Billions of Christians around the world are in the midst of Holy Week observances in the run-up to Easter. Many of these rituals have been in place for centuries.
But how does an ancient faith adapt to the age of the internet, social networks, and smartphones?
So far, the answer is “slowly.”
But a pair of New Hampshire entrepreneurs hope they can speed up the process.
It’s fitting that the idea for a prayer-based social network came to Jamie Coughlin and his brother Adam while they were parked on a pew at Mass.
“We’re basically sitting in church, and saying, ‘I wish I could give electronically to my church. I pay everything else online, all my bills, all my other charitable things, but there’s no easy way for me to kind of give to my church," Jamie Coughlin says. "And so we built it!”
He says online bill-pay for the collection plate makes a lot of sense in the 21st century. But it’s also not surprising that no one else had really thought of it on this scale before.
“I think much of the faith-based world is kind of non-innovative. Non-, necessarily...tech-savvy. And when you kind of go to different faith-based group websites, you kind of see that," Coughlin says.
The Coughlin’s idea eventually morphed into a social network called PlusGrace. Users create a free profile and start prayer campaigns that others can comment on and share. But it’s important to remember the Coughlin brothers are also entrepreneurs. This is a for-profit venture. So they came up with a way to earn money for themselves and faith-based groups. They allow organizations to fundraise on the site, and charge a two-to-five percent transaction fee on donations.
“But in order to make the giving process less about just the transaction, we decided that we should bring to this that spirit and that belief in prayer," Coughlin says. "And there was nothing on God’s green earth that combined the two!”
It’s the prayer part that’s really resonated. The site targets anyone, of any faith, who wants to pray. And on the PlusGrace homepage, there are prayers for the Pope. More heart-wrenching pleas like a campaign for a baby born with spina bifida. And then there’s lighter fare, like prayers for NFL quarterback Tim Tebow.
Erik Goldschmidt heads the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. He says Christianity has survived because it’s been savvy at using whatever communication technology was available at the time. Letters in the early days, and later on the printing press, radio, and TV.
“And so it is absolutely critical that it engage in this form of technology to be part of that online community," Goldschmidt says. "If that’s where its people are spending time, and that’s where they’re looking for wisdom, or looking for relationships or connection, then the church is obligated to be there,”
But he says there’s a likely reason why there wasn’t a modern social network for prayer before the Coughlins built one.
“In our religious communities, the leaders tend to be older, more mature adults. And so often in non-profit organizations, it’s the younger adults that are driving the awareness and the appreciation of how technologies can enhance their mission," Goldschmidt says.
He says some churches are really good at drafting young people and plugging into the online world. Evangelical mega-churches, for example. Other groups that are more traditional, like the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, tend not to just think about it as much. The Pope didn’t have a Twitter account until a few years ago.
Take a Catholic prayer group at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Rochester. The sanctuary is filled with mostly middle-aged people and seniors. But this is a charismatic prayer group. It’s based on Pentecostal practice. So besides praying the rosary, there's also singing and freestyle prayer. Some people speak in tongues. This kind of gathering was cutting-edge for the Catholic Church about 40 years ago. Sixty-four year old Jackie Morganti is one of the group leaders.
So what is her group's relationship with technology?
"Not very much technology," she says with a light chuckle. "I mean, most of us have a computer. But to say we’re savvy at all…uh-uh.”
Most of the group just likes to do things the old-fashioned way. Highlight your Bible, and show up for church. Still, Morganti says it’s important to engage young people online. But there has to be a balance.
“If you wanted a rich prayer life, that couldn’t be your only kind of prayer and worship. You know, being with the community is what we all need," Morganti says.
But for some young people who aren’t active church-goers, a website might offer the most practical path to prayer. Take Amanda Murtha. She’s 23 years old, and heard about PlusGrace from Adam Coughlin. So Murtha started a prayer campaign for her friend Alex. He was in a bad car accident in January. And he’s been comatose ever since.
“I’m not a religious person, but I love this site, because it’s just…all these other people that have never even met my friend that are now getting those positive thoughts out there and just thinking of him," Murtha says. "And it’s really inspiring, actually.”
PlusGrace is still really new. It only launched about a month and a half ago. It has several hundred users, all over the world, but most are concentrated in New England.
So if PlusGrace wants to become Facebook for the prayerful, it’s still going to have some mountains to move.