Religion takes many forms on Facebook. There’s a Page for The Bible, with more than 4.5 million Likes. Religious leaders are gaining lots of fans, for example the Dalai Lama’s 913,200. Places of worship have their own Pages, as do important buildings such as the Support Al-Aqsa Mosque Page, with 15,200 Likes. There are also some popular applications — The God Wants You to Know app has around 2 million monthly active users, for example. Religious Facebook ads have also appeared, like Pray for an Atheist, which advertised to get people to pray for atheists to convert to Christianity.
This isn’t surprising. After all, religions have always engaged in some form of social networking. Yet, even as companies, non-profits, celebrities and everyone else has started using Pages, ads, apps and other features to reach Facebook users, many religious groups we’ve spoken to haven’t committed to the same degree. In some cases, they may believe that Facebook is not the most appropriate venue for their faith; in other cases, they simply haven’t had the resources or focus.
So here’s our look.
We looked at the Pages of a handful of Buddhist centers and spoke with a member of the Diamond Way Buddhist Center in Seattle with 203 Likes and a core membership of about 10 people. We also looked at the Indiana Buddhist Center in Indianapolis with 966 Likes, the Buddhist Center Lubbock Texas with 85 Likes and the Gar Drolma Buddhist Center in Dayton, Ohio with 308 Likes.
These Pages seemed to serve primarily as hubs for information — location, hours, special events, etc. — but were also used to seek volunteers, donations, ask questions about programming, provide special prayers/speeches/information and showcase photos. In the case of the Indiana Buddhist center, the Page was used heavily in a variety of ways to promote a visit from the Dalai Lama recently, including events, photos, status updates, posts (from admins and fans) and comments.
Facebook is the modern-day flyer, said Daria Novoselova, a former member of Seattle’s Diamond Way Buddhist Center by way of describing the center’s use of Facebook; the center only adds info already available on the web site. Facebook serves as a way for the center to “be available so whoever is looking for us can find us,” noting that the idea is not to recruit per se, but “make ourselves available.” The Page was created by a young member earlier this year who thought it would be good promotion, and when response was positive, Novoselova said the Center decided to continue to develop its Facebook presence — despite some ways it might clash with their beliefs.
Facebook ads serve as one example of this clash, Novoselova explains; if for example a photo of a teacher appeared on the stream next to an ad for casual dating. Another drawback is trying to maintain doctrine in an egalitarian space where people can post anything they please. “We’re a big organization and we have a lot of people with different ideas, sometimes people post things that are not appropriate,” she said. “But, at the same time, it’s a means of communication. It used to be phone books, it used to be fliers and now it’s mainly the Internet.”
In the U.S., Christian churches were the most numerous type of religious institution on Facebook. We looked at a variety of Christian organizations for this story: non-denominational Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. with 870 Likes and a congregation of about 4,000 people, likewise non-denominational Savannah Christian Church in Georgia with 2,800 Likes, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in Richmond with 1,300 Likes and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin, Texas with more than 2,300 Likes.
Pages included social- and worship-related events posted on the Wall, photos, calls for charity and volunteerism. Retreats, conferences and in the case of the Diocese of Austin, daily mass readings provided a good mix of social and religious information on the Wall. Feedback from fans tended to be positive. These Pages also served to promote church leaders and their thoughts on doctrine. The Pope in the case of the Catholic church makes for a good example, like this April 30 status update: “Pope Benedict has approved the new Roman Missal.” Or, this April 4 status update from the Episcopal Diocese: “View a video Easter message from Bishop Johnston.”
Sara Merrill from the Calvary Church said the organization’s arrival to Facebook in December was meant to meet congregants where they already were, via both a group and Page, and this summer she plans to promote Facebook even more. “People are using this tool anyway, if the church is absent from that, then we’re missing out on what is a big part of peoples’ lives these days — and we need to be engaging them on every avenue they’re on,” Merrill tells us.
The church has three main goals with Facebook: foster community, support spiritual growth and conduct outreach. This had been happening on Facebook prior to the church’s Page, especially with young people involved in youth groups. Thus far the reaction has been positive, Merrill tells us, people have told her they like seeing Calvary Church pop up in their news feed in the middle of the week. The church hopes Facebook will help congregants engage around events. Calvary Church’s foray into Facebook is exemplary of many Pages we saw because while Merrill says the church wants to develop use of social media, its strategy to do so is via creating more content for its web site, then linking to it on Facebook.
This simultaneous embrace of Facebook’s technology and confusion over how, exactly, to best implement a social media strategy was present, in different degrees, with each group we spoke to.
Jewish temples used Facebook to promote events within their temples and synagogues by sharing photos, asking for prayers on the Walls, announcing services, promoting Twitter accounts and generally encouraging participation.
We looked at the Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, Ill. with 166 Likes, Beth Simchat Yeshua Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Dayton, Ohio with 250 Likes, the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York with 478 Likes, the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Florida with 391 Likes and the 750-member Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, Fla. with 138 Likes, whose Rabbi Michael Torop talked to Inside Facebook about the temple’s experiences with social media.
“We are very open and embracing of new technologies and whatever they might have to offer us as a tool to creating community — not replacing it,” Torop tells us. “We’re looking for additional mechanisms to connect with members. The downside is that we want to make sure that, whatever we do as far as our Facebook presence or web presence, is something that does not become a virtual world community, or a replacement.” Temple Beth-El’s Page incorporates lots of photos from trips to New York City or Israel, information about Temple functions, as well as articles posted by Torop of what to do with leftover matzo or about the Hewbrew language.
His own personal profile counts 300-plus friends and includes information about Temple activities. The Page and a group for the Temple grew out of activity from Torop’s profile, and he says Temple youth are particularly more likely to interact via Facebook. The Temple’s Page launched in January as a means to “encourage people to show a greater interest and take part in the life of the congregation” and has since become a good way to promote events and send communications (as opposed to email). Currently it’s Torop who administers the Page, which he says has served as an interesting experiment to link to albums and calendars both on Facebook and the site.
The Temple also had an interesting experiment with Facebook ads. To promote its annual participation in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade earlier this year the Temple invested $24 that rendered 216,399 impressions over four days, 50 clicks and 7 people who confirmed their parade attendance. The parade wasn’t bigger than usual, but Torop tells us it was intriguing to receive so much traffic for such a small sum.
Facebook Pages seemed to be particularly important to Muslims to reaffirm their faith, at least on the Pages we reviewed. There didn’t appear to be as many mosques as churches on Facebook, but this may be due to a language barrier as we searched in English and Islam isn’t the dominant religion in the U.S. But on the Pages of mosques we did find there was a strong reaffirmation of faith taking place on the Walls, as well as interaction with the mosque’s community. For example, the Mosque That Survived the Tsunami Page (presumably the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) has more than 5,200 Likes and people often reaffirm their faith by praising Allah, usually with a prompt such as a status update. A similar pattern emerged on the Mosque Okba Ibn Nafaa Page, with more than 6,800 Likes, celebrating an important mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia.
For reference, community mosques in London and Singapore also had Pages that reflected their communities. The East London Mosque with about 6,400 Likes has a Page where people share values and religious comments on the Wall, inquire about religious services and are apolitically encouraged to vote. Singapore’s AlKhair Mosque with about 2,000 Likes also serves as a hub for people to ask about services, share photos/religious ideas and receive information about events, as well as participate in numerous photo albums documenting mosque activities.
Searching for “Islam” on Facebook does yield a number of mosques of the Nation of Islam, including: the Phoenix, Ariz. Muhammad Mosque No. 32 with about 1,000 Likes, Muhammad Mosque No. 15 in Atlanta, Ga. with 1,500 Likes and Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 in Boston, Mass. with 1,200. Pages promote similar institutional information, such as speeches by leaders like Louis Farrakhan, in addition to information about community and political events, resources and Twitter accounts. Several Pages also included photos and videos produced by members who are mosque administrators.
Protocol Director Hannibal Muhammad, 26, tells us that since the Page’s launch, Facebook has figured prominently in several initiatives. Facebook facilitates networking with other mosques, disseminates mosque information, as well as assists in fundraising, education and organizing events, he says. About half of the congregation has Liked the mosque’s Page so far, he says, and Facebook has given the mosque more freedom and reach than it had with its web site.