Venture capitalists bullish on religious apps

Religious apps are seeing not only a growing number of customers but also increased venture- capital funding, largely due to the dislocation and anxieties caused by the pandemic, reports Isaac Taylor in the Wall Street Journal (December 21). Startup founders and investors find that the apps are drawing more funding and customers from among those who were already religious to begin with rather than those who were not. Faith-based, for-profit apps drew $175.3 million in venture funding through mid-December of 2021, up from $48.5 million in 2020 and $6.1 million in 2016, according to figures from PitchBook Data. While the number of unaffiliated Americans continues to rise, surveys have also found that a third of Americans say their faith has become stronger since the pandemic. Because many people are found to engage with these apps on Sundays, analysts believe users are supplementing their faith rather than using the apps as replacements for religious involvement, writes Taylor. The most popular of these apps, such as the Catholic app Hallow and the more evangelical Glorify, help people build prayer habits as well as connect with fellow believers. The appeal of these apps has also been helped along by celebrity investors, such as Michael Bublé, James Corden, and Peter Thiel.

Connie Chan, a financial analyst, said that the ways these apps tap into a core part of people’s identity and build a sense of community explain why they have longer retention than other apps. She said the market for these apps is largely untapped, citing as an example the YouVersion Bible app that has logged more than 50 million downloads. Chan remarked that if this app were a for-profit company, “it would have been a unicorn [a private company worth over a million dollars] many times over.” She added that “Consumers have always been using these apps, but investors are starting to realize some for-profit companies are being formed that are delivering great experiences.” The for-profit nature of these apps is drawing criticism from religious leaders, who argue that making people pay for prayer functions violates the integrity of the faith. Some apps, such as Hallow, do have a free component, though the majority of the content is available through subscriptions. Taylor concludes that the interest in these apps is being driven not only by the pandemic but the country’s political divisions, which are making people tired and in need of spiritual rest and peace.