In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churchgoers are opting to watch online church versus physically attending in-person services — a change that has been years in the making — but now Facebook wants to make it even easier to enable total virtual worship.
According to a survey done by Dacast, 33 percent of those who say they go to church watch services strictly online. This should come as no surprise as there has been a 66 percent decline in church construction since 2003.
In 2003, $8.8 billion was used to build churches, a record high. That number has since fallen to $3 billion, a nearly 300 percent drop.
That contrasts markedly with construction spending in other sectors. As an example, construction spending for amusement parks and other entertainment buildings has increased $10.9 billion, up 42 percent from 2003 when it was $7.7 billion.
Church membership has declined as well, with only 47 percent of adults in America saying they belong to a local church. This is the first time in history that churchgoers in the U.S. are the minority.
This could be due, in part, to the way online church has exploded during the pandemic, giving people the ability to stay home on Sundays.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg jumped on the worship-streaming bandwagon by announcing in July that he will be partnering with churches and other faith-based organizations to encourage churches to permanently move their services online using Facebook as their streaming platform.
According to the New York Times, “The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money.”
Facebook has already created a partnership with Atlanta megachurch Hillsong to test moving their services exclusively to Facebook.
“Together, we are discovering what the future of the church could be on Facebook,” Hillsong pastor Sam Collier said of the partnership.
The New York Times noted, “The partnerships reveal how Big Tech and religion are converging far beyond simply moving services to the internet. Facebook is shaping the future of religious experience itself, as it has done for political and social life.”
Zuckerberg’s goal, however, isn’t just to move all church services online but to bring about the “metaverse,” which according to NBC News, is “the classic sci-fi term for a virtual world you can live, work and play inside.” Think virtual reality, but more advanced.
The Federalist reports that faith-based organizations are the key to Zuckerberg’s metaverse goals, because church is about community and connecting to others — which is exactly how the metaverse is being pitched.
Facebook’s Chief Officer of Operations Sheryl Sandberg said, “Our hope is that one day people will host religious services in virtual reality spaces as well or use augmented reality as an educational tool to teach their children the story of their faith.”
While it might be tempting for churches to expand their live streaming services in hopes of growing their reach and Mark Zuckerberg will no doubt make it all sound highly beneficial, pastors should be extremely wary.
Facebook and other social media giants already censor Christians who tout biblical truths. What is to keep this tech giant from censoring or even shutting down altogether the sermon content of churches who are pro-life, anti-LGBTQ+, pro-Second Amendment, pro-America or who have conservative, traditional values?
Social media and the digital world that is on our laptops and smartphones can distort reality and cause distraction — and Christians should not allow this to happen to their local church.
Additionally, Christians need community and fellowship to grow in their faith. If all churches are moved online in the future, the Christian community would be negatively impacted as they wouldn’t be able to gather with other believers and encourage each other and would probably be less inclined to participate in community service, mission projects, and even sharing the gospel with others.
While streaming is a great way to get churchgoers involved who are sick or who aren’t otherwise able to make it to church on Sunday, it should not be the gold standard of church attendance.
As Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV, commands: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
So get up on Sunday morning and go to church, if and when at all possible. It may not be as easy or convenient as powering up the closest computer screen, but you’ll quickly realize that it’s a much greater blessing — both to yourself and to others.