Months before the Hillsong mega-church opened a new outpost in Atlanta, US, the pastor asked Facebook for advice on how to build a church in the midst of a pandemic.
The social media giant had a proposal, Pastor Sam Collier recalled: use the temple as a case study to examine how churches can “go further on Facebook,” he said in an interview.
For months, Facebook developers met weekly to structure what the church would look like on the platform, what apps they could build to request financial donations, and how to stream services live.
The big debut came in June, when the church released a statement saying it had “partnered with Facebook” and would broadcast its services exclusively on the platform.
Other than that, Collier couldn’t give many details as he signed a confidentiality agreement. “They teach us and we teach them,” the pastor said. “Together we find out what the future of the church will be on Facebook.”
The social network, which recently surpassed $ 1,000 billion in market value, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to spread Jesus’ message. But the company has cultivated cooperation with a wide range of religious communities in recent years, from individual congregations to large Protestant denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.
Now, after the pandemic forced church groups to explore new ways of doing business, Facebook appears to be an even better strategic opportunity to attract highly engaged users to the platform. The company intends to become the virtual headquarters of religious communities and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and other temples to join the network, with services ranging from worship and social interaction to requests for money. Audio messages with prayers also enter the list.
Virtual religious life, however, won’t replace face-to-face events anytime soon, and even supporters are recognizing the limits of an exclusively online experience. But many faith groups now see an opportunity to spiritually influence even more people on Facebook, the world’s largest media company.
The partnerships reveal how big technology and religion are converging, far beyond the mere provision of services over the Internet. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has for political and social life.
The company’s efforts to attract religious groups come as it tries to repair its image with Americans who have lost faith in the platform, especially over privacy concerns. Facebook has come under fire for its role in America’s growing disinformation crisis, and regulators are increasingly concerned about its unbridled power.
President Joe Biden recently 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’re feeling down, down or isolated, they can immediately connect with a bunch of people who care about them,” said Nona Jones, director Society for Global Religious Partnerships and Non-Denominational Pastor.
Last month, Facebook executives directed 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 are a natural complement because fundamentally they are both about connection,” she 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 the social network helped them thrive 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 “gave people a kind of intimate experience of Mass that they wouldn’t normally have.”
Collaborations raise not only practical but also philosophical and moral questions. Religion has long been a fundamental way for people to form communities, and today, social media companies take on this role. Facebook has nearly 3 billion monthly active users, making it bigger than Christianity in the world, which has around 2.3 billion members, or Islam, which has 1.8 billion.
There are also privacy concerns, as people share the most intimate details of their lives with their spiritual communities. Facebook’s potential to capture valuable user information creates “huge” concerns, said Sarah Lane Ritchie, professor of theology and science at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland).
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 can be targeted by advertising or other based messages. on their religious involvement.
“Businesses don’t care about moral codes,” she said. “I think we still don’t know how this marriage between big tech and the church is going to play out.”
A Facebook spokesperson said data collected from religious communities would be treated the same as that of other users and that confidentiality agreements are a standard process for all partners involved in product development.
Many Facebook partnerships involve asking faith-based organizations to test or think about their products, and these groups don’t appear to be bothered by the major controversy over Facebook. This year, the platform tested a prayer feature, where members of certain groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of the popular YouVersion Bible app worked with the company to test it.
Facebook’s move was the first time a large tech company has wanted to collaborate on a religious project, said Bobby Gruenewald, creator of YouVersion and pastor at Life.Church in Oklahoma, noting that he also worked with Facebook on a app which revealed “one verse a day” in 2018.
“Obviously there are different ways they will serve their shareholders, I’m sure,” he said. “From our perspective, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build a community and connect with it and accomplish our mission. So I think it serves everyone well.”
For some pastors, Facebook’s work raises questions about the church’s wider future in a virtual world. Much of spiritual life remains physical, such as the sacraments or the laying on of hands in prayer for healing.
The online church is not meant to replace the local church, said Wilfredo de Jesús, Assemblies of God pastor and treasurer. He’s grateful to Facebook, but at the end of the day, he said, “we want everyone to turn their attention to another book.”
“Technology has created this speed in the lives of our people, this idea that I can call it, go to [loja] Target, park the car and they open my trunk, “he said.” The church is not Target. “
For churches like Hillsong Atlanta, the ultimate goal is evangelism. “We have never been better placed than today for the Great Commission,” said Collier, referring to Jesus’ request to “make disciples of all countries”.
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 added, correcting himself. “To better reach the parishioner.