Where people are willing to risk (almost) everything for open and honest conversations.
An estuary is a transitional zone where the fresh water of a river flows into the salt water of the sea. It’s a place of interchange where a wide variety of creatures come together. Unique, highly specialized species live there that can only survive in its brackish water. For the waterfowl that land there, estuaries are important breeding grounds and resting places. For marine fish species, they are nurseries. Migratory fish pass through estuaries on their journeys. Estuaries are among the most diverse, productive, and interesting biotopes and are very important for biodiversity. And as with anywhere else in the natural world, life in the estuary is dangerous. For there, in the untamed riverbed, with no protective levees or floodwalls, we find ourselves in the midst of the chaos of life-giving water that holds unimagined depths.
The first wave of the flood
Paul VanderKlay, a pastor of the Christian Reformed Church in Sacramento, was there when a new estuary was forming out in the wilds of YouTube. He was there when thousands of young people were drifting, disoriented, asking big questions and not knowing who to talk to about them. VanderKlay acted out of pure intuition when he threw the first life preservers, in the form of YouTube videos, into the first wave of an oncoming tide. After some initial hesitation, he jumped headfirst into the cold, dark water and soon realized that it was surprisingly easy to swim in the estuary. Paul began to get his bearings and map the unexplored territory.
Walls that are too thick obstruct the flow
For VanderKlay, the church was often a walled garden that hardly allowed fresh water to flow out into the world. He saw that people often self-censored in small groups and Bible studies. They only told the pastor what they thought he wanted to hear. In Paul’s observation, church seemed to be the last place many people wanted to go to have a free, open-ended conversation where they could say heretical things, share their thoughts openly, and really explore subjects in depth. And pastors were the last people anyone was coming to for conversations like that.
Paul was often frustrated. He couldn’t talk to people about truth because honest conversations weren’t possible in that context. At the same time, he observed that in churches people were made to feel guilty when they gave the „wrong“ answers. He saw this as counterproductive to the work of the church: „Not that wrong answers are good, but for all of us, the process of learning and discovery requires us to share what we think.“
What are you willing to risk for an honest conversation?
Paul’s first step into this new wilderness outside the church walls came in the form of YouTube videos about Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson. Soon he had hundreds of views, then thousands. Complete strangers approached him wanting to talk to him. Because the conversations took place on YouTube rather than in church, a different dynamic emerged. Paul’s YouTube conversation partners told him exactly what they were thinking. Paul was able to have honest conversations with them, which wasn’t always comfortable, but it was usually very refreshing.
Not long afterwards, Paul started regular Jordan Peterson meet-ups at his church, which he advertised publicly on meetup.com. Interest was high, and a diverse audience showed up for those meetings – including quite a few atheists. Just like the YouTube randos, those new types of churchgoers tended to tell Paul what they really thought: „Pastor, I think you are full of shit.“ Not everyone can take insults, but Paul puts up with them for the sake of an honest conversation.
A different culture is emerging in the digital catacombs
Success is proving him right. Although the community around him is still flying under the radar, it’s growing steadily. Meanwhile, the network around Paul VanderKlay’s podcast has given rise to a discord server. And there, in the digital catacombs, intensive exchanges are taking place in line with the estuary principle. Some members have already set up YouTube channels based on VanderKlay’s model. Young people for whom Peterson sparked an interest in deep conversations and the Bible find a perfect fit with Paul and the community around him. As they grow into the community over time, some are no longer content with virtual participation, but often find themselves wanting to join a church.
Creatures of all kinds
Another aspect of this phenomenon is that in VanderKlay’s estuary, heretics and orthodox believers are granted equal respect. So are agnostics, atheists, and people from all kinds of backgrounds. Sometimes it even seems that the more heretical their views are, the more they are esteemed. So a Unitarian can make high-level arguments against the Trinity, while a Jew declares his love for Jesus of Nazareth but excoriates the apostle Paul in lengthy texts and videos. Against this backdrop, the fact that the founder and administrator of the discord server is a staunch atheist may seem absurd. In the estuary, however, this new diversity has become normality.
And so it could be said that a new form of dialogue is becoming possible in the estuary. This also goes for Christians of different denominations: the discord server cultivates an interdenominational, international exchange between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants from all corners of the world – from Iceland to South Africa, from Australia and the Philippines to Europe and the USA. And when Paul, a Calvinist in an iconoclastic tradition, talks for hours with Orthodox icon carver Jonathan Pageau, they are striking out into new territory. Through his regular exchanges with Pageau, Paul has also regained a better understanding of the need for the church to be a walled garden.
Paul values these open conversations with Christians of other denominations and with atheists, and he invests a great deal of time in them. His prolific video production is legendary: every day he releases at least one or two hours of content. He’s had conversations with over 400 people since the end of 2017. Through his diligence and by seizing the opportunity of the moment, Vanderklay has achieved considerable reach: 18,200 subscribers follow his channel; his videos regularly get thousands of views, sometimes over 10,000.
In the course of his many conversations, it became clear to Paul that all these people have more in common than they themselves often realize. He says most Christians are far more secular than they think, and most secular people are far more influenced by the legacy of Christianity than they would imagine.
A reflection in fresh spring water
According to Paul, Jordan Peterson made the estuary possible to some extent because his YouTube lectures opened Christianity up to many atheists. When Paul saw a university professor get 8 million views for thinking out loud about the Bible, he looked in the mirror and thought, „What the hell is wrong with you, VanderKlay?“
Lift up your heads, o ye floodgates
Through his videos and meet-ups, Paul then realized that as a pastor, he could use the church space in a different way to have deep conversations with people. And from Paul’s perspective, that way is much more effective than the things churches usually do, which hardly manage to bring anyone anywhere near a meaningful conversation about the most important things in life:
„We give them candy or junk food or hot dogs or free babysitting. All of those things are OK, but what I really want is to engage in conversation with people. And through YouTube and meetups and discord, I get to have those conversations a lot faster. And my conversation partners are much more diverse. And to me, that’s a much more effective evangelistic project than all the silly things churches end up doing.“
Much like the early Christians, Paul wants to make genuine connections with the culture of society. He points to the Bible, whose testimony proves that this open kind of engagement was integral to the early church.
Through this genuine interaction, Paul VanderKlay’s estuary continues to grow. The YouTube algorithm does its part, constantly flushing new creatures through the estuary’s main channel. Those who have been settled there a while give them a warm welcome. The fruitful exchange between all these creatures makes Paul VanderKlay’s estuary one of the most interesting, diverse and productive cultural phenomena of our time.
Translated by Laura Freeburn