Facebook is already asking for your thoughts. Now it wants your prayers.
The social media giant has launched a new prayer request feature, a tool used by some religious leaders as an innovative way to engage believers online. Others view it with caution as they weigh its benefits against the privacy and security concerns they have on Facebook.
In Facebook groups that use the function, members can use it to gather prayer power for upcoming job interviews, illnesses and other large and small personal challenges. After creating a post, other users can tap the “I prayed” button, reply with a “Like” or other reaction, leave a comment, or send a direct message.
Facebook began testing it in the US in December to help support faith communities, according to a statement attributed to a company spokesman.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen many faith and spiritual communities use our services to connect.
Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, a Southern Baptist mega-church, was among the pastors who welcomed the prayer with enthusiasm.
“Facebook and other social media platforms continue to be great tools for spreading the gospel of Christ and connecting believers – especially during this pandemic,” he said. “Although any tool can be misused, I support every effort like this that encourages people to turn to the one true God in our time of need.”
Adeel Zeb, a Muslim chaplain at Claremont Colleges in California, was also optimistic.
“As long as these companies have adequate arrangements and protocols in place to ensure the safety of religiously marginalized communities, believers should jump on board and support this vital initiative,” he said.
As part of its data policy, Facebook uses the information it collects in various ways, including to personalize advertising. However, the company says advertisers cannot use a person’s prayer entries for targeted ads.
Rev. Bob Stec, pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, said via email that he saw the new feature as a positive affirmation of people’s need for an “authentic fellowship” of prayer, support and support of worship sees.
But “even if this is a ‘good thing’, it is not necessary that we have a deeply authentic fellowship,” he said. “We must join our voices and hands in prayer. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another “and go through great moments and challenges together.”
Stec also raised privacy concerns related to sharing deeply personal trauma.
“Is it wise to post everything about everyone for the whole world to see?” He said. “On a good day, we would all think and make wise decisions. When we are under stress or need or in a difficult moment, it is almost too easy to reach everyone on Facebook. “
However, Jacki King, Secretary of State for Second Baptist Conway, a Southern Baptist ward in Conway, Arkansas, sees a potential benefit for people who are isolated in the midst of the pandemic and struggling with mental health, finances, and other issues.
“You’re much more likely to get in and comment than if you go to church now,” King said. “It opens a communication line.”
Bishop Paul Egensteiner of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said he was dismayed by some aspects of Facebook but welcomed its feature, which bears similarities to a digital prayer request already in use by the synod churches.
“I hope this is a real effort by Facebook to help religious organizations advance their mission,” said Egensteiner. “I also pray that Facebook will continue to improve its practices to stop misinformation on social media that is also affecting our religious communities and efforts.”
Rev. Thomas McKenzie, who heads the Church of the Redeemer, an Anglican congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, said he wanted to hate the feature – he sees Facebook as ready to exploit anything for money, even people’s beliefs.
But he believes it might encourage those willing to use it: “Facebook’s evil motivations might actually have provided a tool that can be for good.”
His main concern with any internet technology, he added, is that it can encourage people to stay physically separated even when unnecessary.
“You cannot fully participate in the body of Christ online. It is not possible, “said McKenzie.” But these tools can give the impression that it is possible.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said he understands why some people are skeptical of the initiative.
“But by the moment we’re in, I don’t know many people who don’t have a large part of their prayer life online,” he said. “We’ve all used chat for something like this – sharing who we’re praying for.”
The Crossroads Community Church, a non-denominational congregation in Vancouver, Washington, went live about 10 weeks ago in their Facebook group with around 2,500 members.
According to Gabe Moreno, executive pastor of the ministries, around 20 to 30 prayer requests are published each day, each resulting in 30 to 40 responses. Every time someone replies, the original poster receives a notification.
Deniece Flippen, a moderator for the group, turns off notifications for her posts, knowing that upon her return she will be greeted with a barrage of support.
Flippen said that unlike in personal group prayer, she does not feel the Holy Spirit or the physical manifestations that she calls “holy goosebumps.”
“It’s comforting to see that they are always there for me and that we are always there for each other,” said Flippen.
Members will be asked on Fridays to indicate which requests have been answered and some will be greeted on the livestream services on Sunday mornings.
Moreno said he knew Facebook wasn’t acting out of purely selfless motivation – it wanted more user interaction with the platform. But his church’s approach to this is theological, and they try to follow Jesus’ example.
“We should go where the people are,” said Moreno. “People are on Facebook. So we’ll go there. “
AP video journalist Emily Leshner helped.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the Lilly Foundation through The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.