Before the megachurch Hillsong opened its new outpost in Atlanta, its pastor sought advice on how to build a church in the face of an epidemic in the city.
As Sam Collier, the church’s pastor, recalled in an interview, the social media giant approached him with a proposal: to use the church as a case study to investigate how churches can “go further, farther on Facebook.”
For several months, Facebook developers met with Hillsong on a weekly basis to discuss how the church would appear on Facebook and what apps they might develop for financial giving, video capability, and livestreaming, among other things. The church issued a news release in June announcing that it was “partnering with Facebook” and that it would be exclusively streaming its services on the social media platform. Hillsong’s grand opening took place in June.
Mr. Collier was unable to provide any further details because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company.
His words were, “They are teaching us, and we are teaching them.” “On Facebook, we’re working together to figure out what the future of the church might look like.”
Facebook, whose market capitalization recently surpassed $1 trillion, may appear to be an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to spread the gospel of Jesus. However, Facebook is a strategic partner for the church. However, over the past few years, the company has been cultivating partnerships with a diverse range of faith communities, ranging from individual congregations to large denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ, among many others.
Following the coronavirus pandemic, which compelled religious organisations to consider alternative modes of operation, Facebook sees an even greater strategic opportunity to attract highly engaged users to its platform. As it strives to become the virtual home for religious communities, the company invites churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious organisations to integrate their religious activities into its platform, which could include everything from hosting worship services and socialising more casually to soliciting donations. It is currently developing new products, such as audio and prayer sharing, that are aimed at faith-based organisations.
Virtual religious life will not be able to completely replace in-person community any time soon, and even supporters recognise the limitations of an entirely online religious experience. Many religious organisations, on the other hand, see Facebook as a new opportunity to spiritually influence even more people, as the world’s largest and arguably most influential social media company.
The collaborations demonstrate how Big Tech and religion are converging in ways that go far beyond simply transferring services to the internet. Similar to how it has shaped the future of political and social life, Facebook is influencing the future of religious experience itself.
The company’s efforts to court faith groups come at a time when the company is attempting to restore its image among Americans who have lost trust in the platform, particularly on issues of privacy and security. For its role in the country’s growing disinformation crisis and breakdown of societal trust, particularly in the area of politics, Facebook has come under fire, and regulators have become increasingly concerned about the company’s enormous power. The company has come under fire from President Biden in recent weeks for its role in the dissemination of false information about Covid-19 vaccines, which has been widely publicised.
“I just want people to know that Facebook is a place where, when they are discouraged, depressed, or isolated, they can go to Facebook and immediately connect with a group of people who care about them,” Nona Jones, the company’s director for global faith partnerships and a nondenominational minister, said in an interview. Nona Jones is a nondenominational minister.
At a virtual faith summit held last month, Facebook executives presented their company’s initiatives to religious organisations. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, announced the launch of an online resource hub that includes tools for forming congregations on the platform, among other things.
“Because they are fundamentally about connection, faith organisations and social media are a natural fit,” Ms. Sandberg explained.
In addition, she expressed hope that one day people will be able to hold religious services in virtual reality spaces, or that augmented reality will be used as an educational tool to teach children the history of their faith, among other things.
This year’s summit, which was held in the style of a religious service, featured testimonials from religious leaders about how Facebook assisted them in growing during the pandemic.
Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association in California claims that his community’s use of Facebook Live during Ramadan last year resulted in a record amount of funds being raised. “Facebook allowed people to have a more intimate experience of the Mass than they would have otherwise,” said Bishop Robert Barron, founder of an influential Catholic media company.
There are philosophical and moral questions raised by the collaborations in addition to practical ones. Religion has long been a fundamental way for humans to come together and form communities, and social media companies are stepping up to fill that role. Facebook has nearly three billion active monthly users, making it the most popular social media platform in the world, surpassing Christianity, which has approximately 2.3 billion adherents, and Islam, which has 1.8 billion.
People are concerned about their privacy as well, because they are sharing some of their most intimate life details with their spiritual communities. Sarah Lane Ritchie, a lecturer in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh, described the potential for Facebook to gather valuable user information as “enormous” cause for concern. It is important to note that the objectives of businesses and religious communities are quite different, and many congregations, particularly those with older members, may be unaware of how they could be targeted with advertising or other messages based on their religious engagement, according to her.
According to her, “Corporations are not concerned with moral codes.” ”I don’t believe we have fully grasped all of the ramifications of this marriage between Big Tech and the church at this point.”
A Facebook spokeswoman stated that the data it collected from religious communities would be handled in the same manner as data collected from other users, and that nondisclosure agreements were standard procedure for all partners involved in product development at the time of collection.
Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve the company asking religious organisations to test or brainstorm new products, and those organisations appear unfazed by the company’s larger controversies, according to the New York Times. This year, Facebook experimented with a prayer feature, in which members of certain Facebook groups could post prayer requests and receive responses from others. The company collaborated with the creator of YouVersion, a popular Bible app, to put it through its paces.
According to Bobby Gruenewald, the creator of YouVersion and a pastor at Life.Church in Oklahoma, Facebook’s outreach was the first time a major technology company expressed interest in collaborating on a development project. Gruenewald also recalled how he collaborated with Facebook on a Bible-verse-a-day feature in 2018.
“Obviously, there are different ways they will ultimately serve their shareholders, I am confident,” he said. The platform, from our point of view, allows us to create community, connect with our community, and achieve our goals. As a result, I believe it benefits everyone.”
Melody Smith, a spokeswoman for the Presbyterian Church (United States of America), said the denomination’s missions agency had been invited to become a Facebook faith partner in December. According to her, the denomination agreed in a contract that it would have no ownership rights in any products that it assisted Facebook in developing.
Angela Clinton-Joseph, the denomination’s social media manager, said that leaders of the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American Pentecostal denomination with approximately six million members worldwide, recently received early access to several of Facebook’s monetization features, which will provide them with new revenue streams. “We’re excited about this,” she said.
After much deliberation, they decided to test two Facebook tools: subscriptions in which users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, such as messages from the bishop; and another tool that allows worshipers who are watching services online to send donations in real time while they are watching the service. A third feature, advertisements during video streams, was ruled out by the group’s leaders.
According to Bob Pritchett, the pandemic has accelerated existing dynamics, compressing years of technological development into a single event. Pritchett founded Faithlife, a Christian ministry platform with a suite of online services.
However, spiritual life is distinct from the personal and professional spaces occupied by social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, according to him.
Being anchored “on a tech platform that is susceptible to all the whims of politics and culture, as well as congressional hearings,” he warned, is extremely dangerous.
As a result, Facebook established a faith partnerships team in 2017 and began actively courting religious leaders, particularly those from evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, in 2018.
A large coalition of Hispanic churches led by the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a Sacramento pastor, said Facebook essentially stated, “Hey, we want to be the It, we want to be the go-to.”
Minister groups for the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination with 69 million members worldwide, were among the first to use a Facebook tool that allowed viewers to call in to a livestream of a sermon. The Potter’s House, T.D. Jakes’ megachurch in Dallas with a congregation of 30,000 people, also tested various features before they were made public.
For some pastors, Facebook’s work raises concerns about the broader future of the church in the virtual world as a result of its existence. Sacraments and the laying on of hands for healing prayer are just two examples of how physical religious life continues to be a part of everyday life.
According to Wilfredo De Jess, a pastor and general treasurer for the Assemblies of God, online church was never intended to take the place of the local congregation. Even though he expressed gratitude for Facebook, he stated that in the end, “we want everyone to put their face in another book.”
In his words, “technology has created in the lives of our people this quickness, this idea that I can call and then just show up at Target and park my car and they will open my truck.” “The church is not the intended target.”
The ultimate goal for churches like Hillsong Atlanta is to see people come to faith in Christ.
In reference to Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations,” Mr. Collier stated, “We have never been better prepared for the Great Commission than we are right now.”
He is collaborating with Facebook, he explained, “to directly impact and assist churches in navigating and reaching the consumer more effectively.”
His use of the word consumer was misguided, he admitted after reflecting on it. “Improve your ability to communicate with the parishioner.”