Research results being released for the first time in the January/February edition of Facts & Trends magazine show that one out of every four Protestant churches in the United States has virtually no involvement with the World Wide Web.
Facts & Trends is published bimonthly by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The study, conducted by Ellison Research (Phoenix, Ariz.), among a representative sample of 871 Protestant church ministers nationwide, explored how churches use Web technology. It shows 27 percent of all churches have no connectivity at all – no staff e-mail, no Web site, and no Internet connection.
While the research shows 58 percent of all churches provide Internet access for their staff, a similar study conducted in 2004 by Ellison Research showed 91 percent of all ministers have access to the Internet. The current study demonstrates that in many cases, ministers have personal access but not access through their church.
Only half of all churches provide staff with e-mail, and just under half maintain a Web site. The proportion with an active Internet site has not changed significantly over the past year.
Relatively few Protestant churches use e-mail prayer chains (23 percent), have an e-mail church newsletter (18 percent), or have an online member directory (4 percent).
The proportion of churches making some use of the Internet is lower in the South (65 percent) than it is in other parts of the country. The smallest churches (with fewer than 100 in the congregation) are much less likely to use the Internet (60 percent) than are mid-size (100 – 199 people – 86 percent) or larger churches (200 people or more – 96 percent). Churches led by older ministers are also much less likely to be connected than are those with a pastor under the age of 60.
Presbyterian churches are the major denominational group most likely to be using the Internet (92 percent). Most other major denominational groups were about average, but Baptists from outside the Southern Baptist Convention (such as Progressive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, American Baptist) are much less likely than others to make any use of the Web (54 percent). In general, mainline and evangelical churches do not differ much in church use of the Web.
The study also explored Web content among churches with active Internet sites. Only four types of content are provided by a majority of all Protestant churches with a Web site: a map and/or directions to the church (70 percent), a calendar of upcoming events (65 percent), a statement of beliefs (60 percent), and pages for specific ministry departments (56 percent). In addition, half provide staff e-mail addresses on their site.
Other types of information provided by a significant proportion of churches include denominational information (43 percent), staff biographies and/or backgrounds (42 percent), special pages for youth and/or teens (42 percent), a regular church newsletter (38 percent), a way to submit prayer requests online (27 percent), and information about joining a small group (25 percent).
Among content less likely to appear on a church Web site are Bible study material or helps (19 percent), sermon transcripts (16 percent), upcoming sermon titles or topics (14 percent), sermons available in streaming audio (13 percent), a bulletin board, forum, or chat room (12 percent), sermons in streaming video (4 percent), testimonies (4 percent), and a way to donate online (2 percent).
Larger churches are not only dramatically more likely to have a church Web site than are smaller churches, but their sites tend to be more sophisticated, with far more content. For example, 60 percent of large churches with a Web site provide special pages for youth or teens, compared to only 25 percent of small churches. Forty-five percent of large churches provide information about joining a small group, compared to just 8 percent of small churches. And 65 percent of large churches provide staff e-mail addresses, versus only 37 percent of small churches. About the only common type of content equally likely to appear on church Web sites regardless of the size is denominational information.
Mainline and evangelical churches differ somewhat in their Web content. Mainline churches with a Web site are more likely than evangelical congregations to have a regular church newsletter on their site (46 percent to 32 percent). But evangelical churches tend to have more content and more diversity on their sites, as they are more likely than mainline churches to provide a statement of beliefs (72 percent to 36 percent), special pages for youth/teens (48 percent to 34 percent), a way to submit prayer requests online (27 percent to 15 percent), Bible study materials or helps (26 percent to 10 percent), sermons in streaming audio (17 percent to 6 percent), and testimonies (7 percent to 1 percent).
Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, explained that this study confirmed the company’s previous research showing a growing technology gap between larger and smaller churches. “Not only are larger churches far more likely to have a Web site, but they have much more content available for visitors to their sites. Their sites are also much more interactive, with ways to contact staff, learn about upcoming events, watch streaming audio or video, and submit prayer requests,” Sellers said.
However, Sellers also noted that even large churches infrequently take advantage of the many ways the Internet can impact ministry and communication. “Even among larger congregations, only a minority have a Web site where visitors can interact with other visitors, get help studying the Bible, get involved in a small group, learn about the pastor’s background, or submit a prayer request,” Sellers stated.
“Businesses of all sizes are learning how to incorporate the Internet into a broader communication and marketing strategy, using their Web site to take orders, interact with customers, educate people, and promote the brand. Many church sites, on the other hand, are limited to static information, such as a map to the church and a statement of beliefs. Increasingly, churches need to determine whether they want to have an online site or an online ministry. Right now, most only have the former, if they have anything at all.”