I remember several years ago when speaking with Jehovah’s Witnesses, how important it was to them that their church encouraged congregants to avoid the internet. The JW attitude is, as it was explained to me, that the internet cannot be trusted—too many temptations. In a sense, they asked members to avoid apps and sites that could lead members astray.
Of course, this is easier said than done. A member could pledge or promise to avoid certain websites or apps, but there was no guarantee that their promises would be honored. Congregants may have had curiosities but could also develop skepticism about the Elders of their church and the questions they have. And what if congregants have questions about sexuality? Or maybe a member struggled with viewing porn? These are not topics of conversation that congregants are comfortable discussing with Elders. Besides, it’s not like churches can track what members are looking at anyway. What’s a little white lie?
Fast forward to the present day, app developers have considered the ease of white lies and created programs that could help churches better encourage their congregants to avoid dangerous and perverse websites. Surveillance apps are on the rise. Not only can parents monitor every stroke and text their child engages with on their smartphones, but churches can now monitor their congregant’s engagements to protect them from “sin.”
Often marketed as anti-pornography software, Covenant Eyes is an accountability app that can be installed on your smart device that monitors your internet and app interactions. A program that Gracepoint Southern Baptist Church employed for its congregants. This app takes screenshots of your active app, sending images back to a database. It records the websites you visit, and your purchases through Amazon, and can distinguish between pornographic and non-pornographic images. The app can flag particular websites that utilize the words “gay”, “lesbian” or “LGBTQ…” in the URL and search engines. And all this information is logged and sent off to a collection agency that can disburse the data to church heads who have contracted the use of the app.
The intention of such apps, Accountable2You, Covenant Eyes, and others; is to encourage personal accountability, or at least that’s how it is marketed. Churches, however, have used the apps for more than simply holding congregants accountable. In one instance, Gracepoint Southern Baptist Church used the data from the app service to shame congregants for their internet activity. For others, the app acquired all the evidence necessary to justify canceling memberships and removing congregants from the church community.
Some call these apps invasive, “Spyware” that can be used similarly to NetNanny or Bark. One anonymous user from Gracepoint stated, “I wouldn’t call it spyware. It’s more like ‘shameware,’ and it’s just another way the church controls you.”
Fortify is another app utilized by the Christian church community. It “describes itself as an addiction recovery app” and, “asks its users to log information about when they last masturbated.” Perhaps this app seems helpful for those who have been convinced that masturbation is a sin. But this program is utilized by children. Why does a church want to obtain personal record logs of children masturbating? The information obtained can also be shared with trusted third-party analytic and advertising services.
While many Christian church institutions only have “pure intentions” in leading congregants away from perverse temptations of sexual exploitation; “shameware” apps that track, and archive users’ activity are being weaponized against trusting members who put their faith in church leaders. Is this the way of Jesus? Or is this just another way in which churches can institute new forms of neighborly spying to keep their clubs exclusive?
It must be stated, shame and ridicule are hardly useful tools for minimization or eradication of pornographic use. In fact, ridicule and shame can increase use. It can perpetuate anxiety and depression, and shame, as we see prevalent everywhere, can also exacerbate suicidal ideation.
Shame tactics do not stop the underlying trauma that leads to pornographic use in the first place. Identifying porn use as addiction itself is dangerous to any healing process. The unnecessary heaping of shame contributes to disconnection from church communities, especially in cases like Gracepoint, wherein the users of apps were subjected to humiliation and ridicule from church leaders.
If the Christian church is set on helping congregants avoid sexual exploitation, it seems to me the first and foremost basic device to employ would be that of a conversation. Church leadership has consistently struggled with inviting congregants into conversations. The doctrine seems to dictate that parishioners have no place to speak on any topic set before the church, as expert evangelical insight is required for such difficult but common topics of discussion. This only creates a division within church communities, wherein only those elected by the church can address issues facing the community.
I have no desire to help save the church institution. But I do have a desire to encourage conversation. Spyware or shameware apps, while designed to help curb inappropriate behavior and reduce sexual exploitation, do more harm than good to their users. No one feels good about having to install a surveillance app on their phone at the request of their church. And while one may suggest that the users have a choice, consider the optics of this request. Consider how many choices you would feel you have if your church leader asked you to put a surveillance app on your device. If you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right? But is granting access to every swipe and click on your phone the way to build trust or maintain accountability?