According to The New York Times, Facebook became interested in exploring how churches can “go farther on Facebook” last year when Sam Collier pastor of the megachurch Hillsong approached them about how to build a church in the middle of a pandemic. For months, Facebook developers and Hillsong representatives met and explored what the church might look like on Facebook, how to manage livestreaming, what apps to create for financial giving, etc. By the time Hillsong opened its new Atlanta church in June, it was ready to go live on Facebook.
“Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform,” writes Times reporter Elizabeth Dias.
“The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups.”
Since then, Facebook is going full-steam ahead. A new commercial that recently appeared on Fox News features a hip young man lamenting that “my ex is dating a Pisces,” then launches into an all-out promotion of New Age and occult practices such as astrology, chakras, crystals, and magic.
As USA Today reports, Facebook has launched a new prayer request feature for groups that members can use to request prayer. After they create a post requesting prayer, other members can now tap an “I prayed” button instead of a “like” or other reaction or comment.
The Rev. Bob Stec, pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, told USA Today the feature could be seen as a positive affirmation of people’s need for “authentic community” of prayerful support and worship.
However, "even while this is a 'good thing,' it is not necessary the deeply authentic community that we need," he said. "We need to join our voices and hands in prayer. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other and walk through great moments and challenges together."
Father Stec also questioned the wisdom of sharing deeply personal traumas online.
"Is it wise to post everything about everyone for the whole world to see?" he said. "On a good day we would all be reflective and make wise choices. When we are under stress or distress or in a difficult moment, it's almost too easy to reach out on Facebook to everyone."
Other faith leaders, such as Jacki King, who ministers to women at Second Baptist Conway, a Southern Baptist congregation in Conway, Arkansas, told the outlet that it could help those who are isolated due to the pandemic.
"They're much more likely to get on and make a comment than they are to walk into a church right now," King said. "It opens a line of communication."
But real concerns about too much "virtual religion" persist.
The Rev. Thomas McKenzie of the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tennessee told USA Today that even though he thinks Facebook is willing to exploit anything for money, even people’s faith, and some features may serve a good purpose, he also expressed concern that building too much “church” online could discourage people from participating in person.
"You cannot participate fully in the body of Christ online. It's not possible," he said. "But these tools may give people the impression that it's possible."
Facebook's reach into the lives of Americans has become a source of real concern for many. It's new thrust into our spiritual lives is not likely to ease those fears any time soon.
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