Religion Comes to Facebook in the Form of an App

Facebook members have shown a willingness to harvest crops, join the mob, and even throw vampires on the social network. But will they want to attend church?

The answer will come this Sunday when Northland Church of Orlando, FL debuts the first Facebook app that allows members to watch and participate in live religious services.

The app works like any other on Facebook: Members can search for it in the Facebook apps directory or, more likely, respond to an invitation to join. Once they’ve done so, members will be given the option of watching a live service from Northland – it holds five identical services a week – or viewing a recorded version of the most recent one.

While watching, members will see a list of all others watching, and be able to chat with them. A pastor will also be available to answer faith-related questions.

The idea, said Marty Taylor, Northland’s executive director of media design and technology, is to bring religion to where the people are, rather than waiting for the people to come to church.

“If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world,” said Taylor, referring to the social network’s more than 400 million members. “It’s a place where people who may not be part of a church are comfortable, so we want to take the church to them, and we want people who are part of our church to have that tool to invite people to be a part of it.”

Using technology to reach new audiences is nothing new for the nondenominational Northland Church (full name: Northland, A Church Distributed.) In 2001, the 12,000-member congregation began using live, two-way video connections to broadcast its services to other satellite locations around central Florida. It started Webcasting those services in 2006, and soon began offering an interactive Web stream that allowed virtual viewers to chat with pastors and other worshippers. Today, about 2,000 people take advantage of the Web stream each week, according to the church. Last year, Northland launched an iPhone app, and 200 of its congregants now serve as virtual missionaries, replying to e-mails from worshippers around the world.

People watching the services on Facebook will see two banner ads, though neither will contain paid placements (one will be a house ad for the church, the other will promote a partnership with a missionary organization called Global Media Outreach).

Taylor acknowledged that the combination of religion and Facebook could attract some people more interested in mocking worshippers than joining them. As such, the chat rooms will be moderated, and any troublemakers would be dealt with swiftly, if not exactly harshly.

“We would reach out to that person and say ‘What would make you feel this way, and what would cause you to have disdain for the church, and how can we connect with you?’ he said. “Our goal is not to exclude anybody. We want to include those who wouldn’t normally be included.”

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Follow Douglas Quenqua on Twitter at @DQuenqua.

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