NASHVILLE, TN – On a recent April Sunday morning, crowds streamed into the grand lobby of Mt. Zion Baptist Church as they faithfully do every weekend. What was unusual about this particular service was who was there to greet them.
Smiling faces offered bright, warm "hellos," inviting them to visit laptop stations designed to teach people how to better engage with other members through the church's social media. But the friendly greeters weren't church staff or volunteers. They were a professional team sent by Facebook.
The Church's Biggest Challenge
CBN News was invited to attend a weekend launch highlighting a months-long partnership between Facebook and Mt. Zion Baptist – a 30,000 member megachurch with five weekend services at three different locations across Nashville.
"The biggest challenge of the church is getting people connected," Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, senior pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, explained. "Often, people see a church and don't know where to connect."
That's part of what drives the ministry's social media outreach, along with a heavy millennial demographic with eight nearby universities. It's also why the church teamed up with the social network to build off of its public page and launch a Facebook Group.
"People are becoming more and more isolated, but I think today was evidence that when you bring people together for the shared purpose and vision of community of faith ... there's tremendous energy there," explained Nona Jones, who works for Facebook as the manager of faith-based partnerships.
Mt. Zion Baptist – locally known as "the social media church" – came into Facebook's orbit when other pastors informed Jones about Bishop Walker's mission and his work with young people.
Jones, who has been on the job for nine months, is no stranger to communities of faith. She married a pastor and has been involved in ministry work for 18 years.
"I've preached around the country and around the world, and what's interesting is I wasn't asked to join [Facebook] in spite of that. I was asked to join the company because of that," Jones said.
Addressing Facebook's Critics
If this all sounds a bit curious, it may be the result of a growing chorus of critics who claim Facebook – along with other tech companies like Twitter, YouTube, and Google – has suppressed or censored religious speech and conservative values.
Jones pushed back on the charges of bias, insisting that her work with faith groups isn't new.
"Facebook is committed to communities of faith," she declared. "We work with leaders of influential churches around the world to help us better understand what are the products and tools that are needed to build community on our platform."
So, what's the genesis of this directional change?
Last summer, as the social media network reached 2 billion users worldwide, founder Mark Zuckerberg signaled a shift from simply connecting people to creating meaningful communities, noting how regular churchgoers are inspired by their pastors to volunteer or donate money to charitable causes.
Other Churches Joining the Social Media Universe
Zuckerberg's illustration of how churches bring people closer together isn't just an analogy to promote the idea of community. CBN News has learned Facebook is working directly with churches and other faith-based groups to help them build their own communities on the social media platform.
The more familiar ministries include Life.Church, Elevation Church, and The Potter's House. CBN News contacted all three ministries to confirm their relationship with Facebook.
"We really want to understand communities of faith and make sure the people that are working on this work understand them as well," Jones added, disclosing that her team also works closely Jewish and Muslim leaders among other groups.
Bishop Walker's vision for the church revolves around the theme of "Connect, Commit, and Change." Yet, his mission extends beyond creating meaningful, active community – both traditionally and online.
Ministering To Future Computer Programmers
He also wants to encourage young members of his church to consider studying computer science. That desire sparked another partnership with Facebook called TechPrep, where more than 50 kids traded their Saturday morning in exchange for learning about computer programming directly from one of the world's leading high-tech companies.
"Folks can be really scared of computer science," explained Maya Carter, who manages programs for Facebook's education partnerships. "Computer sciences can be in fashion, in music, in sports – it's all over the place. And that first introduction will really push kids through the challenging coursework they might have to do down the line."
Walker believes his ministry can send future programmers into the industry, much like missionaries, to help build technologies churches can use to evangelize as well as diversify the high-tech workforce.
"It's good knowing that the church was able to promote it and get us here," Leonard Shelton, a 17-year-old who attends Mt. Zion, said.
"I'm actually very glad that I did come," 16-year-old James Shaw offered. "I found out a lot here."
Walker understands not everyone will agree with his approach and anticipates opposition just like Facebook's recent criticism on Capitol Hill – ranging from privacy, to charges of being a monopoly to censorship. Walker believes he's following Jesus' teaching using 21st century tools.
"He called us to go into the whole world. The command was go, right?" Walker pressed. "Facebook has given us a platform. They've come alongside the faith community and said, 'Listen, what you're doing matters.'"
Supporters call it "digital discipleship" – a way to connect people beyond simply streaming videos and liking pictures and posts.
Walker believes allowing users who like Mt. Zion's Facebook page to engage directly with one another will further his goal of helping people grow in their faith – and in community.