But now, pastors, priests, pandits and rabbis are forced to perform their services to empty halls and embrace technology. Apps and screens that were once viewed as distractions are now tools for growing the flock. And as states squabble about how many people can occupy a pew or whether services can be held at all, pastors are Zooming from their kitchen counters. The tiny handful of venture-capital-backed start-ups that were building religious technology are seeing growing interest in their products, too.
Consider Pray.com, a Christian prayer app known for daily devotions and bedtime Bible stories. The three-year-old company based in Los Angeles had its highest growth months in March and April, doubling its monthly revenues. The founder and chief executive, Steve Gatena, has long said that just as every aspect of American life is going digital, so will spiritual life. “Religion is becoming a single-player experience, and I’ve never been one to be bound by church pews or service times. Just because I don’t always want to go to church doesn’t mean I don’t want to honor God.”
Hallow, a Catholic-aimed prayer and meditation app that is in what the Valley calls the seed stage of early investment, puts the parable’s ever-growing mustard seed to shame; it saw a 100 percent increase in weekly downloads in March and April, and a 2,000 percent jump in users praying on the app after Pope Francis called for a global rosary for covid-19 victims.
Another Christian meditation app, Abide, based in San Mateo, Calif., saw similar growth during lockdown, particularly among people ages 20 to 40. “Easter was during covid-19, which is sort of like our Super Bowl Sunday,” said Neil Ahlsten, co-founder and chief executive of the company. “But we’ve never seen this high of usage at Easter, and we haven’t come down from our Easter high yet in terms of engagement.”
There is, of course, a great deal of searching underway. Google Trends tells us that in the month of March, searches for the word “prayer” soared. In fact, according to Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Copenhagen, Internet searches for “prayer” across 75 countries doubled in March for every 80,000 new registered cases of covid-19.
Increases in religion technology during a global pandemic don’t necessarily mean the trend will stick. As the virus grew exponentially, so did other “quarantine categories” of grocery delivery, virtual events and telemedicine companies — seemingly tailor-made for people cloistered in their homes. Add to that the West’s general sloughing off of organized religion; in pre-pandemic America, “nones” were the fastest-growing religious category, signaling that while religion is on the rise globally, affiliation in the West is declining.
But while investors caution many habits will revert to the norm after this crisis ends, some beliefs and practices stick long after the trauma that triggered them. The collective sacrifice of the country, coupled with our months-long look inward and the loss of loved ones at a mass scale, could lead to greater religious sentiment — the sentiment the few existing start-ups are already starting to see.
Even with the aid of new apps, these modern religious encounters are still in some ways solitary. No matter how sleek the user experience, it can’t put people in the same room to give the sign of peace. But perhaps technology fits neatly into many faiths’ rich tradition of suffering in solitary prayer, echoing the saints and prophets in all sects whose religious awakenings took place in literal and figurative deserts. The early Christian churches flourished in a state of quasi-togetherness with only Paul’s letters to guide them. Imagine if the Corinthians had had an app for that.
Millennia of history show that the model works, and at last, a holy trinity is in place: isolated people hungry for attachment, religions desperate for growth in an online world, and technology investors searching for the consumer niches yet to digitize. Eventually, religious institutions will have to reckon with whether digitizing leads to a more solitary faith forever or increased interest in the IRL community from which it sprang. But for now, they don’t have much of an option. For now, the question is whether Silicon Valley becomes a convert.
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