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Two new studies describe use of technology in churches

As the number of technologically-savvy Americans grows, so does the number of technologically-savvy churches.

By George Barna

Protestant churches across the nation use various forms of emerging technology to influence people’s lives and enliven their church experience. But the pace of technology adoption seems to have slowed in the past two years as some churches focus on making the most of what they already have, and other churches attempt to get by without incorporating new tools into their ministry mix.

The new study explored the presence of eight technologies and applications in Protestant churches. Those tools included large screens used for showing video imagery, showing movie clips and other video segments during church events, sending e-mail blasts to all or portions of the congregation, operating a church Web site, offering a blog site or pages for interaction with church leaders, maintaining a page on behalf of the church on one or more social networking sites, providing podcasts and receiving programming and training via satellite dish.

Large screens and movie clips. Two-thirds of Protestant churches (65 percent) now have a large screen projection system in their church that they use for services and other events. However, that number is barely higher than the 62 percent identified in Barna’s 2005 study. At that time growth was still evident, given that only 39 percent of churches had such a system in 2000. Since 2000, there has been a 67 percent increase in the number of churches using big-screen systems, but only a 5 percent increase since 2005.

The presence of a large-screen system often correlates with a church’s size and theology. The smaller a church is, the less likely it is to use such tools. Among churches that average less than 100 adults each week, only half (53 percent) have such systems. The proportion balloons to 76 percent among churches that attract an average of 100 to 250 adults and nearly nine out of ten churches (88 percent) that draw more than 250 adults each week.

Similarly, only 43 percent of churches described by their pastor as possessing “liberal theology” have big screen capabilities, compared to 68 percent among the churches that say they are theologically conservative.

Most of the churches that have a big screen mounted in the church use it to show movie clips or other video segments. Overall, 57 percent of churches show movie clips or other video segments during their services and events. That represents 88 percent of the churches that have a big screen in place — up from 76 percent of the churches who had big screens in 2000, but a slight decrease from the 99 percent of churches with large screens who showed such materials in 2005.

The same pattern emerged regarding the use of movie clips and other video content, in which theologically liberal churches and small congregations were the least likely to use the screens to display such material.

Sending e-mail blasts. Sending e-mail blasts to large groups of people or to the entire church body is common to a majority of Protestant churches (56 percent). Surprisingly, however, the prevalence of this practice has not budged since 2005. Small congregations are less likely to send out such blasts (47 percent) than are churches with 100 or more adults attending during a typical week (66 percent).

Internet presence. The ways in which churches are reaching out to people over the Internet are expanding. Back in 2000, just one-third of Protestant churches (34 percent) had a church Web site. That exploded to 57 percent in 2005, and has inched upward since then to 62 percent. About half of the small churches (48 percent of those drawing less than 100 adults) have a church Web site, compared to three-quarters of the mid-sized churches (75 percent of congregations attracting 100 to 250 adults per week) and nine out of 10 larger churches (91 percent of churches with more than 250 adults).

One out of every four Protestant churches (26 percent) now has some presence on one or more social networking sites (such as MySpace). Again, church size was a factor in this with larger churches being more than twice as likely to have such a presence (20 percent versus 47 percent). Charismatic churches were notably more likely (38 percent) than either mainline or evangelical congregations to use such pages in their ministry efforts.

Podcasting has been adopted by one out of every six churches (16 percent). Again, larger churches stood out in their embrace of this communications tool, with half of the churches attracting more than 250 adults (47 percent) using podcast technology.

Blogging is also invading the ministry world. One-eighth of Protestant churches (13 percent) now have blog sites or pages through which people can interact with the thoughts posted by church leaders.

Satellite dishes. Satellite broadcasting is one technology that has not shown any discernible expansion in the past several years. In 2000, some seven percent of Protestant churches had a satellite dish for receiving programming and training. That number has remained virtually unchanged since then, registering eight percent in both 2005 and 2007.

Technology is here to stay

The incorporation of digital technologies into church-based ministry is an important frontier for churches to master.

The Internet has become one of the pivotal communications and community-building tools of our lifetime. Churches are well-advised to have an intelligent and foresighted Internet strategy in order to facilitate meaningful ministry.

We learned that small churches are less technology-friendly. Many small churches seem to believe that new tools for ministry are outside of their budget range or may not be significant for a church of their size. It may be, though, that such thinking contributes to the continued small size of some of those churches.

The fact that market penetration of digital technologies seems to top out around two-thirds of the market could easily change if the digital-resistant churches conceived ways of facilitating their vision through the deployment of such tools. What made these tools so appealing to larger churches in the first place is being able to further ministry goals by applying them.

Technology in American homes portends eventual reach into churches

When the Internet launched into public consciousness more than a decade ago, experts debated its usefulness and staying power. Now, few would argue that mobile devices and online technology have become deeply embedded in society. Millions of Americans have become dependent upon the new digital conveniences that provide them with entertainment, information, products and content. The impact of these technologies on interpersonal relationships — a domain often called social networking — has begun to rewire the way people meet, express themselves and stay connected.

Our study explored social networking as well as how Americans use digital technology to get the products, services and content they desire. The research identified the mainstream — as well as emerging — platforms and practices. Additionally, we examined how the Christian community engages with such technologies, including the use of church podcasts.

Electronic communication. A cultural novelty merely 15 years ago, e-mail has become an essential part of culture and commerce. Currently, nearly four out of five Americans (78 percent) who access a computer have sent an e-mail in the past week. As proof of its mainstream status, computer users over the age of 50 are just as likely as younger adults to use e-mail.

By contrast, text messaging and instant messaging (IM) are used by smaller, though devoted segments of the population. One-third of computer users (33 percent) have used IM in the past week, while 30 percent of Americans have sent someone a text message via a mobile telephone. One of the reasons younger adults’ e-mail rates are merely “average” compared to older residents’ is the younger set’s heavy reliance on IM’ing and texting to stay connected.

Facebook, MySpace and the Blogosphere. The Internet helps individuals express themselves. Millions of Americans have taken advantage of this, launching personal Web sites and blogs (short for weblogs). While these personal venues for self-expression have become a significant feature of the online landscape, most Americans remain on the digital sidelines: just one-quarter of computer users (23 percent) has a personal webpage or home page on a social networking site (such as Facebook or MySpace).

Even fewer adults have a personal blog where they communicate their ideas and experiences (10 percent of Americans with regular access to a computer). Interestingly, a higher proportion of computer users (14 percent) had posted a comment on another person’s blog in the last week.

Blogging has not reached the “tipping point” towards becoming a mainstream activity (an emerging technology is often thought to “tip” toward majority use when the penetration reaches 20 percent or more of the population). Still, there are an estimated 16 million American adults who use their blog as a pulpit to broadcast their voice to the world.  Blogs are most common among single adults, Northeast residents, homosexuals, those not registered to vote, atheists and agnostics.

One other insight related to blogs is the sheer devotion many bloggers find in the pursuit, rarely letting their online journals grow dark. More than seven out of ten people who have a blog update the online journal at least once a week.

Finding information, content and entertainment.
Not surprisingly, the promise of the Internet — instant access to ubiquitous information — is not lost on Americans.  Searching for information or content is easily the most common online activity of the 15 assessed in the study. In all, more than eight out of 10 computer users had snapped up information via the Web in the last week (84 percent).

Online purchasing is a less common activity compared to online searching. Still, the Internet has become a viable and widely-used retail channel, tallying one-quarter of computer users (27 percent) who have completed an online purchase in the last week.

With more people than ever using high-speed connections, watching online videos has also become an important feature of the inter-connected digital world. Overall, one-quarter of computer users (26 percent) reported watching a video via the Internet in the last seven days. This was twice as common as downloading music in the past week (13 percent of users).

Two of the activities examined were rarely undertaken by Americans. As yet, downloading movies is still a limited activity among computer users (just two percent in the past week). Also, just four percent of adults admitted to viewing pornography or adult content in the last week.

The socially networked church. People within the Christian community are just as immersed in (and dependent upon) digital technologies and social networks as those outside of it. Both evangelical Christians and other born-again Christians emerged as statistically on par with national norms when it came to each of the 15 different areas that were studied. In other words, matters of faith played very little role in differentiating people’s technological habits.

One exception was access to spiritual content via podcasting, which not surprisingly found a more eager audience among Christians than non-Christians. The study found that 38 percent of evangelicals and 31 percent of other born-again Christians had listened to a sermon or church teaching via digital recordings available on the Internet (often called a podcast), compared with 17 percent of other adults. In macro-terms, an enormous audience of roughly 45 million Americans reports going digital to acquire church sermon and teaching content. In all, one out of every four adults — 23 percent — said they downloaded a church podcast in the past week.

The profile of people who had listened to sermon podcasts cut across generational lines, with older adults just as likely as young residents to listen. Residents in the South (31 percent) were twice as likely as those in the Northeast (14 percent) to access church podcasts. Similarly, Protestants (32 percent) were more intrigued by such content than were Catholics (18 percent) and the same held true for non-mainline attendees (38 percent) compared to mainline Protestants (16 percent). African-Americans (50 percent) were very loyal listeners, especially when contrasted with Asians (14 percent). Furthermore, those who are economically downscale (35 percent) were more likely to listen to church podcasts than were upscale adults (10 percent).

Church leaders have to strike the delicate balance between the spiritual and cultural potential of tech tools without surrendering to the false promise of these tools. Having the means of reaching the masses — for instance, through podcasting — is a good thing. Yet nothing matches the effectiveness of life-on-life discipleship. In this respect, social networking and blogs can be effective tools to intimately connect with a small, natural network of relationships. The key is using the technology in a way that is consistent with your calling and purpose, not just as an addictive self-indulgence.

There’s a need for a more intentional and broad discussion within the church about how technology shapes its users. One recent study we completed among teenagers showed that just nine percent of church-going teens had learned something helpful about technology in their church during the past year. As each new generation becomes increasingly immersed in technology, these discussions and choices cannot be left to chance. Control, image, relevance, immediacy, transparency, purity, truth, stewardship and escapism are some of the many issues that technology brings to the surface, not always with benign consequences.

On the positive side technology can empower and engage people, across generations, socio-economic segments and physical boundaries. Young people, for instance, think of themselves as creators of content, not merely consumers of it.  Technology gives them a voice and fuels their search for calling. Whether you welcome it or not, technology creates an entirely new sphere of influence and independence. The stewardship of technology as a force for good in culture is an important role for technologists, entrepreneurs, educators and Christian leaders.

George Barna is the founder of The Barna Group, Ventura, CA. [barna.org]

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