In my various stints as a pastor, I have at times joked with friends and colleagues that one way to raise more money for the church would be to sell ad space in the bulletin or offer title sponsorship of specific service elements, the way sports broadcasts often do.
We could have the “T-Mobile Call to Worship” or “Prayers of the People, brought to you by People’s Jewelers.” I had fun coming up with farcical combinations.
Turns out Facebook sees this kind of thinking as an unrealized business opportunity rather than a jest.
A ‘virtual home’ for religion
The New York Times ran a feature July 25 reporting on Facebook’s new strategic outreach to churches and other faith organizations in a drive to “become the virtual home for religious community.” The features and apps they’ve developed specifically for this effort include tools for churches to receive donations in real time and show advertisements live during video streams.
So many red flags went up while reading this article that I lost count.
As Maya Angelou so prophetically advised, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” What Facebook has shown the world in recent years about its true corporate intentions should cause the people of God to steer clear, not flock to sign up.
Sarah Lane Ritchie, a lecturer in theology and science at the University of Edinburgh who is quoted in the article, nails the heart of the matter: Facebook operates by collecting and monetizing information from its users. The potential for Facebook to harvest troves of personal data from congregants during worship and exploit that data for profit should create “enormous concerns” for religious leaders.
This apprehension is given more weight by the unnamed Facebook representative who confirmed for the Times that “the data it collected from religious communities would be handled the same way as that of other users.” In other words, from Facebook’s side, nothing here is sacred. Facebook will use any and all information it gathers from you, me and other online worshipers to make Facebook as much money as possible. That’s why they’re courting churches to take their relationship with Facebook to another level. They don’t really care about you, though. They mainly just want to pimp your personal data.
What could possibly go wrong?
Two things in particular strike me as most troubling.
One is the timing of this initiative. The Times article states that Facebook’s faith outreach predates the COVID-19 pandemic, when social distancing measures forced churches large and small to experiment with online worship formats. However, it postdates the 2016 presidential election. This timing suggests that what piqued Facebook’s interest in religious communities wasn’t the passion of people of faith reaching for God but the fervor with which people of faith spread viral (and often bogus) political information during the campaign and the early years of the Trump presidency.
“Facebook’s end game here is to get religious users more invested in their platform(s) so they can further stimulate those traffic patterns and capitalize on that behavior.”
From the article: “Facebook created its faith partnerships team in 2017 and began courting religious leaders, especially of evangelical and Pentecostal groups, in earnest in 2018.” It would thus appear that Facebook’s end game here is to get religious users more invested in their platform(s) so they can further stimulate those traffic patterns and capitalize on that behavior.
The second concern has less to do with Facebook and more with the posture of many of the faith leaders featured in the article. “The goals of businesses and worshiping communities are different,” Ritchie continued. Truthfully, those goals should be different; but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading the Times piece.
Facebook is clearly interested in faith communities because of the revenue potential they see in the relationship. That should come as no surprise. But these faith leaders seem eager to partner with Facebook for essentially the same reasons Facebook wants to partner with them, sans the data siphoning. They see great potential for Facebook to help them increase their numbers and their influence.
The article concludes with a big-time Freudian slip from Hillsong’s Sam Collier who is partnering with Facebook, he said, “to directly impact and help churches navigate and reach the consumer better.” Then he corrected himself to say that “consumer” isn’t the right word; rather it is to “reach the parishioner better.”
Church as a consumer product
This speaks to a larger and more pernicious trend that has developed within America’s understanding and practice of religion, especially within Christianity. Facebook’s faith partnerships initiative wouldn’t have reached this stage if certain influential religious leaders weren’t on board. And why are they on board? Because, in their spheres, church has become little more than a product for American consumers who happen to be Christians to consume.
“Facebook’s faith partnerships initiative wouldn’t have reached this stage if certain influential religious leaders weren’t on board.”
Faithfully following Christ has been distilled to packaging and marketing: Read these formulaic books, listen to these factory-produced songs, attend a weekly small group to chat about material from the aforementioned books, and then attend a larger worship service to sing the aforementioned songs and hear an uplifting and non-threatening message from your church’s pastor, CEO and aspiring lifestyle guru.
The warm reception Facebook’s overtures have received here portend the movement of pop Christianity even further in this pre-packaged, consumer-focused, number-crunching direction.
What is our calling?
To be clear, these critiques of Facebook’s faith outreach and those partnering with them in the endeavor aren’t to deny churches’ need for revenue or suggest that churches shouldn’t strive to reach more people with the good news of Jesus. We have a calling from Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations, and the world has migrated to online spaces. Churches need money to engage in ministry, and many churches are struggling right now to make budget and adapt to a rapidly changing and divisive cultural landscape. Wrestling with how to live out our faith in unpredictable and unfamiliar territory as the patterns and conventions of the previous age crumble beneath the weight of new pressures and long-overdue admissions is fundamental spiritual work.
However, as we do that work, as we search for new pathways and experiment with new media, we followers of Jesus cannot forget that the medium is the message. If Facebook — an unscrupulous media giant fomenting the digital pandemic of misinformation that is debilitating our Republic — becomes our medium, then Facebook becomes part and parcel with the gospel message we are attempting to proclaim.
Most of all, we cannot forget or forsake the example Jesus set for us in the wilderness as we seek new direction and new life. Succumbing to the voices (and forces) of the world who offer us convenient outs from disconcerting circumstances isn’t the way. History has shown that when faith joins forces with worldly interests, especially at their invitation, the resulting marriage is rarely equal. Faith takes on the interest’s name and starts marching to the interest’s beat, not the other way around.
“At some point, deacons and elders and finance committees will be tempted to use real-time giving numbers to influence, if not dictate, what worship directors plan and pastors preach.”
At some point, the companies whose banner ads you show during your video stream will want you to maintain a certain number of viewers. At some point, deacons and elders and finance committees will be tempted to use real-time giving numbers to influence, if not dictate, what worship directors plan and pastors preach. At some point, you’ll start to see online ads on Monday for items related to topics you discussed in church on Sunday. We cannot serve two masters.
The ways of heaven’s economy
The true way forward for the church in the 21st century remains the same as it was in the first century — to live in anticipation and imitation of heaven’s “kin-dom,” a reality that is calibrated to a different set of weights and measures than those used by our earthly counterparts and competitors.
The ways of heaven’s economy aren’t the ways of the free market. Heaven’s economy is an economy unmanipulated by corporate algorithms and uninterested in the exploitation of human bodies or the leveraging of personal information. It’s an economy in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last. An economy in which those hired to work in the vineyard at 5:00 in the evening are paid as handsomely as those who were hired at 9:00 in the morning. An economy in which enemies are loved and those who persecute us are prayed for. An economy in which priority is given to the needs of neighbors lying in ditches rather than the convenience of elites cruising along the road. An economy in which love is the currency and grace is the bottom line.
Truth be told, what America needs — and what America’s churches really need — in our unfamiliar, post-pandemic world is more Christian leaders willing to surrender more fully to the alternative serving economy of Jesus and fewer willing to sell out to a service economy goliath like Facebook.
Jesus never taught us to gauge our success by our size or our reach and certainly not by the number of “likes” we receive. Those ideas come from the powers of the world whispering to us in the wilderness of our desire and discontent.
Todd Thomason is a gospel minister, justice advocate and recovering white moderate who most recently served as senior minister at Kingsway Baptist Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a master of divinity degree from McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.
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