Facebook started with present-tense status updates (Ryan is...). Then there were pictures. Soon, users could post videos. The newest thing to post to Facebook?
Facebook continues its investment in digital tools for faith communities. Alongside resources listed on their new portal, faith.facebook.com, Facebook has begun testing on a prayer feature. The new feature remains in limited beta testing for faith and spirituality Facebook Groups.
Once launched more broadly, individuals who are part of a church Facebook Group will be able to set a status of "asking for prayers," before listing their specific prayer concerns:
The feature rippled through the news media this weekend, just two weeks after the highly-publicized launch of the Faith for Facebook portal. Reactions in the religious media were somewhat mixed.
Some faith leaders were skeptical, arguing that prayer always requires synchronous, embodied presence. Others were intrigued, expressing gratitude for new opportunities to connect with God and one another. Many interviewed in various news outlets expressed continued skepticism over Facebook's privacy practices, and how the company might use personal information shared through a prayer request. Some openly wondered if the company might serve ads based on one's prayer request. Might Facebook someday follow up on prayers to resolve alcoholism with advertisements for rehab centers?
Indeed, Facebook has an ethical responsibility to show that they are capable of handling this data in a way that elicits communal trust. As a corporation, they clearly have a long way to go. Still, prayer on social media is nothing new. Prayer requests are already commonplace on social media feeds. "Prayers up" is a frequent way to start a tweet or post whenever a friend or connection is facing adversity. Injured professional athletes are frequently the beneficiary of such requests, often from concerned fantasy football owners.
So regardless of whether Facebook's "pray" feature takes off like the like and love buttons, today's faith leaders might consider how such requests intersect with the spiritual needs and inclinations of their own communities. Such discernment exists at the level of liturgy, technology, and administration.
At the level of liturgy, communities should discern how individual prayers shared on social media and other digital platforms might engage the broader church community. This is the single most important liturgical and theological question about prayer online - not whether it "works," not whether it is a valid expression of prayer, but how the posts of the individual might influence the shared work of the community. It would be near-sighted to suggest that prayer and technology are incompatible. Individuals have long found tremendous spiritual support in prayerful online communities.
The question isn't so much whether online prayer works, but how the communal body of Christ that is the church might gather as one to support the celebrations and the concerns lifted up in digital prayer. If we believe that the church is a public body that is formed through communal prayer, then it is our calling to take individual prayer requests and convert them into concrete expressions of communal prayer. Today's church leader might seek to incorporate prayer posts into the worship liturgy, or into small group prayer sessions.
How do we faciltiate communal prayer from an individual prayer request post?
At the level of technology, faith communities should work to implement the technologies most conducive to the communal act that is prayer. This might happen on or off of Facebook. To collect and lift up prayer requests on Facebook, a faith community ought to have a well-established Facebook Group, a feature that churches utilize far less frequently than a Facebook Page (for more on the differences between Groups and Pages, see this post). Groups allow community members to share posts specifically with other group members. Perhaps this confidentiality will add a layer of trust to those who would not prayer requests read by all of one's Facebook contacts.
But Facebook is not the only platform that can or should be used for digital prayer. Group messaging apps like Group Me, Remind, or WhatsApp can exchange prayer requests throughout the week. Presentation software like Mentimeter and chat applications like Slack can curate requests for upcoming worship services. Simple tools like Google Forms can encourage community members to anonymously submit prayer requests for inclusion in public worship services. Whatever the technology one uses, it is essential to develop a process for lifting up and responding to concerns as the shared body of Christ.
And at the level of administration, church leaders should be vigilant. Sharing a prayer request can be an act of deep vulnerability. Anytime a prayer request is shared, communal reactions must be monitored. Respectful and prayerful responses must be insisted upon. And occasionally, a prayer request might violate the confidentiality of another church member ("...please watch over Robert as he works through his latest DUI charge..."). The privacy of other community members must be maintained. While prayer requests will not be particularly burdensome, the task of administering digital prayer requests demands consistent engagement and attunement.
Should we pray on Facebook? Many of us already are. God is showing up in response. It is time for faith communities to do the same.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes."