Facebook as a religious platform generates concern

According to most estimates, there are 2.4 billion Christians in the world today.

Again, about 3 billion people have Facebook accounts. Nearly 70% of American adults use this social media platform, which recently surpassed $ 1 trillion in market capitalization.

“I’m going to use Facebook to reach people, because you almost have to,” said Father A. Stephen Damick, content director for the Ancient Faith Ministries, a 24-hour source for online radio channels, podcasts , blogs, forums and more. . The ministry was born in 2004 and is now part of the American Archdiocese of the former Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.

Facebook continues to be, he noted, “the world’s number one social media platform, by far. You can’t ignore all these people. … We knew it before greed, but the pandemic made it impossible to deny it obviously. Everyone it had to go online, one way or another. “

Facebook Live became a way to stream online worship services, even if all a pastor could do was mount a smartphone on a stand. Even small congregations began conducting online religious education classes, support groups, and leadership meetings.

As for worship, it was one thing for Protestant megacities to broadcast television-adapted services based on Christian pop-rock music and charismatic preaching. Online options were more problematic for religions in which worship focused on the smells, bells, images, and tastes of ancient liturgies.

Then, in early June, they began circulating images of a Twitter message introducing “Prayer Posts” that allowed Facebook users to “allow group members to request and respond to prayers” with a few clicks on a page’s control settings. Participation could be as simple as if a user clicked the “I prayed” button linked to a prayer.

It’s not a whole new idea. Facebook’s “Prayer Warriors” group already has 865,700 active members, a flock above the average of 518,000 Episcopalians who attended services on an average Sunday in 2019, according to denomination statistics.

Still, the hustle and bustle of “Prayer Posts” resulted in a New York Times headline that said “Facebook’s next goal: the religious experience.” This feature noted that the tech giant had organized a “virtual faith summit” that included testimonies from religious leaders claiming that Facebook was helping their ministries grow during the depths of the pandemic.

Could traditional confessions hold rites in “virtual reality spaces,” along with Sunday School’s “augmented reality” classes? Could the old Jewish prayers chanted by the wicked be replaced by waves of comments and clicks?

At some point, ministers will also have to decide whether to trust the powers of this Big Tech superpower, said Father Jim McDermott, associate editor of Jesuit magazine America.

“We’re not talking about the Vatican or the Dalai Lama … We’re talking about Facebook, a company that lives on convincing people to reveal as much of their lives as possible on its platform,” he wrote in a comment titled, “Facebook wants pray with them. Do not trust their intentions. “

He stressed that prayer is a unique form of communication. Inserting the sentence into a high-tech framework governed by clicks, emojis, “actions” and sympathetic or simple comments “arms our prayers against us. Every click“ I have prayed ”stimulates us and also generates anxiety. will I receive more? Will it be as many as I think my prayer deserves? What if it is not so? Or if someone else gets more than I do? What does that say about me? Or about them? “

Then there was another truth seen during the pandemic, Damick noted. Clearly, many believers “found that going to church through their screens … was a little too easy, for some people, easier than attending in person.”

The clergy can also see the positives. Internet programs allow many people, especially the sick and the elderly, to stay connected to the congregations they love. Podcasts and Facebook posts attract many new search engines through the physical gates of the sanctuary.

At the same time, “we need to be aware of what Facebook does and what its goals are,” he said. “Facebook is not interested in changing the world through prayer. Facebook wants you to stay on its page and keep talking and clicking …

“Everything you do on a social networking website will be used (right now or in the future) to advertise you. Facebook is not interested in your salvation.”

Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior member of the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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