Using praise and worship to connect with Gen Z online in a global crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally shifted the way we live. From school life to working arrangements and even church, we adapted to the new normal the pandemic introduced. Stories and Songs, a musical collective from Kenya, decided to take praise and worship online and share their message through music and stories. As studies suggest Gen Z are doubling down on spirituality, many young people turning to platforms like YouTube to find camaraderie and community. We spoke to Stories and Songs about the future of religion, using their platform to save lives, and the difference between connecting online vs in real life.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Stories and Songs saw an opportunity to share their spirituality online. The world was changing, and with it, the traditional church was disappearing. By building a YouTube channel, the Kenyan music collective was able to grow a community of viewers eager for a new way to worship.
Eric Mayore, Brady Odete, Ben Mbasu, David Ogara, Wanjira Maathai, Threzer Alando, Manasseh Shalom
As content creators discussing spirituality, how has YouTube given you a platform to build your profile?YouTube is easily accessible to a lot of different people, no matter what country they are in. Most of our followers are from Kenya, but we also have viewers from Tanzania and Uganda so it’s really allowed us to have a wider reach. We actually started with both Facebook and YouTube, but we realised that most of our audience was spending more time on YouTube so we decided to focus specifically on that channel.
What inspired you to start your YouTube channel?
When Covid hit, it forced everyone to look at new ways of worshipping. The pastor at our church started a new online series on Facebook and we all watched it. There are 15 of us in Stories and Songs, and most of us work in production. So we all came together, called him, and said we wanted to contribute and help produce something high quality with great music.
After four or five videos with him, we decided to get our own independent channel so it wasn’t attached to a particular church or religion. It became a channel for anyone that wanted to hear praise and worship songs, with some relatable stories, no matter their religious background.
We had someone in the comments say “I’m not religious or a Christian. I just listen to the songs because it reminds me of my childhood,” which shows just how much our music resonated with fans.
Our ambition was to share good music but the channel has turned into more than that. People are opening up and sharing with us and each other. It’s a good feeling to know that we’ve created a place where people feel comfortable online because social media isn’t always so welcoming.
Did you look at the work of other spiritual YouTubers?
We didn’t really do that much research on other YouTubers. We just started it, and then along the way, we realised that we were doing something different. Most of the churches we saw on YouTube, had a sermon with praise and worship, much like a traditional church. So we decided to do something different for your younger target audience. For us, we just wanted to focus on the music and funny stories in between. Stories that lift people's spirits and make them feel good. We wanted to move away from the traditional into a more modern way of connecting with our Gen Z community.
Stories & Songs Live in concert
How does YouTube help you connect with your followers, the Christian community and your faith?
The YouTube comment section has helped us connect with our followers and community in ways that we may not have been able to do in a traditional church setting. Through the live streams and content we upload, our interactions are mainly via the comments. It enables us to see where people's lives are, or what they are going through at that moment. Or even what they want from us as content creators so we can create better videos for them.
When we look at our live chats during a stream, we’ll see more engagement during certain songs or verses. This lets us know what people like or dislike, or how they are feeling during a particular season. It helps us think about how we can better help our audience, how we can improve our production and even decide on themes to explore in future videos. For example during Covid, a lot of people were going through depression and isolation and we could see that from the comments. So we decided to come up with a theme about healing to help our audience.
With almost 4 million views on your YouTube channel, what helped you grow and how do you plan to expand your social community?
We were even surprised by that number to be honest, but for us, we don't focus on the views, it's more about the value we provide. Something that has definitely helped us grow has been listening to what followers say in the comments.
At first, our focus was on trying to make as much content as we could, then some of our audience started asking us to make shorter videos with just one or two songs because watching long YouTube videos was causing their data bundles to finish more quickly, so that’s what we did.
Because we have a big team, each one of us would share our videos on our personal social channels, with our friends, and then they shared them with their friends. So we were able to grow quickly, organically mostly through good old word of mouth.
Now we would like to reach people all over the world. Most of our audience is from East Africa but we want Stories and Songs to be watched all over the world. We’re hoping our young, digital community can help us reach that goal. Earlier this year, we were able to do a concert and 400 people came from our YouTube community. That was really inspiring to us, seeing how much our fans connected with us in real life too.
Glynn Mwavali, Derrick Decor, Wanjira Maathai, David Ogara, Threzer Alando, Manasseh Shalom, Kui Brown, Noah Brown, Ben Mbasu, Eric Mayore
How different was it to connect with people in person versus online?
It was interesting because it’s almost like we’ve already built strong connections with our audiences via YouTube and we even know some of our fans quite well. So when they came to the physical event, it was just like a meet-up of friends. It felt like we had already known each for so long and had that mutual respect for each other.
But the live experience is quite different from the online one. We even had some feedback saying that we should stick to YouTube instead of live concerts. Because with YouTube, you’re able to go back to watch something when you want, you can save a video and share it. But you can’t do that with a live performance. It's a one-time thing. So once it's done, it's done. On YouTube, our videos and our message lives on forever.
How do you use digital or social platforms to connect with your community of devoted followers?
We use different tools for different things. So for our prayer requests, we use Instagram. Although we do ask people to share prayer requests on our YouTube Live videos. We’ve found that it’s just easier to have one means of communication, which for the longest time has been YouTube.
Have you used YouTube/ Google’s tools, programmes or training to help your channel grow and be discoverable online?
We haven't done any training yet, but of course, we use the YouTube tools to check our analytics, to find out who our audience is. It’s helpful to find out the demographics to see how and where we are growing. We also just started using YouTube Shorts and we’re hoping to explore that more. We found out from our analytics that most of our audience watch our videos on their phone so we’re trying to use formats like Shorts to capture their attention on mobile.
Have you faced any resistance/scepticism when sharing your faith/spirituality online?
Not really. It’s been quite positive. When we started this whole thing, we were lucky to be in a bubble of friends and like-minded people, so the only criticism would come from ourselves. For us, we're not making videos for ‘likes’ or anything like that. It was more like “okay, guys, we have this talent - let’s use it, let’s share it”.
Threzer Alando, Eric Mayore (in the back) Manasseh Shalom performing at the live recording
Why do you think young people’s trust in religious institutions is low, but trust in religious influencers is still high?
There's this whole thing with religious institutions having a certain way of doing things, that you have to stick to. That doesn’t work for Gen Z. They want to do things their way, they want to worship in their own way. They are more individualistic and they don’t believe that religion is only one way. I think what influencers are showing them is this is what works for me but you can do religion the way you want to do it, in a way that feels good to you. They’re not enforcing strict rules, it’s relatable.
A reason why we tend to focus on just short stories and relevant songs is that we’ve seen that Gen Z prefers things that are short and sweet. If they can learn or experience something quickly and they have a good time doing it, they prefer that. They don’t have to sit through a four-hour church service to connect to God or other Christians. They can also watch a short video from Stories and Songs to feel like they are part of a spiritual community. Religious influencers are good at listening to what their audience wants and creating content around that. Maybe Gen Z feels this is lacking with some religious institutions.
Do you think the perception of religion and spirituality is changing as Gen Z share their faith more openly online?
The whole thing about being online is that people are freer. They have more freedom of speech. They talk about their spirituality, they talk about their religion. Because people are sharing their beliefs in different ways online, the perception of it is changing from something very strict to something more flexible. There’s a lot less judgement. You know in some churches you might feel eyes watching you if you don’t stand up during the songs or if you don’t pray loudly enough. Online, you won’t be judged for “doing the wrong thing”. People can be more anonymous online and that allows them to be more vulnerable and ask for help when they need it.
(Top row) Edna, Eric, Sammy, Brady, Ben, Noel. (Middle row) Wanjira, Moses, Threzer, Decor, Noah. (Bottom Row) Eve, Manasseh, David, Kui
What do you think Christianity will look like in the next 5-10 years?
The future of Christianity is digital. With Covid, we saw churches go online. But even though churches are open now, they are still running their services through platforms like YouTube, Facebook, or on their website. With the church that we used to go to, the number of people that came back after Covid is quite low compared to the number of people that were there before. With time, people will appreciate the fact that church is available online any time or day you want. It’s not just reserved for Sundays. It’s just a click away.
What would be your advice for young people hoping to engage with spirituality today?
People need to kind of just accept who they are and be comfortable in their own skin. Find like-minded spaces and like-minded people. Find them online if you can’t find them in person and connect with them.
Also, young people should follow their heart in what they believe in and be consistent. As long as it helps them to grow because growth is important and if you're moving one step ahead, that can only be a good thing.
Posted by Dorothy Ooko, Head of Communications & Public Affairs, Google, Africa
All Photos credits to Wamwiri Kimachia