Big Data Prayers | Samuel D. James

JThese days, it’s hard to surprise anyone with revelations about our compromised privacy in the internet age. Nonetheless, I was surprised by a recent BuzzFeed survey of the data collection practices of some of the internet’s largest prayer and spirituality apps. It turns out that even companies that invite users to share their deepest pains and needs with praying friends can’t resist the temptation to turn those pains and needs into profit.

The article, written by Emily Baker-White, examines the practices of apps like Pray.com, a free app for sharing prayer requests. When individuals post prayer requests on the app, the app takes user information and even data from those requests and packages them as marketable nuggets that can be sold to platforms like Facebook and Google. “This practice appears to be in accordance with Pray.com’s Privacy Policy,” writes Baker-White, “which states that it shares user information with ‘third-party vendors’, including ‘advertising tools, sales and marketing.” Sharing is the norm for the tech industry, Baker-White points out that most users who sign up for a free prayer request app expect some privacy. They don’t expect certainly not to be bombarded, as one individual in the Baker-White article was, with ads on other platforms seemingly tailored to specific keywords they shared as requests for pray.

There’s a lot going on here. One could question standard arguments about Silicon Valley’s flippant disregard for privacy, or address tech companies’ repeated failures to be transparent about their practices. However, what interests me the most is the visceral reaction of some users when they learned that their prayers were being exploited for data:

Jenny, a recent college graduate who prayed for a romantic partner’s infidelity on the app, said “there is an expectation of privacy” among Christians who share prayers. Sarah, a mother-of-three who shared prayers about eviction and divorce, said she would view it as ‘exploitative’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘predatory’ if the company used people’s prayers for their to sell products.

Those are strong words, and I doubt Jenny and Sarah came to those conclusions after years of rigorous ecclesiological training. On the contrary, the gag reflex of hearing that people’s prayers can be wrapped and scoured for marketing opportunities is proof that there is something precious still alive in modern culture: a sense of dissonance between technology and the sacred. Although for many people this dissonance is little more than an inarticulate nostalgia for a more analog era, it is still vital, for at least three reasons.

First, the encroachment of the Internet on all walks of life is a recipe for spiritual malaise. As the German philosopher Byung Chul-Han has observed, the smartphone has itself become a semi-religious relic, demanding devotion and imposing transcendent structure and ritual on our lives. The idea that we can spiritualize our addiction to digital devices is incorrect because that addiction is already spiritualized. If Christianity compels us to do anything, it compels us to look away from our screens and into the physical world that declares the glory of God in a way that no virtual environment can (Psalm 19:1).

Second, stories like Emily Baker-White’s shine a light on Silicon Valley mammonism. Selling user data in a prayer app is a wonderfully concise illustration of what emerges victorious when e-commerce and godliness collide. In contrast, the economic logic of a physical church is transparent: parishioners donate their own money to support the work of an institution whose ministers, affiliations, and activities are (or at least should be) accessible to all. Wholesome churches do not promise special blessings to donors, they proclaim the Giver of all good gifts and ask believers to give for the work of that proclamation. Digital apps that sell members’ prayer requests behave much like prosperity gospel peddlers who promise divine blessing in exchange for unconditional patronage.

Finally, we need a healthy skepticism of Big Tech’s forays into spirituality, because there’s only going to be more of those forays in the days to come. The Baker-White article features an eloquent quote from a Presbyterian minister who believes the 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 has already been made. In the 1920s, the church that clung to outdated doctrines like the divinity of Jesus was meant to die out within a generation. In the 1980s, we evangelicals were warned that the only churches that would exist twenty years from now were those that were “seeker sensitive” who entertained members rather than preached to them. And yet here we are.

This pastor is correct, however, that there will be a vigorous effort to standardize the “e-church” in the years to come. Tish Harrison Warren has been criticized and belittled recently for suggesting in the New York Times this church is irreducibly physical. She’s right. The very concept of “virtual church” involves a mistaken assumption that the church is something that can be consumed. But bringing Christians together to worship Christ is not something anyone can download. It is a spiritual reality, ignited by the assembly of creatures who bear the image of their Creator and the Spirit of their Redeemer. These companies selling data on users’ prayers are trying to extract the only true meaning they know from spirituality, and the rudeness of this act should be a sign to us that maybe, just maybe, the God’s things just aren’t meant to fit on a screen.

Samuel D. James is associate editor of acquisitions at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter titled Knowledge.

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