Facebook’s Next Target: The Religious Experience
Months before Hillsong mega-church opened its new outpost in Atlanta, its pastor sought advice on how to build a church in the event of a pandemic.
The social media giant had a proposition, Pastor Sam Collier recalled in an interview: using the church as a case study to explore how churches can “go beyond Facebook.”
For months, the Facebook developers met with Hillsong every week and explored what the church would look like on Facebook and what apps they could create for financial donation, video capacity, or live streaming. At the time of Hillsong’s inauguration in June, the church issued a press release saying it was “in partnership with Facebook” and began broadcasting its services exclusively on the platform.
Beyond that, Mr Collier couldn’t share many details – he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
“They teach us, we teach them,” he said. “Together, we find out what the future of the church could be like on Facebook.”
Facebook, which recently surpassed $ 1,000 billion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share Jesus’ message. But the company has cultivated partnerships with a wide range of religious communities in recent years, from individual congregations to large denominations, such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.
Now, after the coronavirus pandemic has pushed church groups to explore new ways of doing business, Facebook sees an even greater strategic opportunity to attract highly engaged users to its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home of the religious community and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and the like to integrate their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and more relaxed socializing to soliciting money. He is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, for faith groups.
Virtual religious life isn’t going to replace face-to-face community anytime soon, and even supporters recognize the limits of an exclusively online experience. But many church groups see a new opportunity to spiritually influence even more people on Facebook, the world’s largest and arguably most influential social media company.
The partnerships reveal how Big Tech and religion converge far beyond the simple transfer of services to the Internet. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has for political and social life.
The company’s effort to woo church groups comes as it tries to repair its image with Americans who have lost faith in the platform, especially on privacy issues. Facebook has come under close scrutiny for its role in the country’s growing disinformation crisis and the breakdown of trust in society, especially around politics, and regulators have expressed concern about its inordinate power. Over the past week, President Biden has criticized the company for its role in spreading false information about Covid-19 vaccines.
“I just want people to know that Facebook is a place where, when they are feeling discouraged, depressed, or isolated, they can go to Facebook and they can immediately connect with a bunch of people who care about them,” Nona Jones, the company’s director for Global Religious Partnerships and a non-denominational minister, said in an interview.
Last month, Facebook executives presented their efforts to church groups at a virtual faith summit. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, shared an online resource center with tools for building congregations on the platform.
“Faith-based organizations and social media fit in naturally, because fundamentally both are about connection,” Ms. Sandberg said.
“Our hope is that one day people will also organize religious services in virtual reality spaces, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith,” she said. .
The Facebook summit, which looked like a church service, included testimonials from religious leaders about how Facebook helped them grow during the pandemic.
Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association in California said his community raised record funds using Facebook Live during Ramadan last year. Bishop Robert Barron, founder of an influential Catholic media company, said Facebook “has given people a kind of intimate experience of Mass that they normally wouldn’t have.”
Collaborations raise not only practical questions, but also philosophical and moral questions. Religion has long been a fundamental way for humans to form community, and now social media companies are playing that role. Facebook has nearly three billion active monthly users, making it bigger than Christianity in the world, which has around 2.3 billion followers, or Islam, which has 1.8 billion.
There are also privacy concerns, as people share some of the most intimate details of their lives with their spiritual communities. The potential for Facebook to collect valuable user information creates “huge” concerns, said Sarah Lane Ritchie, senior lecturer in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh. The goals of businesses and worship communities are different, she said, and many congregations, often made up of older members, may not understand how they could be targeted with advertising or other based messages. on their religious commitment.
“Businesses don’t worry about moral codes,” she said. “I don’t think we know yet how this marriage between Big Tech and the church will play out.”
A Facebook spokesperson said data collected from religious communities would be treated the same as that of other users and that nondisclosure agreements were a standard process for all partners involved in product development.
Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking faith-based organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and these groups don’t seem daunted by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year, Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of certain Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it.
Facebook’s outreach was the first time a large tech company wanted to collaborate on a development project, said Bobby Gruenewald, creator of YouVersion and pastor at Life.Church in Oklahoma, recalling how he also worked with Facebook on a verse. of the Bible daily. function in 2018.
“Obviously, there are different ways in which they will ultimately serve, I’m sure, their shareholders,” he said. “From our perspective, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build community, connect with our community and accomplish our mission. So it serves, I think everyone is fine.
The Presbyterian Church (US) was invited to be a religious partner on Facebook in December, said Melody Smith, spokesperson for the denomination’s mission agency. The denomination has agreed in a contract that it will have no ownership over the products it helps design Facebook, she said.
Leaders of The Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American Pentecostal denomination of approximately six million members worldwide, recently received early access to several of Facebook’s monetization features, providing them with new sources of income, said denomination social media manager Angela Clinton-Joseph. .
They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $ 9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for devotees who watch online services to send donations in real time. Executives voted against a third feature: ads during video streams.
The pandemic has accelerated the existing momentum, bundling years of technological development into one, said Bob Pritchett, who founded Faithlife, a Christian ministry platform with a suite of online services.
But spiritual life is different from the personal and professional spaces occupied by Facebook and LinkedIn, he said.
It is dangerous to anchor your community “on a technological platform sensitive to all the vagaries of politics, culture and congressional audiences,” he said.
Facebook created its Faith Partnerships team in 2017 and began seriously courting religious leaders, especially Evangelical and Pentecostal groups, in 2018.
“Facebook basically said, hey, we want to be the It, we want to be the benchmark,” said Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, a pastor from Sacramento who heads a grand coalition of Hispanic churches.
The Assemblies of God minister groups, the Pentecostal denomination with 69 million members worldwide, were the first to adopt a Facebook tool that allows users to call for a livestream. The Potter’s House, the 30,000-person TD Jakes mega-church in Dallas, also tested various features prior to deployment.
For some pastors, Facebook’s work raises questions about the church’s wider future in a virtual world. Much of religious life remains physical, such as the sacraments or the laying on of hands for prayer for healing.
The online church was never meant to replace the local church, said Wilfredo De Jesús, Assemblies of God pastor and general treasurer. He was grateful to Facebook, but at the end of the day, he said, “we want everyone to put their face in another book.”
“Technology has created in the lives of our people this speed, this idea that I can call and just go to Target and park my car and they open my truck,” he said. “The church is not Target.”
For churches like Hillsong Atlanta, the ultimate goal is evangelism.
“We have never been better placed for the Great Commission than now,” Mr. Collier said, referring to Jesus’ call to “make disciples of all nations”.
He is partnering with Facebook, he said, “to have a direct impact and help churches navigate and better reach the consumer.”
“Consumer is not the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Better reach the parishioner.
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