Applying Digital Marketing Tactics, “Secret” Church Goes Viral
By Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
The Joseph of Arimathea Center for Secret Believers, better known as the JofACSB, is the largest congregation in country, but, who exactly its 6.7 million members are, is, of course, a secret. The center—“It’s not a church,” insists Reverend Nicodemus (not his real name)—has no physical location. Its members meet remotely every Sunday at cockcrow (EST) using a unique dial-in and password sent them via text moments before. Visitors interested in attending a “session” (Nicodemus cringes at “church words” like “service” and “flock”) can request a unique password via a member.
Members are encouraged to partake in “Secret Acts of Kindness” across the city, doing small and big acts from anonymously sending Fresh Direct to families that have indicated need (coordinated with WIC) to covering mortgages on houses in danger of foreclosure. The hallmark of the acts is a card branded with the JofASCB logo—two fingers perpendicularly covering a mouth in the simultaneous “shh” sign and sign of the cross–that always accompanies the act.
Why all the secrecy? “It makes for more honest believers,” Nicodemus answers via Facebook messenger, his account a fake, of course. “And it’s fun.”
Los Angeles native Nicodemus founded JofACSB in 2012, when, he says, he first began living as a “closeted Christian.” The son of a staunch atheist and a Jew who converted to Christianity, he says until he became a Christian himself, he not only had zero interest in religion, he resented it.
“When my father gave his life to Christ,” Nicodemus recounts, “it tore my family apart. I was nine years old, and suddenly my parents couldn’t be in the same room together. I felt, if there was a God, I could never forgive Him for that.”
Nicodemus says he couldn’t find solace in atheism either, growing up. “My mother is as didactic about her unbelief as any orthodox believer. Her religion is atheism.”
It was “with no labels on my soul” that Nicodemus met Jesus at a Jay-Z concert in LA—by way of the man in the seat next to his. He had gone to the concert by himself—“None of my friends could afford a ticket.”—excited to listen to his favorite performer live and “vibe off the energy of fellow fans.” Instead, he says, “I was seated next to who must have been the only non-Jay-Z fan in the place. An old dude too. Probably about 50 years old.”
Nicodemus recalls, “The whole concert everybody was throwing up the Roc”—the diamond shape sign fans form by joining their thumbs and forefingers to represent the logo of the rapper’s Rocafella Records label—“chanting ‘Hova! Hova! Hova!’ but this guy would not move. He’s literally sitting down staring at his fingernails, until Jay performs “Song Cry”.” Nicodemus says he couldn’t enjoy the concert because of “the weirdo” at his left. “It was killing my concert high and my actual high.”
Annoyed, he confronted his row mate as Pauley Pavilion cleared out. The man admitted he wasn’t a Jay-Z fan, but “Song Cry” had been playing on the radio in the car that had pulled up next to his at the rest stop he was parked in with a gun in his lap contemplating pulling the trigger. He had turned to the woman blasting the song in her car, oblivious to what he was about to do, and noticed the cross swinging from her rearview mirror. He put the gun back in his glove compartment and drove away. That November made three years since that day. Whenever he could go and listen to Jay-Z perform it live, he did, though he found Jay-Z didn’t always perform the song in concert.
Even more convinced the man was a weirdo, Nicodemus returned home. Unable to sleep, he says he turned on the TV to find an episode of his favorite show “Real Time with Bill Maher” on the air. He recognized his strange neighbor from the concert on the panel.
“I won’t tell you his name, but he’s a pretty influential talking head,” Nicodemus says. “I watched this man laugh at Bill’s anti-religion jokes and pretend he was cool with it and I saw that the episode had recently aired—within the time he says he had converted. I was baffled.”
Nicodemus says he forgot about the episode and soon after moved to Brooklyn for a Creative Director position at an upstart digital marketing firm.
“We were concepting for a client and somebody brought up Kirk Cameron’s website ‘Way of the Master’,” Nicodemus remembers. “For about an hour, people were just ripping on Christianity. We all laughed, but I thought about the guy from the concert on Bill Maher and I started to wonder who in the room was laughing on the outside, and believing on the inside.”
He says he broke his personal rule about discussing religion with any of his parents and called his father to ask whether he had ever felt compelled to pretend he wasn’t Christian. “After he admitted it had been rough in the Bush Years, he began proselytizing so I hung up.”
Increasingly obsessed with the concept of the “closeted Christian” Nicodemus started visiting online Christian communities to investigate how they felt about admitting their faith outside of their circles. He even attended a few meetings at local churches to connect with Christians in person. “Because of my experience with my dad, and just in general, I had the impression that all Christians were trying to ram the Bible down people’s throats.” Nicodemus says he found, “Rather, there are many living in the shadows, afraid of being labeled, or associated with all the assumptions and ridicule connected with Christianity. Christianity had become an uncool brand.”
Nicodemus says the “brand” tends to conjure a specific small town, often southern, Republican person and mindset. “Purity balls. The guy who said the September 11th terrorist attacks were punishment from God because of homosexuality. Insistence that climate change isn’t real.” He lists.
He says he began to develop empathy for the Christians he met online and at different churches around the city, and eventually found himself believing in the gospel. “It was a slow process, but as the Bible says ‘faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word.’”
Upon his conversion, Nicodemus says he did not want to share the news of his new spiritual outlook. “I knew my mom would feel I’d betrayed her and I didn’t want my father gloating. I also didn’t want people on the job thinking of me as a Jesus freak.” (Though he has told a few close friends, his parents and co-workers still don’t know Nicodemus helms the largest church in America, and possibly the world.)
He found that others in the Bible had felt the same way. “Nicodemus, the Pharisee used to visit Jesus at night. Joseph of Arimathea followed Jesus secretly too. When I read that Nicodemus and Joseph came together to provide the tomb and funeral dressings for Jesus’ burial, I decided to start an online support group for those of us Christians in the closet.”
Nicodemus designed, coded and wrote the site himself, and on August 5, 2012, he launched it. “I planned to do a Banksy- / Shepard Fairey-style campaign where I would ‘deface’ highly-trafficked sites like the New York Times with the logo, and do chalk drawings and wild postings and projections in unexpected places around the city, to let people know the site was there. But almost immediately people started signing up to join when I tweeted it. It was crazy.”
Nicodemus says one month after JofACSB went live one million people had joined. The number has since swelled to almost 7 million. But how many of the members are regulars. “We have an 82% attendance rate every Sunday,” Nicodemus says. “People have crazy calendars. They have sick kids. They have vacation plans. Whatever. There are a number of reasons people can’t physically get to church every Sunday. With JofACSB, they can attend from wherever they are.” He adds, “Unlike a regular church where you can’t really speak during the sermon or raise your hand to ask a question, with JofACSB, you can submit questions during a session that other members and the leaders can immediately answer or quickly get back to you on.”
Answering congregant questions and ministering to members one on one has become a challenge for the small church. “For now, the members do the heavy-lifting and they’ve voted up about 5000 leaders to service the group, but soon we’ll have to think about staff.” Nicodemus admits he’s not eager for the next stage in growth. “I didn’t get into this to be a Pastor. People call me Rev Nic, but I’m not ordained. I’m a Creative Director.”
The growth is happening in spite of Nicodemus, however, as members have spin off into smaller groups. For example, though many of the center’s million members wish to remain anonymous, 326,000+ people have “liked” the “I am Joseph of Arimathea” Facebook page, proudly outing themselves. “We don’t have an official Facebook page because we don’t want people to feel guilty about not sharing their faith,” Nicodemus explains.
Meanwhile, as JofACSB contends with explosive growth, a growing number of clergy are taking issue with their secrecy.
“Christ could have died in secret, but he chose to die on the cross in front of all Jerusalem. The whole world knew about it. And when he rose from the grave, he showed himself to the disciples,” says Reverend Kimani Nolan, Senior Pastor of Cross Path Church, which boasts the nation’s second largest congregation with almost 70,000 active members.
Dr. Samantha Whitmoare—widely believed to be in line for election as a bishop in the United Methodist Church (she would be the 17th woman to serve in this capacity, if elected)—says the secrecy is “not what Christ or early Christianity was about.” Whitmoare points to the book of Acts in the Bible. “The early Christians valued community and came together—in person—in spite of mortal threat. Last I checked, getting made fun of, does not constitute mortal threat.”
Nicodemus says the meaning of community in the age of social media has drastically changed. “You don’t have to be physically present to be part of something.”
Absolutely love Rev Nic and JofACSB. There was a time when I felt I needed to be in the “closet” and it helped to know I could still serve as I worked through my fear of what others would think of me.
The Republicans hijacked Christianity by being balls out & public about it. People won’t know what the “brand” is if we’re keeping it secret.
Read your Bible “Reverend”: “I am NOT ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of life unto salvation for all who believe.” Stay blessed.
Um… Jesus is the ALPHA and OMEGA. The FIRST and the LAST. The WAY, the
TRUTH and the LIFE. Use your words.
It’s people like you that make people feel like they need to hide. This man is trying
to meet people where they are. Jesus could have told Nicodemus they needed to
meet in the daylight, but he patiently took the time to break the Scriptures down for
him. Let’s be careful to win souls, without losing our humanity in the process.
“Closeted Christians”? Hmm…. I hope this Reverend Nicodemus doesn’t have any little boys in that closet with him.
Before I came across this article, I had never heard of JoASCB. This is an answer to prayer. I became a Christian last year, but haven’t told anyone outside my church circle yet. I’m paralyzed with fear of what my friends and family will think. Like Nicodemus, my family is all atheists and I know they will never understand my newfound faith. I hear the things they say about…more
MyNameis…, follow me @IamJofAforCHRIST and I’ll DM you my password for Sunday’s service.
I’m still stuck on the fact that Dr. Samantha Whitmoare would be only the 17th to be elected in The Methodist Church’s umpteen years!
“It was a slow process, but as the Bible says ‘faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word.’” Sounds like brainwashing to me.
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