• Ryan Panzer

Facebook for Faith is here. Will it forever change church community?

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an article on Facebook's outreach to faith-based organizations. Recently, Facebook's top leadership has spurred the development of new technologies developed for faith communities. The company has also established partnerships with numerous denominations and interfaith organizations. Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operations Officer of Facebook, who has spoken publicly of the importance of her Jewish faith and heritage, is leading the effort, along with Nona Jones, the author of "From Social Media to Social Ministry."


Their work culminated in the launch of faith.facebook.com, a resource portal where faith leaders can learn about and deploy tools for their communities, from Facebook Live to online giving. Atop the resource portal is information on Facebook Groups, which Facebook sees as the future location of web-based religious community. Facebook continues to invest in the development of Groups, a feature and an offering that they see as the antidote to misinformation concerns on their platform.


Facebook's investment in technologies for faith communities is a significant milestone in the ongoing redefinition of church community. Early in the pandemic, faith leaders largely repurposed existing technologies for religious purposes. Now, tech giants have recognized the upside to engaging religious communities on their platforms and have begun developing their technology accordingly.


This development should prompt some ethical reflection, and perhaps even some scrutiny, amongst church leadership. What does it mean that tech giants, who didn't have much interest in faith-based organizations before the pandemic, are suddenly funding partnerships and software development targeted to the religious space?

For starters, it shows that big tech smells a business opportunity. For all of Facebook's rhetoric about communities and togetherness, faith.facebook.com would not have launched were it not a potential revenue stream for the social media giant. The simple, and perhaps ugly reality, is that the more faith communities venture on to Facebook, the more Facebook makes via advertising revenue as adherents and members view and click more advertisements.


Still, the fact that Facebook is a business should not deter churches from cultivating community on its platforms. From insurance providers to stain glassed window makers, congregations partner with businesses for many purposes, and church leaders should not dismiss Facebook simply because it is a publicly-traded corporation. And after all, there are more global Facebook users than there are Christians. Clearly, Facebook represents an important missional opportunity. It's where our communities can be found. Simply dismissing Facebook because of its vast wealth would be nearsighted.


Instead of rejecting Facebook for Faith, church leaders should consider how to establish well-marked boundaries between Facebook's revenue-generating impulses and the mission and vision of congregational life.


These boundaries can be established by decisions church leaders make about how to utilize Facebook for Faith. For example, a congregation might choose to limit their connections to the platform, so as to preserve some independence from the social giant. A church might collect donations from a platform outside of Facebook (Tithe.ly is one option among many). They might choose to deactivate the monetization of video content posted to Facebook, or even to host worship live streaming off of the social media platform, on a site like Vimeo Livestream.




Perhaps most importantly, these developments should also prompt faith leaders to consider boundaries between user data and Facebook's ever-present algorithms. Church councils and boards should be actively reviewing how member privacy will be respected not just on Facebook, but in all digital spaces where the congregation is present. One aspect of this review should concern images and video. Many continue to raise concerns over Facebook's facial recognition technology, which is capable of scanning any photo posted to the social media site. From photos to videos to blog posts and podcasts, congregations should be transparent about what they plan to share about their community's life together.


As an ethical principle, community members should opt-in whenever a church plans to post close-up photos and videos to any social media platform or website. But the conversation on privacy goes beyond photos and videos. Facebook can target ads based on user-generated posts and comments. This necessitates the development of a set of community standards, or rules of engagement, for any church Facebook group. Determine what topics should be kept for offline conversation. Specify how posts that encroach upon the privacy of others or that violate community standards will be handled. Name how community standards will be kept up within the group.


The quality of our partnership depends just as much on our own processes and commitments as it does on the actions of the social media giant. When we use Facebook for church community, Facebook will seek to monetize the connection. There's a reason why they are currently valued at over a trillion dollars. The question is whether this will be a fair exchange. Will Facebook monetize data that is best kept private? Or will a combination of intentionality, purpose, and privacy commitments from a congregation's leadership facilitate a mutually uplifting partnership?


Facebook for Faith is here, a sure sign of religion's sudden advance into digital ecosystems. Now is the time to plan how faith communities will make the most of the connections that Facebook has to offer.


In the next post in this series on Facebook for faith leaders, we'll dive in to some of the core features in Faith for Facebook, including the differences between Facebook Pages (widely used amongst churches) and Facebook Groups (widely promoted by Facebook).


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@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes," a book that explores what it means to minister alongside a culture shaped by digital technology. Ryan speaks to and consults with church groups seeking to redevelop ministries for a digital age.

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