The use of both websites and email by American congregations has more than doubled in the past decade. Nine out of ten congregations now use email and three out of four have a website or a Facebook page. Large majorities also use an electronic data base to track members and participants in activities, and some kind of projection technology in worship. Smaller, but significant numbers are using blogs, texting and social media.
"Adaptation to these new tools of ministry ... is no longer the luxury it was in the 1990s," writes Scott Thumma, author of a new research report and Professor of Sociology of Religion at Harford Seminary. "The use of technology is now a congregational necessity."
Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations is being released as part of the Faith Communities Today (FACT) series of survey reports. An online news conference is scheduled for March 13 which will provide opportunity for journalists to interview Dr. Thumma.
Almost all congregations among all religions have members who use Internet technology in their daily lives. Religious leaders who recognize this reality and use these technologies to minister to their people have a distinct advantage. For one thing, the Internet is a valuable tool that allows ministry to be widened despite fewer resources. The research also uncovered a number of reasons why new technology correlates with vital, growing faith communities.
Innovativeness: "The social context has changed. Congregations must change with this social shift in order to keep their presentation of faith relevant. Increased use of tech is strongly related to the congregation being characterized by willingness to change to meet new challenges. [It] also correlates to the likelihood that the congregation altered its worship style in the past 5 years as well as this worship being described as innovation."
Distinctiveness: "Congregations that have a distinctive vision, a clear sense of mission and purpose and those who are distinctive in the 'religious marketplace' have a natural advantage. Increased technology use enhances that distinctiveness."
Vitality: Local religious groups "with a greater use of technology ... are more likely to describe their worship as innovative, joyful, thought-provoking, and inspirational. [They] are also perceived as being more spiritually vital and alive."
Growth: There is a strong relationship between use of technology and the number of members who get involved in the recruitment of new members. Only 10 percent of congregations which report that none of their members are involved in recruitment make major use of technology, while half of congregations with a lot of their members involved in recruitment do so.
The report includes a section on "moving beyond the data" which focuses on how congregations can develop "an expanded and enhanced ministry." It also has an appendix with individual data from 27 faith groups and clusters of faiths.
This is the fifth in a series of reports from the monumental, decade-long research enterprise in which the major religions in America worked together. A copy of the 12-page report is available for download at the FACT website.