That Americans have embraced the Internet is no longer news. Several polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that 73 percent of Americans use the Internet, and 60 percent of those have high-speed connections.
Members of churches of most traditions parallel the general public in their embrace of technology. As for pastors, the figure is even higher — 80 to 90 percent use the Internet, according to some surveys.
Congregations eager to woo people with little or no church background will naturally take advantage of the latest communication tools. Indeed, some have gone a step further. One Internet-only church started a few years ago attracts 750 people to its online messages each weekend.
“Any way that technology can help us accomplish the goal of reaching people for Christ and of leading them to complete devotion to Him, we will implement it,” said the Rev. Brandon Donaldson, the Internet Campus pastor for LifeChurch.tv, a very large church that began in Oklahoma City 10 years ago and now has 10 campuses in five states and one Internet-only church location.
And while most congregations are unlikely to create cyberchurch spinoffs, the latest technologies offer new avenues for communication among people already dedicated to church but saddled with hectic schedules and multiple demands on their time. At larger churches where people occasionally miss Sunday services or may not have time to connect with others, pastors are increasingly posting sermons online or taking advantage of the blog to keep members connected and involved.
“In a church our size, it’s impossible for me to know all our members personally, so blogging helps me stay connected to with them and their friends,” said Matt Fry, pastor of Cleveland Community Church, which draws 2,300 people to weekend services in Clayton, NC, a suburb of Raleigh. “It allows them to know what I’m thinking and what I’m doing. We have hundreds of downloads every month.”
According to the new report “FACTs on Growth” from the 2005 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey, written by Episcopal researcher Kirk Hadaway, creating a church website is one of the most effective means of spurring church growth. The FACT report shows that a website alone won’t drive church growth, but an active website supported by an online community will make a huge difference.
Commenting on these findings Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology at Hartford Seminary, suggested that newcomers are particularly drawn to churches that present an outward-looking, nontraditional, future-oriented image. “At a time when church attendance seems to have an increasingly difficult time fitting into busy people’s schedules, perhaps the road of technologically-enhanced faith will indeed be the salvation of church life,” said Thumma.
The FACT data comes from a survey of 884 randomly sampled U.S. congregations of all faith traditions. The survey examined methods that lead to growth, such as changing the style of worship, inviting non members to special events, and others. Among those methods, the strongest correlation to church growth was establishing a website.
Church websites are also useful in projecting a sophisticated image to the outside world. For starters, it allows visitors to form a first impression before visiting. Pastor Matt Fry said 25 percent of the people who visit his church checked out the church’s website before attending, for example.
One potential drawback is that 25 to 30 percent of church members don’t use Internet technology and may feel left out. But there’s no denying that e-mails and listservs have greatly enhanced communication among church members that are comfortable with the technology. They allow people to send out prayers for someone who is sick, or notify small group members of changes in meeting times. Newsletters, announcements, committee reports — even bulletins — can also be posted more cheaply online.
Of course, websites may not be the magic bullet for small, rural churches. But FACT data show the larger the church, the more common it is to have a website. Only 40 percent of churches with 150 people or less have a website, compared to 73 percent of churches with more than 150 people in attendance. Likewise, suburban churches are twice as likely to have websites as rural churches, the FACT data show.
That lay people are faster to use latest technology than church administrators came to light last June when Southern Baptists elected an upstart candidate as president of the 16 million-member denomination largely on the strength of a few blogs. These blogs, and the pastors who wrote them, disapproved of the endorsed candidate, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, and instead threw their support to Rev. Frank Page, who was then elected.
To sociologists of religion, it makes perfect sense that adapting the latest technology will bring growth. A church that’s willing to change and adapt to people’s new lifestyles is poised to grow. “It’s part and parcel of contemporary American culture,” said Thumma. “Technology in the church offers a flexibility and responsiveness to individual needs and desires.”
Insights into Religion, Resources and info from Insights into Religion for 01/07/2016