouTube channel with 60,000 subscribers, and creates Bible study guides for women, available for purchase on her website. Her website also features an index of her favorite recipes and a shop where customers can buy merchandise, such as grey joggers with Bible verses printed down the side.

Furtick’s devotion to her husband is a consistent theme across her digital media platforms. On Valentine’s Day, she posted a TikTok of them on Instagram, which included photos from holidays, selfies of tender embraces, and older pictures standing on-stage at church. “Love this life with you,” she wrote, adding a heart emoji.

Influencer DawnCheré Wilkerson’s Instagram feed looks similar. In one Instagram post, DawnCheré and her husband Rich Wilkerson are embracing in the ocean. DawnCheré wears a strapless white one-piece and Rich is shirtless in the waist-high water. She captioned the post with one simple word: “Us.”

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A petite, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman originally from Louisiana, DawnCheré co-pastors Vous Church in Miami with her husband Rich. The Wilkersons achieved a new level of fame in 2014, when Rich officiated the wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. A year later, they starred in their own reality TV show, Rich in Faith, which ran for one season. Now the Wilkersons have their own YouTube channel, called “Official Rich & DC,” where they post videos such as a dating advice special with celebrity couple Justin and Hailey Bieber. Like Caressa Prescott, Wilkerson also attained evangelical celebrity-status through her family: her father-in-law, Rich Sr., is the pastor of Trinity Church, a megachurch in Miami.

It’s no surprise that female evangelical influencers promote marriage and motherhood, given how highly valued heterosexual marriage remains within evangelical Christianity. Marriage forms the foundation of the family, which forms the cornerstone of the church, according to evangelical leaders, who often draw on Bible verses to re-enforce this point. In this sense, female evangelical influencers provide a visual accompaniment to a core evangelical value, which also proliferates through other forms of evangelical culture. These women serve as role models and visual examples of what it means to be a good Christian woman. At the same time, marriage and motherhood are key to achieving influencer status in the first place.

But that’s not all. In addition to exercising their authority on Christian values such as marriage, female evangelical influencers also influence politics.

A few weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Caressa Prescott, who had just had her son Luca, posted on Instagram: “There are things that are apart [sic] of the foundation of my faith that I can’t ignore. The sanctity of life … If this was the only reason why I have decided to vote it’s enough of a reason to me. I understand there are many other important issues facing our country today, but I choose to vote on the one most important to me … my precious innocent baby and his future, along with all future babies just like him.” She also referenced Psalm 139, which reads in part, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me togetherin my mother’s womb,” and is one of the Bible verses often used by evangelicals who oppose abortion. Two and a half years later, in May 2019, Prescott posted a picture of herself with her mother, Cherise Franklin; Ivanka Trump; and Pastor Paula White-Cain, the former chairwoman of Trump’s evangelical advisory board—the same group where Prescott’s father Jentezen Franklin also served. Caressa Prescott wrote: “This administration is doing more than any other has in history to invest in women’s economic empowerment and the next generation. I am so honored to have had the opportunity and seat at the table.” The next day, Prescott uploaded a photo of herself standing alone in front of the White House in a brown dress and heels.

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Prescott’s connections aren’t just evangelical; they are also political. In addition to her father serving as a Trump faith adviser, her brother Drake Franklin worked for Evangelicals for Trump and now works as a policy analyst for the America First Policy Institute, which boasts many staff members who worked for the Trump administration.

Prescott’s White House post received thousands of “likes,” some from other evangelical influencers, including Esther Houston. Originally from Brazil, Houston is a model living in New York City with husband Joel Houston, a singer songwriter with the Hillsong United band, and the son of Bobbie and Brian Houston, founders of Hillsong Church in Australia. Houston also posted her own White House photos in May 2019 during the Trump administration. In one, Esther stands inside an elegant room, wearing a floor-length red jumpsuit and black blazer. She gazes out of a window next to an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson. An American flag emoji and the words “Love you ‘merica” caption the post. Among the many comments she received, one follower wrote, “You seriously would be an incredible President!” Others wrote: “You got my vote,” “YOU for President!” and “Esther Houston 2024?” The conservative activist and Christian streetwear brand owner Erika Kirk, who has a large social media following of her own, liked all three photos in the series. “So much yes in this photo,” she wrote beneath one of them.

Here again evangelical influencers have found a loophole. Whereas pastors technically cannot campaign politically for a candidate from the pulpit due to churches’ tax-exempt status and IRS rules, female evangelical influencers, freed from the formalized authority of a senior leader, hold more freedom to communicate their political beliefs without violating norms that discourage mixing church with electoral politics.

Such loopholes have caused some scholars to wonder if digital media introduces a threat to male religious authority. Does the rise of female evangelical influencers challenge traditional authority structures within the faith? Just how much influence do these women have and could it sway politics on a larger scale? The analysis in my book shows that for now, the spheres where evangelical social media stars exert influence are limited; rather than disrupt the teachings of their fathers and husbands, their platforms buttress these messages, serving as examples of the ultimate Christian “help meet.” Even their political posts are covert rather than overt, and they accord with mainstream white evangelical political trends, such as opposing abortion and supporting Donald Trump.

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But perfect comes at a price. The pressure heaped on pastors’ wives multiplies under the gaze of social media, and some influencers are starting to crack. In the aftermath of her visit to rehab, Caressa Prescott wrote on Instagram: “If I’m not perfect and I don’t have it all together then what right to [sic] I have to speak into someone else’s life, right? … No matter what is happening, our only option is to put the brave face on and get in the car and go to church and sit on the front [row] and have everyone else looking at you.” The last few words in her post are particularly interesting. They reveal the reality of being a pastor’s wife and pastor’s daughter, that everyone is always watching to see what you wear, what you say, how you move. The scrutiny can be unbearable, and yet it is part and parcel of these roles. As an influencer, the same dissecting gaze fixes on you, though at least social media affords more control of the narrative, of what can be seen. The pressure is the same, though, and as Prescott reminds us, there is a dark side to evangelical digital culture, the meeting place where Christian ideals and online voyerism collide.

Katie Gaddini is a sociologist and writer at University College London. She is the author of The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church.


What caused the rise of evangelicalism? ›

19th century. In the 19th century, evangelicalism expanded as a result of the Second Great Awakening (1790s–1840s). The revivals of the Second Great Awakening influenced all the major Protestant denominations, and turned most American Protestants into evangelicals.

Who are the evangelical Christians in the United States? ›

Today, 25% of U.S. adults identify with evangelical denominations, down less than one percentage point since 2007.

How many members does free chapel have? ›

The Orange County church is affiliated with the Church of God. Free Chapel has roughly 25,000 members in all locations combined.

When was evangelicalism founded? ›

Its origins are usually traced to 1738, with various theological streams contributing to its foundation, including Pietism and Radical Pietism, Puritanism, Quakerism, Presbyterianism and Moravianism (in particular its bishop Nicolaus Zinzendorf and his community at Herrnhut).

How are evangelicals different from other Christians? ›

The term evangelical comes from the word "evangel" which is a word form in Greek from the New Testament that refers to the good news of Jesus Christ -- that Jesus came to save humanity -- and evangelicals have a particular take on the good news. That makes them distinctive from other Christians.

What are the 3 types of evangelism? ›

Those three components are designed to follow along with Cru's three modes of evangelism. The three are natural mode, body/life mode and ministry mode.

What states are most evangelical? ›

The evangelical influence is strongest in northern Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, southern and western Virginia, West Virginia, the Upstate region of South Carolina, and East Texas. The earliest known usage of the term "Bible Belt" was by American journalist and social commentator H. L.

What is the largest evangelical denomination in America? ›

Baptists are the largest Protestant grouping in the United States accounting for one-third of all American Protestants. Prior to 1845, most white Baptist churches were loosely affiliated as the Triennial Convention.

What percentage of evangelicals go to Church? ›

Religious denominationAt least once a weekOnce or twice a month/a few times a year
Nondenominational evangelical70%23%
Nondenominational fundamentalist59%25%
Presbyterian Church in America44%39%
Seventh-day Adventist67%25%
9 more rows

How much do Free Chapel pastors make? ›

What is the average salary for a Pastor at Free Chapel in the United States? Based on our data, it appears that the optimal compensation range for a Pastor at Free Chapel is between $74,019 and $100,478, with an average salary of $89,508.

What religion is free church? ›

free church, generally, any Protestant religious body that exists in or originates in a land having a state church but that is itself free of governmental or external ecclesiastical control.

Who owns Free Chapel church? ›

Jentezen Franklin is an American evangelical pastor, author, and televangelist. He is the senior pastor of Free Chapel, a multi-site church based in Gainesville, Georgia and author of Right People, Right Place, Right Plan; Fasting; Fear Fighters and The Spirit of Python.

What are the basic beliefs of evangelicals? ›

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

Who created the evangelicals? ›

In the 16th century Martin Luther and his followers, who stressed justification by faith in Jesus Christ and based their faith on Scripture alone, were known as Evangelicals.

Are Pentecostals and evangelicals the same? ›

Pentecostalism refers to Christian denominations who prioritize the spirit and whose worship services may include speaking in tongues, faith healings, and other charismatic expressions. Evangelicalism today is a protean movement that includes Christians on both the left and right of the political spectrum.

Do evangelicals take the Bible literally? ›

Evangelicals and fundamentalists both agree that the Bible is inerrant, but fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally. Many evangelicals don't actually read it literally.

Do evangelicals believe in faith alone? ›

In other words, evangelical Christians have also always been people of the gospel—namely, the good news that justification, or a right-standing before God, comes by faith alone (sola fide).

Are evangelicals and Baptists the same? ›

Most Baptists are evangelical in doctrine, but their beliefs may vary due to the congregational governance system that gives autonomy to individual local Baptist churches. Historically, Baptists have played a key role in encouraging religious freedom and separation of church and state.

What are the 5 P's of evangelism? ›

A committed lifestyle of evangelism must include the 5 P's, which are Priority, Prayer, People, Proclaim and Perseverance.

What are the 5 pillars of evangelism? ›

The Five Pillars of Discipleship stresses the importance of five basic principles in Christian growth: Word of God, prayer, evangelism, fellowship, and praise and worship. Christians who constantly practice these things will be spiritually strong and also sound in Christian doctrines.

What are the signs of an evangelist? ›

Seven Characteristics
  • They are people of prayer. ...
  • They have a theology that compels them to evangelize. ...
  • They are people who spend time in the Word. ...
  • They are compassionate people. ...
  • They love the communities where God has placed them. ...
  • They are intentional about evangelism.
Jul 2, 2014

What is the largest evangelical denomination in the world? ›

The Church of England, the Church of Christ in Congo, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the Assembleias de Deus and the Evangelical Church in Germany constitute the most numerous national bodies with more than 20 million members each.

What is the most non religious state in USA? ›

As of 2000, the six states and provinces reported to have the lowest rate of religious adherence in North America were Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, and West Virginia. Although West Virginia is reported to have a low rate of religious adherence, it is above the national average rate of church attendance.

What is the majority religion in the USA? ›

The most popular religion in the U.S. is Christianity, comprising the majority of the population (73.7% of adults in 2016), with the majority of American Christians belonging to a Protestant denomination or a Protestant offshoot (such as Mormonism or the Jehovah's Witnesses).

What is the fastest-growing church denomination in the United States? ›

1. Lutheran Church of Hope. The fastest-growing Christian church in 2022 was the Lutheran Church of Hope, located in West Des Moines, Iowa.

What are the most evangelical cities in the US? ›

Religions by metropolitan areas
Metro areaChristian (%)Evangelical (%)

What is the fastest-growing Protestant denomination? ›

Pentecostalism represents one of the fastest-growing segments of global Christianity, according to the Pew Research Center website.

How much do evangelicals tithe? ›

A tithe is a portion (10%) of your income given as an offering to your local church. (Fun fact: The word tithe literally means tenth in Hebrew.) Because the custom of tithing is biblical, many Christians and Jews practice it as part of their faith.

Is church attendance decreasing? ›

Protestant pastors reported that typical church attendance is only 85% of pre-pandemic levels, McConnell said, while research by the Survey Center on American Life and the University of Chicago found that in spring 2022 67% of Americans reported attending church at least once a year, compared with 75% before the ...

What percentage of evangelicals read the Bible? ›

Frequency of reading scripture by religious group
Religious traditionAt least once a weekSeveral times a year
Evangelical Protestant63%7%
8 more rows

How much is the salary of a living faith pastor? ›

Living Faith Church Lead Pastor Salaries. What is the average salary for a Lead Pastor at Living Faith Church in the United States? Based on our data, it appears that the optimal compensation range for a Lead Pastor at Living Faith Church is between $68,961 and $93,503, with an average salary of $83,344.

Does the pastor get paid for preaching the funeral? ›

A common question that many families ask when planning funerals is: what type of honorarium should we give our pastor? In the markets that we serve the typical clergy honorarium that we see most often is $150. Again this figure can sometimes be more and sometimes be less.

How do pastors make so much money? ›

Across the United States, the biggest-name pastors and worship leaders produce best-selling books and albums, often earning huge salaries and housing allowances from their churches. And many of the biggest churches, which do not have to disclose their revenue publicly, often generate opulent untaxed revenue.

Which church is the only true church? ›

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christ founded only "one true Church", and that this one true Church is the Catholic Church with the bishop of Rome (the pope) as its supreme, infallible head and locus of communion.

Which is the most free religion in the world? ›

Hinduism. Hinduism is one of the more broad-minded religions when it comes to religious freedom. It respects the right of everyone to reach God in their own way. Hindus believe in different ways to preach attainment of God and religion as a philosophy and hence respect all religions as equal.

What religion are conservative Christians? ›

The two major subdivisions of Conservative Christianity within Protestantism are Evangelical Christianity and Christian Fundamentalism while the Confessing Movement, Confessionalism, and Neo-orthodoxy make up the remaining within Protestantism.

What is the revenue of the Free Chapel? ›

What is Free Chapel's Revenue? Free Chapel revenue is $1.1M annually.

What is Jentezen Franklin's salary? ›

Jentezen Franklin pays an average salary of $440,501 and salaries range from a low of $387,979 to a high of $502,360.

How old is Jentezen Franklin? ›

What is a true evangelical? ›

“True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood (1); it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires (2); it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul (3); it clothes the naked (4);

What are the 4 characteristics of evangelicals? ›

In order to define evangelicalism, Bebbington identified four enduring characteristics of the evangelical faith: the Bible, the cross, the concept of “being born again” and activism.

Do evangelicals believe in the Holy Spirit? ›

Almost all evangelicals by belief (96%) say they believe in the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity—one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is the leader of an evangelical church called? ›

A pastor (abbreviated to "Pr" or "Ptr" (both singular), or "Ps" (plural)) is the leader of a Christian congregation who also gives advice and counsel to people from the community or congregation.

What Bible do evangelicals read? ›

A committee of the ELS focused on doctrine suggested the use of the New King James Version, the English Standard Version, An American Translation, and the New American Standard Bible.

Who was the first evangelist? ›

Matthew the Evangelist, the author of the first gospel account, is symbolized by a winged man, or angel. Matthew's gospel starts with Joseph's genealogy from Abraham; it represents Jesus' Incarnation, and so Christ's human nature. This signifies that Christians should use their reason for salvation.

Is there a difference between Christians and evangelicals? ›

How are evangelicals different from other Christians? Evangelicals are a subgroup of Protestants who emphasize the authority of the Bible and the importance of personal conversion. They tend to be more conservative in their theology and social beliefs than other branches of Christianity.

What religion is Hillsong? ›

Hillsong Church, commonly known as Hillsong, is a charismatic Christian megachurch based in Australia. The original church was established in Baulkham Hills, New South Wales, as Hills Christian Life Centre by Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie in 1983.

What religion is Pentecostal closest to? ›

Pentecostalism or classical Pentecostalism is a Protestant Charismatic Christian movement that emphasizes direct personal experience of God through baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Who started the evangelical movement? ›

The single most important figure in the history of Evangelicalism was John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists (which between the Civil War and World War II was the largest Protestant denomination in the United States).

What is the basis of evangelicalism? ›

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

What was evangelicalism during the Second Great Awakening? ›

The Second Great Awakening, in particular, rejected the Enlightenment influences on the founding of the United States. Worshippers rejected rationalism and deism, the worship of a distant and uninvolved God. For evangelicals, God was directly involved with each per- son's life and with society as a whole.

Was evangelicalism referred to as the Great Awakening in the USA? ›

The Great Awakening marked the emergence of Anglo-American evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement within the Protestant churches. In the United States, the term Great Awakening is most often used, while in the United Kingdom the movement is referred to as the Evangelical Revival.


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