Facebook’s Next Goal: Religious Experience

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Months before the Hillsong megachurch opened its new outpost in Atlanta, its pastor sought advice on how to build a church in a pandemic.

from facebook.

The social media giant had a proposal, pastor Sam Collier recalled in an interview: to explore “how churches can go further on Facebook,” using the church as a case study.

For months, Facebook developers met with Hillsong weekly to explore how the church would appear on Facebook and what apps they could create for financial donations, video talent, or live streaming. When it came time for Hillsong’s grand opening in June, the church issued a newsletter stating that it had “partnered with Facebook” and began broadcasting its services exclusively on the platform.

Beyond that, Mr. Collier was unable to share many details – he had signed a confidentiality agreement.

They teach us, we teach them.” “Together we explore what the future of the church could be on Facebook.”

Facebook, which has recently passed $1 trillion in market cap, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary purpose is to share the message of Jesus. However, the company has been developing partnerships with a wide variety of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to major denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic has pushed religious groups to explore new ways of working, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunities to attract highly engaged users to its platform. The company aims to be a virtual home for the religious community and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious lives on its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more comfortably to soliciting money. It develops new products, including audio and prayer sharing for faith groups.

Virtual religious life is not replacing in-person community any time soon, and even proponents acknowledge the limitations of an online-only experience. But many religious groups see a new opportunity to spiritually influence more people on Facebook, the world’s largest and arguably most influential social media company.

The partnerships reveal how Big Tech and religion combine far beyond bringing services online. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience, as it does for political and social life.

The company’s effort to take faith groups to court comes as it tries to repair its image among Americans, who have lost confidence in the platform, particularly over privacy issues. Facebook has faced scrutiny for its role in the country’s growing disinformation crisis, and its role in the collapse of public trust, particularly around politics, and regulators have begun to worry about its excessive power. During the past week, President Biden criticized the company For its role in spreading misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

“I want people to know that Facebook is a place where they can go to Facebook when they feel discouraged, depressed or isolated and instantly connect with a group of people who care about them,” Nona Jones said. The company’s director of global faith partnerships and a non-sectarian minister said in an interview.

Last month, Facebook executives turned their efforts towards religious groups at a virtual faith summit. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, shared an online resource center with tools for creating congregations on the platform.

“Religious organizations and social media are a natural fit because they’re basically both about connection,” Ms Sandberg said.

“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.”

Facebook’s summit, which resembles a religious service, included testimonials from faith leaders about how Facebook is helping them grow during the pandemic.

Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association in California said that his community used Facebook Live during Ramadan last year to raise a record amount of donations. Bishop Robert Barron, founder of an influential Catholic media company, said Facebook “give people the kind of intimate Mass experience they wouldn’t normally have.”

Their collaboration raises not only practical questions, but also philosophical and moral questions. Religion has long been a fundamental way for people to build community, and now social media companies are stepping into that role. Facebook has about three billion monthly active users, make it bigger than Christianity worldwideIslam with about 2.3 billion adherents, or Islam with 1.8 billion.

There are also privacy concerns, as people share the most intimate life details with their spiritual community. Sarah Lane Ritchie, a lecturer in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh, says Facebook’s potential to collect valuable user information raises “enormous” concerns. He said the goals of businesses and worshiping communities are different, and that many congregations, often composed of older members, may not understand how to be targeted with advertising or other messages based on their religious affiliation.

“Companies don’t worry about moral codes,” he said. “I don’t think we know yet how this marriage between Big Tech and the church will turn out.”

A Facebook spokesperson said that data it collects from religious communities will be treated the same as other users, and that confidentiality agreements are the standard process for all partners involved in product development.

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and these groups seem unaffected by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature where members of some Facebook groups can send prayer requests and others respond. The creator of the popular Bible app YouVersion worked with the company to test it.

Bobby Gruenewald, creator of YouVersion and pastor at Life.Church in Oklahoma, said that Facebook’s reach is the first time a major tech company has wanted to collaborate on a development project, and recalled how it works with Facebook in one Bible verse a day. feature in 2018.

“Obviously, there are different ways they will ultimately serve their shareholders,” he said. “From our point of view, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build and connect with our community and fulfill our mission. So I think everyone is fine.”

Melody Smith, spokesperson for the denominational missions agency, said the Presbyterian Church (USA) was invited to become a Facebook faith partner in December. The sect said it agreed in a contract that Facebook would not take ownership of any product it helped design.

Angela Clinton-Joseph, the church’s social media manager, said leaders of the Church of God in Christ, a largely African-American Pentecostal denomination with nearly six million members worldwide, recently provided early access to several of Facebook’s monetization features and added new said it offers revenue streams. .

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 a month and receive exclusive content such as messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers who monitor online services to send donations in real time. The leaders decided on a third feature: ads during video streams.

Bob Pritchett, who founded Faithlife, a Christian ministry platform with a range of online services, said the pandemic has accelerated current dynamics and has brought together years of technology development.

But the spiritual life is different from the personal and professional spaces that Facebook and LinkedIn occupy, he said.

It is dangerous for your community to be anchored “on a tech platform that is sensitive to all the whims of politics, culture, and congressional sessions.”

Facebook founded its faith partnerships team in 2017, and in 2018 it began to engage in earnest, especially religious leaders of evangelical and Pentecostal groups.

A Sacramento pastor who led a large coalition of Spanish churches, Rev. “Facebook basically said, hey, we want to be Him, we want to be the go-to person,” said Samuel Rodriguez.

Ministerial groups for the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal sect with 69 million members worldwide, were early adopters of a Facebook tool that allowed users to make calls to a live stream. TD Jakes’ 30,000-seat mega-church in Dallas, The Potter’s House, tested several features prior to its release.

For some pastors, Facebook’s work raises questions about the wider future of the church in a virtual world. Much of religious life remains physical, such as rites or the placing of hands for healing prayer.

Wilfredo De Jesús, the general treasurer and pastor of the Assemblies of God, said the online church was never intended to replace the local church. He was grateful for Facebook, but ultimately said that “we want everyone to put their face in another book.”

“Technology has created this quickness in our people’s lives, so I can search for this idea and they can come to Target and park my car and turn on my truck,” he said. “The Church Is Not the Destination.”

For churches like Hillsong Atlanta, the ultimate goal is evangelism.

Referring to Jesus’ call to “make all nations my disciples,” Mr. Collier said, “We have never taken a greater stand for the Great Mission than we have now.”

It’s partnering with Facebook, he said, “to directly influence and lead churches and help them reach the consumer better.”

“Consumer is not the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Better reach the congregation.”

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