This social network for churches is thriving in the coronavirus pandemic

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For years, Pray.com has sought to be an all-in-one online app for churches. Log on, and you’ll encounter a Facebook-esque timeline, filled with accounts sharing and liking digital “prayers” and verses. Like Spotify, the app primarily makes money through audio content, such as its highly produced, scripted Biblical “bedtime stories.” It’s even got a fundraising feature, a sort of Venmo-for-tithes. But as the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic worsens, Pray.com has found itself more useful than ever before.

Like many other sectors of life, religion has suffered during the global public health crisis. To comply with new social distancing measures, churches around the world have sent their congregants home. Physical closeness — once a source of spiritual solidarity — now comes with the high risk of spreading infection. And older people, the bulwark of the American church, are more at risk for serious complications and death from Covid-19.

Without congregants, the donations collected during services have suddenly evaporated, leaving churches without a major source of financial support. Faith leaders are already worried about how to stay afloat without Easter services, which — despite President Trump’s hopes — will probably be conducted remotely to avoid an even higher death toll in the US.

Twelve weeks off could be enough to permanently change our religious habits, cautions Rev. Peter Phillips, a digital theology research fellow at Durham University in England. Keep in mind that some experts say we’ll need to socially distance for more than a year, which might be the end for less-well-off faith communities. Some people might never come back to the pews, even after these restrictive measures are lifted.

“I think the church has been in a bit of a kind of brain freeze about digital culture,” Phillips tells Recode. “The digital context is a new missionary context for the church, and we’ve been slow to adopt that culture or adapt to that culture. And we now need to do that, and we’ve kind of been forced by the coronavirus to do it.”

Many religious communities are now rushing to the internet, hoping that livestreaming, social media, apps, and platforms like Pray.com will be enough to keep their parishioners connected. But this rapid transition toward recreating religion online comes with incredibly high stakes.

Pray.com has been wanting churches to get online for a while

Churches are racing to figure out how to adjust their operations to satisfy new social distancing requirements. Some communities are producing performances and sermons to be broadcast on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. One priest in Maryland set up a drive-through confession, careful to keep a 6-foot distance between himself and those who visit. Some Orthodox Jewish communities are bending their traditional rules and allowing minyanim — ritual prayer groups — to gather over Zoom.

Pray.com is a social media platform that offers a whole menu of digital religious activities. For four years, the company has been working to provide a way to support organized religion online. And the platform is far from outdated or wonky. When you open the app, you’re immediately welcomed by a recorded recitation of a Biblical verse — like the opening of a meditation — and a glossy, calming interface.

A cellphone screen showing the Pray.com app with circles to click on for shows to listen to, including “Cain & Abel” and “The Creation.”
Inside the Pray.com app.

The app has combined the models of much more influential social media platforms, tweaking their approaches to serve a Christian audience. Pray.com CEO Chris Gatena explains that his company primarily makes money through its audio content, which he likens to the “religion and spirituality section of Amazon.” There are podcasts by religious leaders as well as highly produced content inspired by the Bible, like a 72-minute bedtime story that features the slow-speaking voice of a British woman recounting the story of Exodus.

Supporting the app is at least $16 million in venture funding, including investments from Greylock Partners and Spark Capital.

To actually get churches and people to use the app, Pray.com built out the social media side of its platform. The idea is that every church can have its own Facebook-like group. Inside, people post their general proclamations of their love for Jesus, God, and faith. But sometimes, the posts are more personal: worries about employment or the health of a family member.

Adam Mesa, a pastor at the nondenominational Abundant Living Family Church in Southern California, which has been set up on Pray.com for about a year, told Recode that a woman once posted on his church’s group to seek guidance after finding out her husband had an affair.

“Pray.com” seems like a nonsectarian name for the app, but in reality, its communities are almost entirely Christian. Some of these groups have just a few dozen members, while others appear to be general-interest groups that aren’t affiliated with any one church. The platform also hosts much larger digital communities, like the one for Paula White Ministries, which has more than 2,000 users. If that name sounds familiar, that’s because White is a prominent televangelist and President Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser. (Her Pray.com group isn’t currently set up to receive donations.)

The app hasn’t always gotten a warm welcome. Gatena says that when Pray.com tried to organize a “World Record of Prayer Day,” its ads were rejected by TikTok because they included religious content. (TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.) The campaign didn’t end up happening.

The coronavirus means more people than ever are seeking digital religious support

Over the past few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has floated to top of mind for users on the Pray.com network. “It’s not necessarily, ‘How does the coronavirus specifically impact me?’ but these second-order and third-order effects that result from some of the fear, anxiety, and panic that’s going on around the virus,” Gatena told Recode.

He points out that, in recent weeks, people have increasingly searched for “prayer” online, according to Google Trends. Searches for “God” and “faith” have also shot up since the beginning of March.

For what it’s worth, the religious need spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic has also been good for Pray.com’s core business. On Tuesday, the company had its third-highest record day in terms of new subscribers. Revenue is growing, and donations to faith communities facilitated by the platform have grown nearly 200 percent this month Gatena says there’s no charge for that service, thanks to a partnership with the payments platform Stripe. (Stripe declined to comment).

“Our leaders have known that social media and online media is important and [is] an emerging trend for the younger generation,” Gatena says. “But faith leaders around the country hadn’t planned or prepared for tools like this being exponentially valuable in the case of a global health pandemic because they couldn’t foresee having to close down their churches.”

Given the pandemic, he says Pray.com is reaching out to 50,000 new communities, encouraging them to register for accounts and start using the app.

Praying online might approximate going to church, but it’s not the same

By moving online, churches hope to foster spiritual connection, even when their congregants are physically separated. But churches are also feeling the pressure to provide high-quality, powerful content that will keep their members donating.

“The question becomes, if we’re not in the building, how do we create that emotional moment so that people give?” Sam Collier of North Point Ministries, which works with Pray.com, says. “And so, as amazing as the opportunity that we have is, the reality is that it is difficult.”

Could watching your faith leader over livestream, while sitting at your desk, really create the same feeling as praying together with your friends and family in your church’s sanctuary? Collier says no, but it could be extremely close.

“There are many people that believe that the only way to really spend time with God is in the church. But God is everywhere,” he argues. “Obviously, when we’re all in one room it’s easier to kind of feel like we’re with him because we’re all focused on him. But I think we’ve got to suspend the idea that we have to be all in one place to be all in one place.”

He also emphasizes that it’s important to look at the technology as an opportunity, not a challenge. For example, Collier argues that Blockbuster looked at the “challenge” of streaming and failed, while Netflix looked at the “opportunity.” Ultimately, he says it’s about finding a way to thrive amid change: “How do we leverage technology to reach more people than we ever could have?”

Praying online might be temporary, but the pandemic has probably changed religious practices for good. Durham University’s Phillips says that even though the Covid-19 pandemic might one day “end” (whatever that means), churches have long needed to adapt their purpose for the digital age.

“It also prepares us for the future,” Phillips adds. “When Covid-23 comes, or Covid-28 comes, or something like that, we’ll be able to move forward and move on.”

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