USA - A North Carolina diet doctor has come up with a formula to create the most highly engaged audience on Facebook in the world, far surpassing marketing efforts by celebrities and sports teams. He draws on the words of Jesus and posts them four or five times a day.
The doctor, Aaron Tabor, 41, grew up watching his father preach at churches in Alabama and North Carolina, and his Facebook creation is called the Jesus Daily. He started it in April 2009, he said, as a hobby shortly after he began using Facebook to market his diet book and online diet business that includes selling soy shakes, protein bars and supplements.
For the last three months, more people have “Liked,” commented and shared content on the Jesus Daily than on any other Facebook page, including Justin Bieber’s page, according to a weekly analysis by AllFacebook.com, an industry blog. “I wanted to provide people with encouragement,” said Dr. Tabor, who keeps his diet business on a separate Facebook page. “And I thought I would give it a news spin by calling it daily.”
Facebook and other social media tools have changed the way people communicate, work, find each other and fall in love. While it’s too early to say that social media have transformed the way people practice religion, the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year, according to company officials.
Over all, 31 percent of Facebook users in the United States list a religion in their profile, and 24 percent of users outside the United States do, Facebook says. More than 43 million people on Facebook are fans of at least one page categorized as religious.
Much of the conversation on social platforms is fostered by religious leaders, churches, synagogues and other religious institutions turning to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to attract followers and strengthen connections with members. What is new is that millions of people are also turning to Facebook pages, like the Jesus Daily, created by people unaffiliated with a religious leader or a specific house of worship. With 8.2 million fans, the Jesus Daily counted 3.4 million interactions last week, compared with about 630,000 interactions among Justin Bieber’s 35 million fans, the AllFacebook.com analysis shows. The Bible Facebook page, run by the United Bible Societies in Reading, England, has eight million fans and also beat Mr. Bieber with about a million interactions.
Amid pages for Lady Gaga, Texas Hold’em Poker and Manchester United, Joyce Meyer Ministries is in the top 20, along with another page devoted to Jesus Christ, and the Spanish-language page Dios Es Bueno, or God Is Great. And Facebook got its first Bible-themed game recently, the Journey of Moses.
But the increase in the number of people finding faith communities via social media platforms provokes the question of what constitutes religious experience and whether “friending” a church online is at all similar to worshiping at one.
Although Pope Benedict acknowledged in a recent statement that social networks offered “a great opportunity,” he warned Roman Catholics that “virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”
The Rev. Henry G. Brinton, senior pastor of the Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Va., who writes a blog and whose church uses Facebook, said that it was important for people to gather to “experience the physical sensation of water in Baptism, the chance to hold hands in a service of worship or greet one another in the passing of the peace.”
That’s not possible through online worship alone, he said. “I am not saying there isn’t value to the connections that get made through social networking. But they can never replace the importance of people being together physically in the service of worship.”
Perhaps the biggest opportunity for religious leaders and institutions is finding and keeping new members, according to the Rev. Kenneth Lillard, author of “Social Media and Ministry: Sharing the Gospel in the Digital Age.” He said Facebook and other social media tools, including Google Plus, YouTube and Twitter, represented the best chance for religious leaders to expand their congregations since the printing press helped Martin Luther usher in the Protestant Reformation.
“I am looking at social media doing the same thing for today’s church,” said Mr. Lillard, a Baptist minister from Maryland.
Since making a focused effort to use social media three years ago, Rabbi Laura Baum, of the Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, said the synagogue had reached thousands of people around the world and significantly expanded the number of people participating in Shabbat services on Friday evenings. They offer readings and services via live videos on Facebook, allowing Jews from all over the world to join in prayer and in conversation on Facebook, Twitter or Livestream.
“There are some people who will always prefer the in-person, face-to-face experience, who love being in a room with other Jews and smelling the freshly baked challah. And some people will prefer being online,” said Rabbi Baum, 31, who is one of the leaders of OurJewishCommunity.org. “There are those people who prefer to check out our tweets on their phone or listen to our podcast. I don’t think the use of technology needs to be for everybody. But we have found a community online. Many of them have never felt a connection to Judaism before.”
For some, the Jesus Daily has become a faith community online, where people share their troubles and provide and receive words of support. “Jesus Daily reminds me every day that I am not alone,” said Kristin Davis-Ford, a single mother and full-time student in Houston. “Every single prayer request I have posted has been answered,” she said, “and I know it is the power of God’s children, coming together and standing in agreement.”
Dr. Tabor, a medical researcher, drafts most of the posts himself, using some marketing techniques learned from his successful diet business, which he now pitches on QVC. He recently posted photographs of baby animals, asking people to name “God’s Little Helpers.” By noon, more than 147,000 people had “Liked” the post. And names for the baby animals were among the more than 7,000 comments, including this one from Steve Karimi, writing from Nakuru, the provincial capital of Kenya’s Rift Valley province: “I love Jesus Daily. Truly inspirational.”
Dr. Tabor is not sure what the future holds for the page, he said, mentioning an online television global ministry. For now, it is still his hobby.
“I want it to be about encouragement,” he said. “There are so many people battling cancer, fighting to keep their marriages together, struggling to restore relationships with their children,” he said. “There are people out of work, at the end of the line and I just want the Jesus Daily to be a central place where they find encouragement, no matter what battle they are fighting.”