These days it’s hard to surprise anybody with revelations about our compromised privacy in the Internet age. Nonetheless, I was still taken aback by a recent BuzzFeed investigation into the data harvesting practices of some of the Internet’s biggest prayer and spirituality apps. It turns out that not even companies that invite users to share their deepest pains and needs with prayerful friends can resist the temptation to turn these pains and needs into profit.
There’s a lot going on here. One could relitigate the standard arguments about Silicon Valley’s casual disregard for privacy, or address the repeated failures of tech companies to be transparent about their practices. However, of greater interest to me is the visceral reaction of some users when they learned their prayers were being mined for data:
Jenny, a recent college graduate who prayed about the infidelity of a romantic partner in the app, said “there is an expectation of privacy” among Christians sharing prayers. Sarah, a mother of three who shared prayers about eviction and divorce, said she would consider it “exploitative,” “manipulative,” and “predatory” if the company used people’s prayers to sell them products.
These are strong words, and I doubt that Jenny and Sarah have arrived at these conclusions after years of rigorous ecclesiological training. Rather, the gag reflex at hearing that people’s prayers can be packaged up and scoured for marketing opportunities is evidence that there is something precious still alive in modern culture: a sense of dissonance between technology and the sacred. Even if for many people this dissonance is little more than an inarticulate nostalgia for a more analog age, it is still vital, for at least three reasons.
First, the encroachment of the Internet on all areas of life is a recipe for spiritual malaise. As German philosopher Byung Chul-Han has observed, the smartphone has become a semi-religious relic itself, demanding devotion and imposing a transcendent structure and ritual onto our lives. The notion that we can spiritualize our addiction to digital devices is incorrect because that addiction is already spiritualized. If Christianity compels us to do anything at all, it compels us to look away from our screens and toward the physical world that declares the glory of God in a way no virtual environment can (Psalm 19:1).
Second, stories like Emily Baker-White’s highlight the mammonism of Silicon Valley. The selling of user data in a prayer app is a wonderfully concise illustration of what emerges victorious when e-commerce and piety collide. By contrast, the economic logic of a physical church is transparent: Parishioners give their own money to support the work of an institution whose ministers, affiliations, and activities are (or at least, should be) accessible to all. Healthy churches do not promise special blessings to donors, they proclaim the Giver of all good gifts and ask that believers give for the work of this proclamation. Digital apps that sell off the prayer requests of members are behaving much like prosperity gospel hucksters that promise divine blessing in exchange for unquestioning patronage.
Finally, we need a healthy skepticism toward Big Tech’s forays into spirituality because there will only be more of these forays in the coming days. Baker-White’s piece features a telling quote from one Presbyterian minister who believes virtual church is the future: “The church as we know it will be gone in 20 years.” The problem with this prophecy is that it’s been made before. In the 1920s the church that held onto outdated doctrines like the divinity of Jesus was supposed to be gone in a generation. In the 1980s we evangelicals were warned that the only churches that would be around in twenty years were “seeker-sensitive” ones that entertained members rather than preached to them. And yet here we are.
This pastor is correct, though, that there will be a vigorous effort to normalize “e-church” in the coming years. Tish Harrison Warren was criticized and belittled recently for suggesting in the New York Times that church is irreducibly physical. She’s right. The very concept of “virtual church” implies a mistaken assumption that church is something that can be consumed. But the gathering of Christians to worship Christ is not something anyone can download. It’s a spiritual reality, ignited by the assembly of creatures who bear their Creator’s image and their redeemer’s Spirit. Those companies that sell data about users' prayers are trying to extract the only true meaning they know from spirituality, and the grossness of this act should be a sign to us that maybe, just maybe, the things of God are simply not meant to fit on a screen.
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter called Insights.
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