It's a Monday night in Gig Harbor, Wash., and some 300 high schoolers are crammed elbow to elbow to hear Jeff Bethke talk about some of their favorite topics: sex, porn and partying. The young Christians are texting him questions ("How can I convince my boyfriend to wait to have sex? I'm scared he's going to leave me"; "Why can't we do what you did, experiment now and come to God later?"), which the handsome, hoodied 22-year-old answers directly but in a way that keeps the focus on his favorite topic: Jesus. ("Break up with your boyfriend"; "Because Jesus loves you right now.")
Bethke is not a pastor, a teacher or even a divinity student. He's a YouTube sensation whose spoken-word poem "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus" has been viewed more than 19 million times since Jan. 10. The video's polished sound and multiple camera angles set it apart from many other viral phenomena, but its claim to fame is Bethke's head-snapping assertion in the opening line that "Jesus came to abolish religion."
The recent college grad, whose poem rails against the hypocrisy and self-righteousness too often associated with churchgoers, is hardly the first to speak out on these issues. But his success in getting young people to listen is making him a focal point of the conversation. With lines like "Religion puts you in shackles, but Jesus sets you free/ Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see," Bethke has struck a chord with his demographic, that group of Americans, ages 18 to 29, who in recent surveys call themselves spiritual but not religious, a growing contingent that avoids churches but still loves Jesus.
Bethke's anger in the video ("I hate religion. In fact I literally resent it") has led millions to watch his other riffs--on such topics as sex, marriage and immodest Halloween costumes--and got him interviews on CBS This Morning and ABC's Nightline. He's also been the subject of more than 200 response videos, which collectively have been viewed more than 2 million times, and harsh critiques by everyone from David Brooks of the New York Times--who said Bethke, like many of today's protesters, has failed to present a plan of action--to a Michigan pastor who in a blog post detailed Bethke's inaccuracies verse by verse.
Bethke admits his theology, as he puts it, may not be "airtight," but his delivery--with his shaved head and sloganeering--offers lessons for churches looking to get young people into their pews. "My generation wants authenticity," says Bethke, who stresses that he made the video for people who shudder when they hear "religion" and consider it a synonym for voting Republican, hating gays and being bigoted and mean. "My whole point in writing the poem was to help separate the two, to help people get the blurriness out of their eyes so they could see Jesus for who he really is."