Months before Megachurch Hillsong opened its new outpost in Atlanta, its pastor sought advice on how to build a church in the epidemic.

From Facebook.

The social media giant made a proposal, Sam Collier, pastor, recalls in an interview: will use the church as a case study to explore how churches can “go further on Facebook”.

For months Facebook developers met weekly with Hilsong and explored what the church would look like on Facebook and what apps they could create for financial giving, video capability or livestreaming. When the time came for Hilsong’s grand opening in June, the church issued a news release saying it was “partnering with Facebook” and starting to launch the full flow of its services on the platform.

In addition, Mr. Collier could not share many specifications – he signed a nondisclosure agreement.

“They teach us, we teach them,” he said. “Together we are exploring what the future of the church could be on Facebook.”

Facebook, which has recently gone through a market capitalization of 1 1 trillion, seems like an unusual partner for the church, whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But, the company has been partnering with a wide range of faith communities over the years, ranging from individual congregations to congregations of God and like the Church of God in Christ, to large denominations.

Now, after the coronavirus epidemic forced religious groups to find new ways to manage, Facebook sees an even more strategic opportunity to draw very busy users to its platform. The company aims to be a virtual home for the religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, hosting worship services and socializing more casually to earn money. It is developing new products aimed at faith groups, including product dio and prayer sharing.

Virtual religious life is not changing the individual community anytime soon, and proponents also acknowledge the limitations of an online experience. But many religious groups see a new opportunity to influence more people spiritually on Facebook, the world’s largest and arguably the most influential social media company.

The partnership shows how Big Tech and religion transform beyond just moving services over the Internet. Facebook shapes the future of religious experience, as it has done for political and social life.

The company’s attempt to sue trust groups comes as it seeks to improve its image among Americans who have lost trust on the platform, especially on privacy issues. Facebook has come under scrutiny for its role in the country’s evolving crisis and the breakdown of social trust, especially around politics, and regulators have raised concerns about its exit power. Last week, President Biden criticized the company for its role in spreading false information about the Covid-19 vaccine.

“I just want people to know that Facebook is a place where they feel frustrated or frustrated or lonely, when they can go to Facebook and they can immediately interact with a group of people who care about them. “Nona Jones, the company’s director for global trust partnerships and an unofficial minister, said in an interview.

Last month, Facebook officials made efforts toward religious groups at the Virtual Trust Summit. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating operating officer, has shared the resource online resource hub with tools for building congregations on the platform.

“Trust organizations and social media are a natural fit because basically both are about connection,” Ms. Said Sandberg.

“We hope that one day people will also organize religious services in a virtual reality space or use old age reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”

Facebook’s summit, which looks like a religious service, includes testimonials from faith leaders on how Facebook helps them grow during an epidemic.

Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association in California said his community raised a record fund using Facebook Live during Ramadan last year. Bishop Robert Barrow, founder of the influential Catholic media company, said Facebook was “giving people this kind of intimate experience of Mass that they wouldn’t normally have.”

Collaboration raises not only practical questions, but also philosophical and ethical questions. Religion has long been the fundamental way humans have created a community, and now social media companies are moving into that role. Facebook has about three billion active monthly users, making it more than Christianity worldwide, with about 2.3 billion followers or Islam, or 1.8 billion.

Privacy is also a concern, as people share some details of their spiritual life with their spiritual communities. Sarah Lane Ritchie, a spokeswoman for theology and science at the University of Edinburgh, said the prospect of Facebook gathering valuable user information raised “enormous” concerns. He said the goals of businesses and worship communities are different, and many congregations, mostly with older members, may not understand how they can be targeted by advertising or other messages based on their religious affiliation.

“Corporations are not concerned with the Code of Ethics,” he said. “I don’t think we know yet all the ways in which this marriage between Big Tech and the Church will work.”

A Facebook spokesperson said data collected from religious communities would be treated the same as other users, and non-disclosure agreements were a standard procedure for all partners involved in product development.

Many of Facebook’s partnerships have asked religious organizations to test or consider new products, and those groups seem obscured by Facebook’s big controversies. This year Facebook is testing a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond to them. The creator of the popular Bible application, YouVersion, worked with the company to test it.

Bobby Gruenwald, creator of UKversion and pastor at Life.Church in Oklahoma, said it was the first time a major technology company wanted to collaborate on a development project, remembering how he worked with Facebook on a Bible-verse-a-day Was. Feature in 2018.

“Obviously there are different ways that they ultimately, I’m sure will serve their shareholders,” he said. “From our offensive point of view, Facebook is a platform that allows us to build a community, and connect with our community and accomplish our goal. So it serves what makes everyone feel good. “

The Presbyterian Church (USA) was invited to become a Facebook trust partner in December, said Melody Smith, a spokeswoman for the denomination’s mission agencies. The denominations agreed in the agreement that they would not own any products that would help in the design of Facebook, he said.

Leaders of the Church of God, a worldwide denomination of about 60 million members of the mostly African American Pentecostal denomination, recently gained early access to many new revenue streams from Facebook’s monetization facilities, said Angela Clinton-Joseph, the denomination’s social media manager.

He decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, 99.999 per month and receive exclusive content like exclusive messages; And another tool for devotees looking for online services to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against the third feature: ads during video streams.

The epidemic accelerated the current dynamics, advancing the development of technology over the years into one, said Bob Preshet, who founded the Christian ministry’s platform FaithLife, which provides services online services.

But spiritual life is different from the personal and professional spaces occupied by Facebook and LinkedIn, he said.

“It’s dangerous to keep your community anchored on a tech platform that is sensitive to all the smoke of congressional politics and culture and local hearings,” he said.

Facebook formed its trust partnership team in 2017 and in 2018 began to do justice to religious leaders, especially evangelical and Pentecostal groups.

“Facebook basically said, hey, we want that to happen, we should go,” Rev said. Samuel Rodriguez, Pastor of Sacramento who leads a large coalition of Hispanic churches.

The ministerial groups for God’s Assemblies, the Pentecostal denomination, with 69.5 million members worldwide, were early adopters of the Facebook tool, which allowed users to make live calls. Potter House, a 30,000 TD Jacques megachurch in Dallas, also tests various facilities before being rolled out.

For some pastors, Facebook’s work raises questions about the church’s broader future in the virtual world. Much of the religious life remains physical, such as laying hands for sacraments or healing prayers.

Church Naline Church was never going to replace the local church, said Wilfredo de Jess, pastor and general treasurer of God’s Assemblies. He was grateful for Facebook, but eventually he said, “We want everyone to put their face in another book.”

“Technology has created this speed in the lives of our people, the idea that I can call and just show the target and park my car and they will open my truck.” “The church is not the target.”

For a church like Hillsong Atlanta, the ultimate goal is evangelism.

“We have never put in more money for a greater commission than we do today.” “Make disciples of people of all nations,” said Collier. No mention of Jesus’ call.

He is partnering with Facebook, he said, “to make a direct impact and help churches navigate and reach customers better.”

“Customer is not the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner.”