Facebook already asks for your thoughts. Now it wants your prayers.
The social media giant has rolled out a new prayer request feature, a tool embraced by some religious leaders as a cutting-edge way to engage the faithful online. Others are eyeing it warily as they weigh its usefulness against the privacy and security concerns they have with Facebook.
In Facebook Groups employing the feature, members can use it to rally prayer power for upcoming job interviews, illnesses and other personal challenges big and small. After they create a post, other users can tap an “I prayed” button, respond with a “like” or other reaction, leave a comment or send a direct message.
Facebook began testing it in the U.S. in December as part of an ongoing effort to support faith communities, according to a statement attributed to a company spokesperson.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen many faith and spirituality communities using our services to connect, so we’re starting to explore new tools to support them,” it said.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was among the pastors enthusiastically welcoming of the prayer feature.
“Facebook and other social media platforms continue to be tremendous tools to spread the Gospel of Christ and connect 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 our time of need.”
Under its data policy, Facebook uses the information it gathers in a variety of ways, including to personalize advertisements. But the company says advertisers are not able to use a person’s prayer posts to target ads.
Jacki King, the minister to women at Second Baptist Conway, a Southern Baptist congregation in Conway, Ark., sees a potential benefit for people who are isolated amid the pandemic and struggling with mental health, finances and other issues.
“They’re much more likely to get on and make a comment than they are to walk into a church right now,” King said. “It opens a line of communication.”
Crossroads Community Church, a nondenominational congregation in Vancouver, Wash., saw the function go live about 10 weeks ago in its Facebook Group, which has roughly 2,500 members.
About 20 to 30 prayer requests are posted each day, eliciting 30 to 40 responses apiece, according to Gabe Moreno, executive pastor of ministries. Each time someone responds, the initial poster gets a notification.
Deniece Flippen, a moderator for the group, turns off the alerts for her posts, knowing that when she checks back she will be greeted with a flood of support.
“It’s comforting to see that they’re always there for me and we’re always there for each other,” Flippen said.
Members are asked on Fridays to share which requests got answered, and some get shoutouts in the Sunday morning livestreamed services.
Moreno said he knows Facebook is not acting out of purely selfless motivation — it wants more user engagement with the platform. But his church’s approach to it is theologically based, and they are trying to follow Jesus’ example.
“We should go where the people are,” Moreno said. “The people are on Facebook. So we’re going to go there.”
From The Associated Press. May not be republished. AP video journalist Emily Leshner contributed. APreligion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.