WASHINGTON — Technology has transformed the notion of worship as more churches and ministries carve out spaces for themselves in the digital world to respond to the trend of congregants increasingly flocking to practice their beliefs online.
While mobile devices were initially seen as gateways for information, community, and entertainment, apps for religious tools like the Bible, devotions, and prayer have made them popular among believers.
Still, the convenience of holding these apps in the palm of your hand comes at a price.
“There are certain trade-offs in that not only are we able to reach the world for Christ and be able to share the gospel, but in the same respect we are able to stay connected,” said Jason Thacker, who oversees the research in technology and ethics for the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“One of the parts that this conversation often stays with is, ‘Is technology good or bad?’ And, in reality, it’s a bit of both,” he conceded.
Confidentiality: the price of admission
Thacker has written extensively about the emerging intersection of technology and faith with books like The age of AI and Following Jesus in the Digital Age, to be published in August. He warns that while users take advantage of modern conveniences, like reading the Bible on their phone, they often come at an intangible cost: privacy.
The demand for your personal data and digital habits means that users have moved from consumer to product.
“We often talk about free services. They’re not really free,” Thacker explained. “You pay for it by processing it and disclosing this type of data so that this data is manipulated and transformed into various predictive products and these predictive products are sold to advertisers to catch your eyes. That’s why you have a free Facebook account or TikTok or Instagram or Twitter.”
With each download, users potentially give these apps sole discretion of how much to collect.
Glyn Gowing, cybersecurity expert and professor of computer science at LeTourneau University, believes the temptation is too strong for app developers to resist.
“I think in general they’re gathering a lot more information than they actually need,” Gowing told CBN News. “There is far too much temptation to abuse it.”
“You already have the information, so why not try to take advantage of it, or why not try to use it for other things? And, as a Christian, I come back to where it is. says in scripture, ‘For all have sinned and fallen’ without the glory of God,” he added.
Prayers for sale?
Founded in 2016, Pray.com has become the number one app for daily prayer and Bible audio content. Its offerings include the popular audio Bible read by James Earl Jones and uplifting videos from Christian artists and athletes like Lecrae and Drew Brees. They are designed to fulfill the company’s mission, which is to help people “cultivate faith and cultivate community”.
Pray.com refuted this claim in an interview with CBN News.
“We don’t sell data. We don’t sell data,” said Ryan Beck, co-founder and chief technology officer of Pray.com.
“The confusion is in the original article – that it never directly says we do, but is worded in such a way as to insinuate that we might,” he explained. “We asked them to re-choose their wording, as we felt it did not accurately reflect our practices.”
Beck said CBN News Pray.com’s number one priority is prayer, not the profit of its users.
However, Pray.com, like other for-profit faith-based apps, has also drawn attention to big investors who see an opportunity to form partnerships. According to Forbes, venture capital funding for faith-based apps in 2021 grew to $175.3 million, more than three times the total investment in faith-based apps in 2020.
Beck, who has worked for nonprofit and for-profit ministries, believes that venture capital funding allows Pray.com to fulfill its mission, while allowing its funders to leave a legacy.
“Before us, we weren’t very interested in religion because it was a little taboo. People were a little afraid to venture into it,” he explains. “A lot of people saw the value we could bring to the world, and they wanted to do more than make money. So they wanted to leave a legacy. And our vision is to create a world where everyone leaves a legacy of ‘help others.”
Still, cybersecurity experts say it’s important to be careful.
“From a technology perspective, it doesn’t matter if it’s a faith-based app. It’s still technology,” explained Gowing, who spent decades managing information for a fortune-telling company. 500. “Computers are completely agnostic. Computers have no soul. They cannot be saved.”
Digital engagement through a theological lens
Most apps use data to facilitate a more personalized user experience, which can still leave the door open for privacy issues. As a thought leader in the space, Thacker encourages Christians to view their online engagement through a theological framework and to be aware that their interactions leave a digital footprint that can affect their perception.
“We don’t realize how this data can be used to manipulate us, to control us, to shape our perception of truth and reality, which I think is among the biggest questions in terms of technology and what it makes us: is it changing our perception of reality, is it changing our perception of God, of ourselves and of others”, he explained.
“That’s where Christians can come in and be involved not just to know what’s going on and what issues are at stake, but also to provide that rich Christian moral tradition or a rich understanding of what it means to be human, what , I think, is really the most important issue of the day – from digital privacy to sexuality to abortion issues,” he said. “That’s where Christians have a very unique and profound to understand that we are created in the very image of God.”
In the United States, the issue of privacy continues to spark debate about best practices at the state and federal levels. While residents of the European Union have the General Data Protection Regulation to guide the collection of personal data, only a few states, such as California, currently have similar laws.
With years of experience helping government departments develop their own philosophies around data and privacy, Gowing has a simple suggestion for all technology users.
“Be careful where you download your apps,” he warns. “That’s really the most you can do because people are going to use these apps and at some point things are on someone else’s computer. That’s where you lose control. You can only really control what you tell them and what’s on your own device.”