Some praise, some doubts as Facebook rolls out prayer tool



By HOLLY MEYER and DAVID CRARY Associated Press | Facebook is already asking for your opinion. Now he wants your prayers.

The social media giant has rolled out a new request for prayer feature, a tool adopted by some religious leaders as a cutting edge way to engage worshipers online. Others view it with suspicion as they assess its usefulness against the privacy and security concerns they have with Facebook.

In Facebook groups using this feature, members can use it to rally the power of prayer for upcoming job interviews, illnesses and other personal challenges big and small. After creating a message, other users can press an “I Prayed” button, reply with a “Like” or other reaction, leave a comment, or send a direct message.

Facebook began testing it in the United States in December as part of an ongoing effort to support religious communities, according to a statement attributed to a company spokesperson.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen many religious and spiritual communities using our services to connect, so we are starting to explore new tools to support them,” he said.

The Reverend Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a Southern Baptist mega-church, was among the pastors enthusiastically welcoming the prayer service.

“Facebook and other social media platforms continue to be great tools for spreading the gospel of Christ and connecting believers with one another, especially during this pandemic,” he said. “While any tool can be misused, I support any effort like this that encourages people to turn to the one true God in times of need. “

Adeel Zeb, a Muslim chaplain at Claremont Colleges in California, was also optimistic.

“As long as these companies initiate appropriate precautions and protocols to ensure the safety of religiously marginalized communities, believers should join us in supporting this vital initiative,” he said.

As part of its data policy, Facebook uses the information it collects in various ways, including to personalize advertisements. But the company says advertisers aren’t able to use a person’s prayer messages to target ads.

Reverend Bob Stec, pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, said via email that he sees this new feature as a positive affirmation of people’s need for an “authentic community” of prayer, support. and worship. .

But “even though it’s a ‘good thing’, it doesn’t need the deeply authentic community that we need,” he said. “We must join our voices and our hands in prayer. We need to stand side by side and go through great times and challenges together. “

Stec was also concerned about the privacy concerns surrounding the sharing of deeply personal trauma.

“Is it wise to post everything on everyone so that the whole world can see it?” ” he said. “On a good day, we would all be thinking and making wise choices. When we are stressed or in distress or in a difficult time, it is almost too easy to contact everyone on Facebook. “

However, Jacki King, minister for women at Second Baptist Conway, a Southern Baptist congregation in Conway, Arkansas, sees a potential benefit for those isolated amid the pandemic and struggling with mental health, finances and challenges. other issues.

“They are much more likely to get along and make a comment than they are to walk into a church right now,” King said. “It opens a line of communication. “

Bishop Paul Egensteiner of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Metropolitan Synod of New York in America said he was appalled at certain aspects of Facebook, but welcomes the feature, which has similarities to an already digital prayer request. used by the churches of the synod.

“I hope this is a real effort by Facebook to help religious organizations advance their mission,” Egensteiner said. “I also pray that Facebook continues to improve its practices to end misinformation on social media, which also affects our faith communities and our efforts.”

Reverend Thomas McKenzie, who heads the Church of the Redeemer, an Anglican congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, said he wanted to hate the feature – he considers Facebook ready to exploit anything for money, even people’s faith.

But he thinks it might be encouraging for those who are willing to use it: “Facebook’s bad motivations would have actually provided a tool that can be beneficial.

Its main concern with any internet technology, he added, is that it can encourage people to stay physically separated even when it is not needed.

“You cannot participate fully in the body of Christ online. It’s not possible, ”McKenzie said. “But these tools can make people feel like it’s possible.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said he understood why some people would view the initiative with skepticism.

“But right now, I don’t know a lot of people who don’t have much of their prayer life online,” he said. “We’ve all used the chat feature for something like this – sharing who we pray for. “

Crossroads Community Church, a non-denominational congregation in Vancouver, Washington, saw the feature go live about 10 weeks ago in its Facebook group, which has around 2,500 members.

About 20 to 30 prayer requests are posted each day, eliciting 30 to 40 responses each, according to Gabe Moreno, executive pastor of ministries. Every time someone responds, the initial poster gets a notification.

Deniece Flippen, a moderator for the group, turns off alerts for her posts, knowing that when she returns she will be greeted with a flood of support.

Flippen said that unlike in-person group prayer, she doesn’t feel the Holy Spirit or the physical manifestations she calls “goose bumps.” But the virtual experience is nonetheless rewarding.

“It’s heartwarming to see that they are always there for me and that we are always there for each other,” said Flippen.

Members are invited on Fridays to share requests that have been answered, and some receive shouts during services broadcast live on Sunday morning.

Moreno said he knows Facebook isn’t acting out of pure selfless motivation – it wants more user engagement with the platform. But his church’s approach is based on theology, and they try to follow Jesus’ example.

“We should go where the people are,” Moreno said. “People are on Facebook. So we’re gonna go. “

AP video reporter Emily Leshner contributed.

The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from The Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


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