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By Terry Mattingly
There are 2.4 billion Christians in the world today, according to most estimates.
Then again, nearly 3 billion people have Facebook accounts. Nearly 70% of U.S. adults use this social media platform, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization.
I will use Facebook to reach people, because you almost have to do that,” said Father A. Stephen Damick, chief con- tent officer for 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 North American archdiocese of the ancient Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.
Facebook remains, he noted, “the No. 1 social media platform in the world — by a lot. You can’t ignore all those people. … We knew this before COVID, but the pandemic made it impossible to deny the obvious. Everyone had to go online, one way or another.”
Facebook Live became a way to stream worship services online, even if all a pastor could do was mount a smart- phone on a stand. Even small congregations began holding online religious-education classes, support groups and leadership meetings.
As for worship, it was one thing for Protestant megachurches to stream TV- friendly services built on pop- rock Christian music and charismatic preaching. The online options were more problematic for faiths in which worship centered on the smells, bells, images and tastes of ancient liturgies.
Then, in early June, images began circulating of a Twitter message introducing “Prayer Posts” allowing Facebook users to “enable group members to ask for and respond to prayers” with a few clicks in a page’s control settings. Participation could be as simple as a user clicking an “I prayed” button linked to a prayer.
This isn’t a totally new idea. The Facebook “Prayer Warriors” group already has 865,700 active members, a flock larger than the average of 518,000 Episcopalians that attended services on an average Sunday in 2019, according to the denomination’s statistics.
Nevertheless, the “Prayer Posts” hubbub led to a New York Times headline stating, “Facebook’s Next Target: The Religious Experience.” This feature noted that the tech giant had staged a “virtual faith summit” that included testimonies from religious leaders claiming that Facebook helped them grow their ministries during the depths of the pandemic.
Could traditional faiths hold rites in “virtual reality spaces,” along with “augmented reality” Sunday school classes? Could ancient Jewish prayers chanted by mourners be replaced with waves of comments and clicks?
At some point, pastors will also need to decide if they trust the powers that be at this Big Tech superpower, noted Father Jim McDermott, associate editor of the Jesuit journal America.
“We are not talking about the Vatican or the Dalai Lama. … We are talking about Facebook, a company that makes its living off convincing people to reveal as much of their lives as possible on its platform,” he wrote in a commentary entitled, “Facebook wants you to pray with them. Don’t trust their intentions.” Prayer is a unique form of communication, he stressed. Inserting prayer into a high- tech framework ruled by clicks, emojis, “shares” and sympathetic or snarky comments “weaponizes our prayers against us. Every ‘I prayed’ click stimulates us and also generates anxiety. Will I get more? Will it be as many as I think my prayer deserves? What if it’s not? Or if someone else gets more than me? What does that say about me? Or about them?”
Then there was another truth seen during the pandemic, noted Damick. Clearly, many believers “found that going to church through their screens … was a bit too easy – – for some people, easier than attending in person.”
Clergy can also see the positives. Internet programs allow many people — especially the sick and elderly — to remain connected to congregations they love. Podcasts and Facebook posts are pulling many new seekers through physical sanctuary doors.
At the same time, “we have to stay aware of what Facebook is doing and what their goals are,” he said. “Facebook is not interested in changing the world through prayer. Facebook wants you to stay on their page and keep talking and clicking. …
“Everything that you do on a social media website will be used — right now or in the future — to advertise to you. Facebook is not interested in your salvation.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.