When Prayer Becomes Data and Dollars

Gizmodo.com recently reported that Facebook is slowly unrolling the ability for Facebook groups to allow for prayer requests from its users. If a group decides to opt-in, users will have the ability to create posts as prayer requests, which in turn enables other uses to respond by hitting the “pray” button to indicate they’ve prayed for your request. Of course, whether or not the person has actually prayed for the request is up in the air – but at least they will have the opportunity to perform the appearance of prayer.

There is a perception of Facebook that it engages in active and deliberate suppression of Christians and that it routinely censors or buries content from Christian users, pages, or groups. To the extent that Facebook’s algorithm is imperfect and machine error is bound to occur due to sheer volume of automatic moderation: sure, there may be some truth there. But at the upper levels, Facebook loves churches – at least, that’s what was stressed to me in an episode by a prominent social media church podcast after a visit to Facebook HQ a couple years ago. But why does a multi-billion dollar monopoly need to build an infrastructure for prayer? As someone who belongs to several Christian Facebook groups, there has never been a problem with a regular post asking for a prayer. Why does Facebook need to go out of its way to build code and architecture to fix something that hasn’t been broken?

The chief end of social media is to sell advertisements, and advertisements depends on data. If your entire business model is built around advertisements, your entire business model is built around data, and the more you have of it, the better. Facebook loves churches, specifically because they love the data and the money of churches who provide direct income to company through massive Facebook Ads budgets and passive income from the attention span of their viewers. As many of those churches and Christians slowly begin returning to normal in person (and therefore non-Facebook) rhythms, Facebook needs to keep this highly profitable demographic engaged – not because it actually benefits them, but because they benefit Facebook. The more data you have, the more money you are able to generate, and no data point is off the table if it has financial potential.

It is one thing to take advantage of the tools Facebook provides to serve your congregation – we used Facebook Live during the initial months of the pandemic to broadcast our services – and it is another thing for Facebook to create a tool you do not need and encourage you to fix a problem you do not have. Even more problematic is when that tool concerns something that is absolutely not within Facebook’s wheelhouse, and appropriating something that is sacred and intimate as one of the many dozens squared tools Facebook thinks you need in your life. And of course, there will be that corner of evangelicalism, long held sway by unchecked utilitarianism, that will insist that you shouldn’t discount the possibilities of what God could use this feature to do. Yes, the Lord can work with, in, and against means to accomplish his purposes, but that does not mean we ought to let one of the most corrosive forces in our society actively monetize the precious prayers of the saints.

If you have thoughts, let me hear them!

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