Religious Groups Build Communities on Facebook

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.

Buddhism

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.”

Christianity

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.