Pay to pray

Facebook believes you may be willing to pay it for your spiritual needs

The social network has been doing immense outreach and testing of new, religion-focused paid services, a new report reveals.

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is displayed on the screen of a smartphone as she...
Dominic Lipinski - PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

As newer platforms like TikTok continue rising to power, Facebook is willing to try anything and everything to keep users on its cheugy blue feed. That includes working with religious groups to create and deploy specialized, paid tools catering to churches and similar organizations, according to a recent report from The New York Times.

The OG social network has been meeting with religious groups for years now, according to people familiar with the company’s movements, but things really picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic, as religious groups with mostly in-person attendance sought to create online communities for themselves. NYT spoke to a few such groups, including religious leaders of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal denomination with about six million members around the world.

The Church of God in Christ was given early access to a number of Facebook tools created specifically for religious groups — most in hot pursuit of new revenue streams. They included a subscription service whereby community members could pay a monthly fee and receive exclusive content like messages from the bishop and another for livestreaming services and sending donations in real-time.

Really pushing it — The features focused on religious groups are still very much in testing mode, but it’s clear from this report that Facebook is putting significant effort into the push. A number of large religious organizations have been approached by Facebook for testing purposes, including Hillsong, the megachurch beloved by celebrities like Justin Bieber and Lana Del Rey.

As if this were not enough evidence of Facebook’s commitment to religious outreach, Facebook held a “virtual faith summit” last month with various religious leaders. COO Sheryl Sandberg even spoke at the event — a high-profile choice for the company.

“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,” Sandberg said.

Not everyone’s pleased — Facebook’s courtship with religious groups has been a mixed bag. Though some leaders have welcomed Facebook’s new tools, many others feel the company is stepping on their toes.

Bob Pritchett, founder of online Christian ministry platform Faithlife, told NYT he believes it’s dangerous to have your religious community “on a tech platform that is susceptible to all the whims and politics and culture and congressional hearings.”

A paster for the Assemblies of God said he’s grateful for Facebook’s outreach but that religious life should remain physical for the most part. He says the church wants “everyone to put their face in another book.”

Attending religious services on Facebook is a strange prospect, to be sure, but groups hit hard by the continued pandemic could gravitate towards such easy access to online community making. Given how much outreach the company’s done on these products as of late, we wouldn’t be surprised if they roll out more widely in the near future.