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Under His Eye

How Evangelicals Use Digital Surveillance to Target the Unconverted

The hot new thing in proselytizing is an app that allows Christian conservatives to collect data on whole neighborhoods of potential converts.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Homes in a subdivision in McDonough, Georgia

The future of proselytizing—and surveillance—has arrived. An app called Bless Every Home, which has been backed by some of the biggest names in evangelical circles, is mapping the personal information of immigrants and non-Christians in a bid to conduct door-to-door religious conversions and “prayerwalking” rituals through their neighborhoods.  

The app boasts influential supporters, including the former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jim Henry, and controversial Christian data-harvesting firm Gloo. It puts a lot of features at the fingertips of the faithful, including the ability to filter whole neighborhoods by religion, ethnicity, “Hispanic country of origin,” “assimilation,” and whether there are children living in the household.

Naturally, the app also comes bundled with less attractive bells and whistles, including a range of serious privacy and data security concerns. Nevertheless, it highlights how a network of evangelists, determined to bring back the Lord to an America that has seen Christian beliefs and church attendance steadily receding, plans to reverse these trends—whether its targets like it or not.

Published by nonprofit missionary group Mapping Center for Evangelism and Church Growth, the Bless Every Home app describes itself in its own promotional video as a “harvest tool to reach souls for Christ.” Its core function is to produce neighborhood maps and detailed tables of data about people from non-Anglo-European backgrounds, drawn from commercial sources typically used by marketing and data-harvesting firms.

It’s all fairly innocuous on the surface, but training videos produced by users show the extent to which evangelical groups are using sophisticated ways to target non-Christian communities, with questionable safeguards around security and privacy.

One video obtained by The New Republic from missionary monitoring organization Beyneynu rates Houston suburbs with large Muslim populations as “shooting fish in a barrel” when it comes to evangelism. Kevin Greeson, Texas hub leader of Global Gates, a large missionary network and enthusiastic customer of Bless Every Home, explains the ways the app can be used. In one instance, he points to the sharable note-taking function and suggests leaving information for each household, such as “Daughter left for college” and “Mother is in the hospital.”

Asked by a trainee how to respond to concerns that people may have about the app during the training video, Greeson concedes that “this thing is so powerful—it’s an invasion of privacy.” He claims that there are 50 different sources of information that are used to provide the comprehensive dataset, which is all “public information.” This is a bit of a dodge: Much of the data that Greeson is talking about harvesting in this fashion is commercial information not generally available to the public. Moreover, the way he intends it to be used, which in this case would lead to missionaries essentially publishing online lists of information about targeted ethnic groups in specific locations, could conceivably be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Contacted by The New Republic about privacy and data security concerns, Greeson, who emphasized that Global Gates is a paying customer of the app and not responsible for its content, said that “data remains within the confidentiality of each Global Gates missionary.” Sharing with partnering churches, he added, means that “only … one or two people in the church” have access to it. Greeson added that Global Gates only uses the lists of houses with children for Vacation Bible School invitations, saying, “We always strive to protect privacy and especially the safety of children.” A privacy statement on the Bless Every Home website says that it does not “knowingly collect personal information from children under 13.” (Representatives for Bless Every Home did not respond to requests for comment.)

Whatever specific use they might have for the app notwithstanding, Bless Every Home customers are attracted by a marketing pitch that offers solutions designed to “support the Great Commission in America,” which includes receiving weekly updates about new people moving into their area.

The Great Commission is a widely used term in evangelical communities, derived from the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus urges his apostles to make “disciples of all nations.” Once the motivation behind foreign missionary efforts, these days it has been inverted to target multicultural, multifaith America.

The Mapping Center for Evangelism and Church Growth’s founder and president Chris Cooper suggests using the app to conduct neighborly activities such as putting on a barbecue for potential converts, but scattered throughout the app’s training and promotional videos are suggestions to undertake the controversial practice of “prayerwalking.” An idea becoming increasingly popular among Christian supremacist groups, prayerwalking involves believers flooding so-called “un-Christian” territories in order to combat “demonic strongholds.” In practice, it varies from blessing new neighbors to gathering groups to pray in front of everything from mosques to drag bars in service of “spiritual warfare.”

The practice is derived from a term that comes from Ephesians 6:12, describing a struggle that is “not against flesh and blood” but opposing “the powers of this dark world” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Far from obscure, spiritual warfare is possibly the most influential doctrine in evangelical circles today, encouraging true believers to put on the “full armor of God” and go into battle in their everyday lives.

To be clear, no one is demanding that their flock go out to storm a synagogue or shoot up a mosque. This brand of “warfare” instead calls on believers to wage “violent prayer” (persistently and aggressively channeling emotions of hatred and anger against Satan), engage in “spiritual mapping” (identifying areas where evil is at work, such as the darkness ruling over an abortion clinic, or the “spirit of greed” ruling over Las Vegas), and conduct prayerwalking (roaming the streets in groups, “praying on-site with insight”).

Prayerwalking is a relatively recent form of spiritual warfare, and the most widely used one, and its adherents would say that it is simply a peaceful form of intercession. But the practice developed a dark reputation in an incredibly short amount of time. It was, after all, a prayerwalk on January 5, 2021, that was cited by the January 6 report as one of two “critically important” rallies that “helped pave the way” for the violent events the following day. (Ironically, Kevin Greeson of the aforementioned training video shares his name with a man who died after a medical emergency during the January 6 riot at the Capitol.)

Following the prayerwalk, on January 6, there was a “Jericho march.” Arguably an outgrowth of the prayerwalking movement, Jericho marches are an idea taken from the Old Testament book of Joshua, where God instructed the Israelites to march around the city of Jericho seven times praying, singing, and blowing shofars. While this wasn’t the first march of its kind, they have since become a feature of right-wing protest movements across the world. Jericho marches have, so far, been used as a weapon of protest rather than evangelism, but the fact that this is their antecedent is troubling.

It doesn’t take a leap of faith to appreciate that Muslims, Hindus, and Jews might feel uncomfortable seeing a group of hard-core Christians prayerwalk past their house or place of worship, seeking to drive out demons and force heathens to see the light. Equally, newly arrived refugees might well find a knock on the door from strangers with knowledge of their personal circumstances distressing—and that’s before these surprise visitors even begin to attempt to convert them.

There are already hints that this ecosystem has moved beyond simple prayer. Global Gates, whose training video was the catalyst for this story, previously employed David and Rivka Costello, an evangelical couple who allegedly posed as Orthodox Jews to convert Jewish people to Christianity in the Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park (and now preach a form of Messianic Judaism that is not recognized by the major Jewish sects).

Another organization, the Unreached People Groups of North America, of which Global Gates is a partner, has searchable online databases that use the information available to Bless Every Home customers. Deploying scores of pages devoted to specific ethno-religious subgroups, such as “Bozniaks in Chicago” and “Bukharan Jews in New York,” it provides comprehensive breakdowns of demographics, places of worship, and even cafés that are frequented by the targeted communities. 

It’s not pleasant, but neither is it hard to imagine the aftermath of an incident of political violence, where an ethno-religious group in the United States is subject to a pogrom based on online lists. Dissidents from foreign regimes could rightly have cause for concern. But what’s being done, allegedly in God’s name, is already enough to make anyone feel squeamish. Bless Every Home and its many subscribers may be using commercial data with the best of intentions, but placing people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds on easy-to-access databases is a dangerous road to go down, no matter how urgently they want to spread the good news.