The pandemic has disrupted all aspects of people’s lives, including interfering in how we commune with the Almighty.
For a while, church-going was virtually banned or severely restricted. The essence of worship — gathering together in a community of believers sharing love and understanding — was made illegal.
But Facebook reaped the benefits when many church services were forced online and keeping in touch meant visiting the church’s Facebook page every day. And now, Facebook is looking to further monetize its presence in the religious community through a series of targeted programs. The New York Times reports, “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.”
Virtual religious life is not replacing in-person community anytime soon, and even supporters acknowledge the limits of an exclusively online experience. But many religious groups see 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 are converging far beyond simply moving services to the internet. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life.
TIL… Facebook is testing a prayer posts feature for groups pic.twitter.com/H18SDIpui3
— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) June 3, 2021
Many faith leaders are up in arms over the effort to include a “prayer” button feature.
Social media giant Facebook has received massive backlash from religious communities after launching its newest feature of a prayer button. On Friday, several members of various faith communities spoke against the new “prayer” feature by calling it a sick attempt at monetizing religion.
Catholic writer Simcha Fisher went on to express, “the button was adding a layer of impersonality and a layer of artificiality, which just felt very foreign to what we were doing when we pray for each other.”
The social media giant slowly began to roll out the feature back in May, which allows users to click and respond to prayer requests. Experts have warned the use of the new feature gave Big Tech access to sensitive user data and added it was ultimately about revenue for the social media company.
“You are in one way or another providing more information to an organization that thrives on finding ways to monetize your information,” cybersecurity expert Adam Levin told OAN. “You’re essentially a product, but now you are a religious product as opposed to just a secular product.”
Several mainline Protestant denominations have jumped on board the effort, and why not? Forget the collection plate when you can reach a few billion worshippers just by hitting “send.”
The company is trying to reassure a skeptical public. “I just want people to know that Facebook is a place where, when they do feel discouraged or depressed or isolated, that they could go to Facebook and they could immediately connect with a group of people that care about them,” Nona Jones, the company’s director for global faith partnerships, told the Times.
“Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” said Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, at a virtual religious summit hosted by Facebook last month.
“Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well, or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith,” she said.
Welcome to the Brave New World of cashing in on God.