Facebook reveals new “prayer” posts

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The COVID pandemic has changed the way many of us engage with our families, our community, and yes, even our faith. While distancing and lockdowns have kept us apart, social media has become increasingly important for staying in touch with those who matter to us. What would have been a quiet conversation with a friend in the privacy of your own kitchen has become a series of private messages. Where you might have once gathered with a church group for discussion, instead you’re joining a zoom meeting. 

In recognition of this change, Facebook is experimenting with a new kind of post and reaction. "Prayer posts” where a user can specifically make a post asking for prayer in a public manner. Similar to how you might bring something up in a church group, this is designed to be an easy way for Christian users to introduce topics they would like prayer support for. Indeed, instead of "liking” these kinds of posts, users can instead click a "pray” button that will show they saw the request and will include it in their ongoing prayers.

It’s an interesting idea and reactions are understandably mixed. On one hand, given everything we’ve been through for the past year and the ongoing strain we’ve been under, anything that makes it easier to connect with our Christian brothers and sisters is a welcome blessing. But there is a hint of crassness that is hard to ignore. Prayer is an intensely private thing, in fact it’s hard to think of something that could be more private and sacred than your personal relationship with God. Clicking a little "pray” icon like it was an emoji could risk undermining the seriousness of what is being asked and given in these exchanges.

This is a valid concern. We must always be considerate and deliberate when we pray. We also need to carefully decide what kind of role we allow technology and corporations to play in our faith. Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. And knowing what we do about the reach Facebook has and the power of their data collection tools, giving them more insight into our faith and spiritual lives is a little unsettling.

At the same time Facebook is not wrong that there is a need for this kind of feature. According to Facebook’s own internal analytics, the week of Easter and Passover 2020 saw extraordinarily high activity, particularly among "spiritual” pages. A noticeable spike in group video calls and private messages that can be directly linked to Easter and Passover. The rationale here is as simple as it appears, as people were not able to gather together for real in early April, they filled the void remotely. 

We don’t know what a post-pandemic world will look like. Hopefully, things can go back to normal as they were before COVID became an all-encompassing concern, but we can’t say that for sure. It’s possible that continued virus strains, or ongoing worries, or simply new norms will still keep people wary of large gatherings and social contact. If that ends up being the case, we will need tools like Prayer Posts to help keep us in touch with our spiritual community. 

As it stands, the Prayer Post concept is still in the testing phase. Facebook has quietly rolled it out to a small number of users who were given the opportunity to opt in and try it. As is the case with other similar features, it is likely Facebook will spend some time assessing how the tool is used and people’s reaction to it among these limited test cases before rolling it out to the broader public. So while you might not see Prayer Posts yet, you likely will in the near future.

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