Why Religious Facebook Pages See More Engagement Than Bieber, Gaga, Obama

Six of the 20 most-engaged pages are religiously affiliated. Why?

(Right) Justin Bieber performs at the 40th Anniversary American Music Awards in Los Angeles Nov. 18. (Left) A Bible and a view.
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Each post on the page spawns thousands of likes, comments, and shares. Many of the page's followers will drop a simple "amen" into the comments section or sometimes respond to the quote directly. "We get a lot of 'Thank you so much for this, this is exactly what I needed, it helped me get through the day. How did you know I was feeling down?'" Downing says.

Aaron Tabor, the administrator for Jesus Daily, the most-engaged page on Facebook, launched it in 2009 when he noticed that, while there were a number of pages dedicated to the Bible, few were focused on solely Jesus and his words. "We're at 14.4 million fans now," he says. "It took about a year to reach a million fans. We saw a quite an exponential growth curve, especially in April 2011 when the New York Times did an article about the page. When that hit, we got so much publicity everywhere that it led to really crazy growth where we got five million fans in a six month time period."

Why does Tabor think his page draws higher engagement than those of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber? "That's something I've thought about often," he says. "I think we as humans crave to believe in something. And the entertainers entertain us, but they don't fulfill our basic craving and desire to have something that we can believe in. So when you look at Jesus, he offers help, protection, and eternal life. That's a lot more powerful than what a politician or an entertainer can offer us. So people are drawn to that."

He also points out that Jesus is a universally well-regarded figure, even for those who are not Christians, and his timeless appeal supersedes the wildly-fluctuating whims of modern pop culture.

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With the rise of the Jesus Daily page came an explosion of correspondence; Tabor receives upwards of 40,000 messages a month from users soliciting specific prayers and spiritual aid. The challenge now facing him is developing a method of addressing this overwhelming response. In just the past few weeks he's traveled everywhere from Iowa to Atlanta, visiting church communities to raise money and recruit potential staff who will then be paid to correspond and pray with these users.

Of course, as with any large internet company with millions of users, Jesus Daily has attracted its fair number of trolls. "They're harassing people," Tabor says. "I saw someone go in there and say, 'Please pray for me, I have stage IV breast cancer and was given four more months to live from my doctor,' and people will go in there and harass that woman for asking for emotional and spiritual comfort." Thus far, he's had to rely predominantly on Facebook's algorithm for weeding much of the abusive content out. "Facebook does the best job possible to help us eliminate those antagonists," he says, but it can still be difficult to police. A Facebook spokesperson said the company would not comment on the story.

Perhaps one reason for the dominance of religious Facebook pages has to do with the fact that, for the most part, they have nothing to sell. They're not touting a brand or a product, and this non-transactional relationship they have with their users likely provides authenticity. No matter how much Lady Gaga may love her fans, they serve as mainly as a vehicle to a paycheck. Jesus was known for a lot of things, but being a hearty capitalist certainly wasn't one of them.

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  • Simon Owens is an assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. He can be reached at sowens@usnews.com.