In 2009, Jesse Rice, a pastor in Menlo Park, California, published a book called The Church of Facebook. It was about how social media was “redefining community.” But a dozen years later, the title seems eerily prophetic.
Facebook has been reaching out to religious communities for a while now, but lately it’s been upping its faith game. Last month, the social media giant held what Reuters coined a “virtual faith summit,” and in May, Facebook introduced a prayer tool accessible to all its U.S. Facebook groups. (You can think of it as a “like” button that tells the poster that you’re praying for them.) According to The New York Times, Facebook definitely wants to capitalize on religion. Writes the Times’ Elizabeth Dias:
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. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups. … 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.
You can at least partly thank the coronavirus for Facebook’s interest in faith. In 2020, people were getting sick, and those that weren’t were stressed, frustrated and isolated. Mental illness rose. And churches—where so many go for solace and community—were shut down. As people sought companionship and prayer, they turned to where so many of us gather to talk, commune and commiserate: social media.
“When I looked at the data of what was taking off during the pandemic, we were seeing massive growth in the spiritual category,” said Fidji Simo, an outgoing Facebook executive during the faith summit.
Many faith leaders are thrilled with Facebook’s newfound interest, and I get that. The Christian Church has always used contemporary channels to get their message across. Churches were among the first to leverage radio to reach the masses. The advent of television was quickly followed by the advent of televangelists. Christianity has been remarkably malleable in that way—taking its timeless truths and adapting them to current forms of communication.
But a close-knit partnership between faith and Facebook comes with its share of concerns, too.
First, of course, you’ve got the privacy issue. All social media services mine data to some extent. And they use our personal habits and information to not only hone their own products, but as data to sell to marketing firms. “If you’re not paying for it, you become the product,” a Forbes’ headline famously told us, and that’s particularly true of social media. And Facebook has, of course, been subject to plenty of hacks and security breaches. For hundreds of years, the sanctity and privacy of the confessional was unquestioned. But on the Internet, privacy has no guarantees.
Second, these kinds of partnerships can get pretty sticky, both in terms of money and control. From Relevant:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) signed on to become a “faith partner” [with Facebook] late last year, contractually agreeing that they would have no ownership of any tools they helped develop. Meanwhile, the Leaders of the Church of God in Christ are utilizing two Facebook tools: a feature where users can pay a monthly fee for exclusive perks like a message from the bishop, and a tool that allows people watching the service online to donate in real time.
(The article notes that: “Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams.”)
And that brings me to a related and, for me, most interesting and vexing concern: the complex, and sometimes conflicting, interplay between the message and the platform.
Relevant quotes sociologist Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage that “medium is the message.” Whatever medium we use to communicate with inherently shapes what we’re trying to say. That’s especially true in the world of social media, where scads of employees and countless algorithms are hard at work shaping our social media experience. McLuhan’s words feel truer now than ever before. Facebook in many ways guides our experience—deciding what posts we see and even, to a lesser extent, how we respond.
It’s gratifying that Facebook sees faith as a way to bring people together. We faithful believe that faith is about community, too. We walk toward God as a family of sorts, and it’s great to have more tools to both get closer to God and closer to each other.
But we should always be wary of such relationships, making sure the eternal truth of the Gospel isn’t twisted or corrupted by the media we use to deliver it. And as more social media platforms turn to faith communities to bolster their own bottom lines and subscriber bases, it’s important to help our kids think through these partnerships, too. As we engage, we need to remember that while Christians want to spread the Word, our “partners” have other objectives. Sometimes those objectives align. And sometimes they don’t.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s sending them out “like sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” We should be mindful of that going forward, lest these partnerships really do turn into the Church of Facebook. It’s God’s Church, after all—and in the end, we all should serve His agenda, not our own. And certainly not Facebook’s.