Morgan Harper Nichols and Ruth Chou Simons Represent the Ministry of Instagram Inspiration

Image: Courtesy of Morgan Harper Nichols and Ruth Chou Simons

Most of our Instagram accounts resemble the modern equivalent of a high school locker: Here are photos of me and my friends, and here are things I find beautiful. Only now, the insides of our lockers are beamed across the world as quickly as we can slam them shut.

Instagram gets a lot of flak for being impossibly aspirational and for fueling competition and personal branding. This is especially true among American women, who are substantially more likely to use the site than their male counterparts (43% to 31%). But it has also come to develop a cadre of professionals who have brought their expertise to the little squares and 15-second clips of Instagram feeds and stories—therapists, poets, life coaches, and artists.

And in between the heavily filtered “outfits of the day” and sparkly sponsored content campaigns, there are also Christians doing their part to bring truth and encouragement this corner of the internet.

With more than a million followers on Instagram, Morgan Harper Nichols is one of them. Her painted and handwritten messages, inspired by the stories sent to her by fans, aren’t explicitly Christian but are undergirded by what her own faith has taught her about hope, grief, fear, self-doubt, and growth. She proclaims lines like “Let joy be joy” and “Take heart. Breathe deep. You have not missed out on what was meant for you.”

Image: Courtesy of Morgan Harper Nichols
Instagram isn’t just about admiring something; it’s also about curating your own space and personality online. That’s why thousands re-post Nichols’s stories each day—a sign that they love her beautiful work, as well it what it says about them and to them.

“What I found was it wasn’t so much that I was this amazing writer who had the perfect words,” Nichols said. “For so long I’d been struggling to tell my story … and hundreds of other people feel that way, too.”

The 29-year-old had tapped into the art of the story, and she portrayed those universal themes in her Instagram artwork.

Instagrammers crave the re-postable. Blogger and artist Ruth Chou Simons recognized that early on. She saw the way inspirational quotes—“Relax,” “Be Brave,” and “Love What You Do”—were coming front and center in popular culture. Our pillows, coffee mugs, wall hangings, and notebooks are covered with them. But Simons decided she wanted to offer something more meaningful than empty platitudes.

“Biblical, theological books sometimes aren’t beautiful, and beautiful material and beautiful displays are sometimes void of truth,” said Simons. “I ultimately think of [Instagram] just as a delivery system … I’m going to give you theological truth, but I’m going to serve it up on a silver platter to you. I want to make it as palatable and as delicious and beautiful and fragrant as possible.”

She began sharing beautiful calligraphed Scriptures and hymn lyrics‚ and the re-posts went wild.

Dozens of Christian women, including Simons and Nichols, have turned Instagram into a full-time ministry. Their posts don’t always look the same, but they have a shared purpose. These accounts want to give women scrolling through Instagram something worth pausing for.

The Story Collector: Morgan Harper Nichols

Nichols’s explosion on Instagram was accidental. It started three years ago, on a night that had her feeling creatively frustrated and professionally stunted. She wanted to be an artist but also wanted to pay the bills, and that was getting harder. So she wrote a little poem.

“I believe it was God speaking through me, and saying the things I needed to hear about myself,” she said. She posted it on Pinterest, not Instagram (“This was my way of putting it out there without really putting it out there,” she said, laughing) and left it alone. A few months later, it had been shared over 100,000 times. “To this day I have no idea how it happened,” she said. “I didn’t even use hashtags or anything,”

Wanting to keep that momentum going, Nichols put out a call to her modest list of Instagram followers at that time: Send me your stories, and I’ll create a poem for you.

She thought maybe she’d get a few responses and get the ball rolling. “I was like, maybe for this whole next week I’ll just start writing for people’s stories,” she said. That was two years ago, and she never stopped. Now her followers aren’t just her audience. They’re her creative directors.

“I found so much more inspiration from other people’s stories than my own,” Nichols said. She estimates she’s crafted maybe a thousand poems by now that have been inspired by stories she hears from others via email, direct message, or Instagram comment. She spends time each week blindly scrolling and then randomly stopping on a name before taking to her iPad Pro to start digital painting. Like her peachy-pink color palette that varies lightly from post to post, Nichols’s poems are thematic and mostly tackle the quest for identity, the pressure to find it, and the shame of feeling like you haven’t.

Image: Courtesy of Morgan Harper Nichols
As a result, Nichols’s inbox serves as something like a time capsule of life in the late 2010s, especially life for young women. She’s Instagram’s Delilah—not the biblical Delilah, but the radio host Delilah. She listens to others’ stories, empathizes, and then finds just the right words to capture their situation. To Nichols, that’s ministry.

And now, offline readers can get a glimpse of the real-time stream of stories and artwork she creates. Her book, All Along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living, releases this month from Zondervan.

Nichols grew up a “homeschooled preacher’s kid” in a small Georgia town. She said she learned from watching her parents that ministry can happen off a pulpit, too. “I saw my parents just spend so much time with people,” she said. (Her sister, Jamie Grace Harper, is an award-winning CCM singer.)

Despite Nichols’s faith, you won’t find much Scripture in her feed. She said she deliberately avoids “Christianese” out of a desire not to alienate anyone.

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Source: Christianity Today