The Church of Facebook

Facebook Seeks to Colonize Religious Experience

Move over, Millennials. Stand aside, Generation Z. Facebook has a new target, reports the New York Times, and it’s even more ambitious.

Facebook wants to engage “the religious experience.” According to the New York Times story, Facebook has been strategically exploring how to engage churches on its platform since 2018. Now, after the pandemic has forced many churches to operate via Facebook livestream or other social media platforms, the tech giant “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.” The mega-church Hillsong is currently running a pilot with Facebook, wherein church ministers and staff are helping to refine products for use in virtual church. When the church planted a congregation in Atlanta, it announced that it was “partnering with Facebook” exclusively to provide online streaming of services.

If the partnership seems a strange one, it shouldn’t, according to Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg. “Faith organizations and social media are a natural fit because fundamentally both are about connection,” Sandberg told the Times. “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,” she said.

SALVO blogger Joe Allen writes further of this story at The Federalist, and links Facebook’s interest in churches to an interview Mark Zuckerberg recently gave to The Verve. Allen writes: “The Church of Facebook is just one part of a much broader vision. Three days before the Times article appeared, The Verge published an in-depth interview with founder Mark Zuckerberg about his ambition to ‘bring the metaverse to life.’ The term refers to the evolution of 24/7 screentime into a warped synthesis of physical reality, mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality.” In the interview, Zuckerberg describes his hope for “embodiment” on the Internet, a world in which his hologram could be sitting next to your hologram on the couch, and you would both connect more deeply because of a shared sense of space.

The big question for the befuddled non-tech savvy, physical-church-going person might be: WHY does Facebook care so much about creating a 3-D future for church on the Internet?

One word: money.

It may not seem obvious, because Facebook is, after all, a tech giant, but the company is facing at least a hint of trouble ahead. Daily active users in Facebook’s core market, the U.S. and Canada, have dropped now for two quarters in a row. Even more worrisome for a technology company is that it no longer tops the market for adolescent users. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, roughly half the U.S. teen population used Facebook at that time—down from previous years and making it only the fourth most popular social network for that demographic, following YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. That was in 2018, before TikTok became the next big thing. Another, more recent survey puts Facebook at number 6 on the list of social apps teens use at least once a month. As digital marketer Michael Beausoleil speculates, teens don’t want to be on the same social network as their parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults in authority. That fact, coupled with rising distrust of Facebook’s uneven record on censorship, massive data breaches, data selling, and distribution of fake news, have all been a hit to Facebook’s popularity.

As things currently stand, Facebook owns at least a couple of those other popular platforms, most notably Instagram and Whatsapp, so it’s in no danger of disappearing anytime soon. But in light of the Federal Trade Commission’s call for the breakup of Facebook, perhaps the company is right to be concerned. If it loses those other brands, Facebook itself will have to radically reevalute how it acquires and keeps users. One way to do this is the creation of the metaverse. Create spaces where people can interact online, and you’ve created yet another addicting new-fangled technology that people can’t live without—for awhile at least. Even more compelling, though, is to move the institutions that humans have historically interacted with the most to specific online platforms.

For now, Facebook church service live-streaming might be a nice supplement, as I wrote for SALVO at the beginning of the Pandemic. But if Facebook can succeed in moving church predominantly online, we’ve got a real problem. For then, a platform controls how content is distributed. For now, Facebook is happy to partner with Hillsong, a church that still maintains that gay unions, for example, are not something that aligns with the Word of God, and still prohibits gay individuals from holding leadership positions in the church. But what if a really significant part of Hillsong’s congregation comes to be virtual? Perhaps even more meaningful, what if a significant part of the giving comes from this virtual audience? Now, Hillsong is in a crunch; it needs Facebook, and Facebook has quite different views on gay marriage. Now, we’ve got a platform that is in a perfect position to start demanding the mishandling of the Word of God. And in the meantime, Facebook can continue to glean marketing data from church-goers/users.

As Joe Allen aptly writes, “ultra-mod spiritual centers will be blessed by mass data extraction, algorithmic polarization, and censorship of theological ‘misinformation.’” Or, as one commentator said on the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

Facebook wants churches to be the product, because its social network is no longer cutting it. And at least some churches are taking the bait, because they want more parishioners, and, one suspects, more giving. Hillsong Atlanta’s lead pastor, Sam Collier, suffered a bit of a Freudian slip at the close of his commentary in the Times piece. His church is partnering with Facebook, he said, “to directly impact and help churches navigate and reach the consumer better.”

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” Collier caught himself, then restated, “Reach the parishioner better.”

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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