Why you should care
Because you already worship technology.
A notification pops up on Tara Gifford’s iPhone: God is “live” and streaming on Facebook. In biblical times, the Father Almighty spoke to Moses through a burning bush. But now Gifford, a 38-year-old emergency nurse in Fairborn, Ohio, has a glaring LCD screen to save her soul. Her news feed is her gateway to heaven.
Praise be, at last you can go to church in your pajamas. Facebook Live, the social media juggernaut’s video broadcasting tool, has become a digital pulpit for a growing number of pastors, priests and other religious leaders, who are live-streaming services, interspliced with passages from holy scriptures and morsels of wisdom from “the man upstairs.” The Church of the Way at Brookhaven, in Mississippi, broadcasts its hour-long Sunday service to 200 devout Facebook followers, whereas the Crossway Baptist Church in Australia entices approximately 70,000 subscribers with clickbait-y headlines like “Jesus the Game Changer.” Back in Ohio, the Fairborn United Methodist Church live-streams lunchtime recaps of Sunday’s service as well as weekly video teasers for upcoming sermons. Soon, perhaps, we’ll all be kneeling before our computers for Bible study.
Going “live” is just the latest instance of social media’s conquest of the church. The last few years have shown a rapid rise in congregational use of Facebook: More than 70 percent of churches use the social networking site to connect with their worshippers, compared to just 57 percent in 2011, according to a 2013 report called “The Rise of the @Pastor” from the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm in Ventura, California. Although Facebook declined to tell OZY how many places of worship are using Facebook Live, its spokespeople readily pointed us to a list of spiritual celebrities, from Rick Warren (founder of the eighth-largest American church) to Justin Welby (the principal leader of the Church of England), who are using the service. For the estimated 6 billion religious worshippers around the world, the advent of Facebook Live could be a new awakening. Recently, Gifford used her iPad to tune into Facebook Live while schlepping away at work, camping in West Virginia, heading to the beach in Maryland and vacationing in France — #blessed.
Bringing mass to the masses — may God forgive us for that pun — via fuss-free live-streaming is something of a necessity these days. Membership in U.S. churches, temples, mosques and synagogues declined by 4 percent between 2003 to 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. And more people are pulling the plug on their TVs to the kind of Joel Osteen fanfare that now typifies televangelism. At any rate, DIY micro-broadcasting builds a more genuine, tight-knit community than traditional televangelism could, says Tommy Alderman, a pastor at the Church of the Way at Brookhaven. “The barriers of connection are coming down,” adds Jason Caston, an internet church expert.
For Facebook, expanding beyond the joyful Chewbacca-mask mom we all knew and “liked” a few months ago is a canny business move — one that helps it compete with YouTube, Periscope and Twitch as they too ramp up their live video efforts. And some churches say it’s working to bring in more people to the fold: Live videos have a 44 percent higher organic reach and a 78 percent higher engagement rate than regular posts on the Fairborn United Methodist Church’s Facebook page, says Meghan Howard, the church’s associate pastor and digital communications director, who live-streams from her iPhone 6. “Facebook Live gives the opportunity to be authentic, real and transparent,” which are “much-needed characteristics” for churches nowadays, Howard says.
To be sure, the idea of finding God on Facebooklandia sounds a little weird to people who aren’t used to the notion of, say, swiping right for true love forever. Although Facebook touts live video as an unmediated experience for its 1.6 billion users, some question whether engagement on Facebook really translates into a closer relationship with the Lord. Or, hell, even with fellow parishioners. Perversely, some of the users who most need community support may feel even more alienated by watching on a screen, and even if believers still feel like they’re getting the same experience online as they do in church, they may be contributing far less to the community from behind a monitor. Religion is not a spectator sport, after all, and Facebook comments are not going to keep a church afloat, not without donations.
And what if your worship stops abruptly due to, well, technical difficulties? Will God still heed your prayers if your Wi-Fi malfunctions? Sure, Facebook Live is a shift away from expensive, highly produced content, but it must still overcome the uncut rawness of live-streaming. Distorted sounds, dropped videos and spotty connections are just some of the awkward bloopers that 47-year-old Brad Pope has experienced while “attending” Sunday service via Facebook Live during his weekend shift at a Mississippi paper mill. “I do miss the preaching service and the clarity of it,” says Pope. It’s hard to hear the word of God when the sound keeps cutting out.
So before we start erecting an iChurch, let’s not forget the value of human contact. After all, Jesus never healed anyone by poking them on Facebook.