One of the reasons I am so glad that we are able to maintain our in-person worship right now is because, with so many churches going remote in one fashion or another, people have felt the absence of community in their lives. One of the ways that people have compensated for this absence is through prayer apps. Prayer apps like Pray.com, Glorify, and Hallow have seen a significant increase in traffic since the pandemic began. On the one hand, that may seem natural and appropriate. People need to reach out. Having people pray with you and for you makes perfect sense; especially when houses of worship are not running at 100% just now. On the other hand, this trend highlights some of the dangers of transitioning spirituality to digital formats. While people’s identities are not disclosed on these apps, a lot of personal information is shared when prayers are requested and people are not always as guarded about what they share as they should be considering that this information goes to tens of thousands of complete strangers. In addition, like any other app, Prayer.com, Glorify, and Hallow operate by way of advertising. Complaints have been raised about these apps' “data mining” people’s posts to share with advertisers who can tailor online ads for these users based on the content of prayers they have shared. In other words, prayer has entered the marketplace and big money (on the order of millions of dollars) is being made through these apps. The ethical questions raised around this are huge. Prayer is by its very nature part of a personal relationship one has with God. You may choose to share your prayers with a close friend but the internet gives the illusion of privacy that isn’t actually there.
Even though you know, in your head, that what you are sharing is going onto the web, prayer is a matter of the heart. In the midst of prayer, your heart doesn’t always check in with your head. And it shouldn’t have to! That is the freedom and catharsis that prayer should allow. Praying by way of an online app, however, negates this private process. Even when people share prayers in a congregational setting, it is done only when the person making the request trusts the setting and the people present.
More importantly, there is something very sinister about profiting from people’s prayers. That doesn’t seem to be stopping people, however. As venture capitalist Katherine Boyle put it bluntly in a Washington Post op-ed: “A holy trinity is in place: isolated people hungry for attachment, religions desperate for growth in an online world, and technology investors searching for the consumer niches yet to digitize.”
Prayer is one of the most intimate parts of our spirituality and it requires a vulnerability that people aren’t normally in touch with. To prey on people by using their prayers to build up a digital profile of them to sell on the web is beyond immoral. This trend is a cautionary tale for those who seem to relish a predicted end to brick and mortar churches and the transition to an online-only faith. We need to do everything we can to prove such dangerous predictions wrong.
Church work today is often about fighting the headwinds of the pandemic and a society in which the internet and social media are replacing traditional interpersonal relationships. I think we have struck a good balance here at FCC by beefing up our online communications and offering online connections to our Sunday worship experience while at the same time continuing to place emphasis on the importance of being together as a faith community.
Being together, as simple as it sounds, is the key to not only our personal faith formation but also a sane future for our society.
See you in church,