I listened in on a webinar last week that stemmed from the information in a study on American congregations from 2010, conducted by Faith Communities Today. The original study surveyed over 28,000 congregations between the years 2000 and 2010. The webinar I took part in was designed to release and report a sister study titled Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations. This report pulls from the information gathered in the Faith Communities Today study to identify trends in technology use in American congregations.
My question, having read and listened to the report, is when will we catch up?
As of 2010, the percentage of churches that had no web or Facebook presence was 24%. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too shocked by this number. Considering how only an estimated 78% of the North American population uses the internet, maybe it should be expected that roughly the same amount, 76% of American congregations, have an internet presence. But then I have to ask, who is using the internet? The population of North America is roughly 350 million. As of 2011, it was estimated that about 272 million were using the internet. I may be wrong in this assumption, but my guess is that the majority of ‘non-internet users’ are either infants or elders. The percentage of the population under 15 years old is roughly 19%; the percentage over 65 is roughly 13%. (I realize that children, especially going into their teenage years, are on the internet quite a bit; however, statistically speaking, this gives us a good estimate for comparing usage vs. necessity of usage.) If we only consider the percentage of 16 – 64 year olds who are using the internet, the age range with whom most churches try to connect, the percentage of this population who are online definitely increase from the overall population estimation of 78%.
Why Do These Numbers Matter?
In the Church today, there is an abundance of elder members. While some denominational, or non-denominational, subsets are succeeding in reaching a younger population, the majority of churches are still struggling to slow down the aging process. The average age of most denominational congregational leaders is over 50. This has increased in recent years as the Church has struggled to educate and ordain younger clergy. In much the same fashion, the average age of congregational members has seen the same increase in average age.
The Virtually Religious study found that the age structure of the congregation affects the use of technology in the Church. The study found that increased use of technology was limited if the congregation was older, the lead pastor was older, or if the church had been in existence longer.
So Which Came First, Technology Use or a Younger Congregation?
The study does report that between 2005 and 2010, 31% of churches with a high level of technology usage grew their attendance over 10%. However, out of the same subset of heavy technology using churches, 25% declined in attendance at a level greater than 10%. The report claims that the reason for decline was because of conflict in the church that could not be controlled. Some of this conflict was due to a clear attempt to change the culture of the church, which often stemmed from the implementation of technology into worship and other aspects of church life. While technology in these churches may have been a catalyst for conflict, in churches where the congregation did not oppose technology use, technology was a clear stimulus for church growth.
In attempting to use technology to create a ‘younger congregation,’ there is the necessity of using technology appropriately and with the permission of the congregation. Increased use of technology implies change in the church. The study found that churches that are not open to change have a significantly reduced level of technology usage. Yet, in over 41% of churches with a high level of openness to change, the congregation had a high level of technology usage. To use technology well, American congregations must first be willing to change the culture within the church to adapt to the changing culture in our surrounding communities.
And this leads to the consideration of having an internet presence. It is clear that the culture of America has changed, and is continuing to change. The percentage of internet users in North America has increased over 150% in the past 10 years. The percentage of churches with an internet presence has also increased, but not nearly as quickly as the overall population. The study seems to make clear the idea that if a congregation wants to decrease the age of their population, engaging in the use of technology is imperative. Considering the extremely high percentage of younger adults who use the internet, how many churches are missing out on a chance to reach these younger generations by not having an internet presence? (Perhaps the full 24% who have yet to create an internet presence.)
Riddle Me This?
As we are well into the 21st Century now, I have to ask – When will the Church catch up?
When will the Church embrace the necessity of change? When will we give up on ‘doing things the way we’ve always done them,’ and embrace the use technology in ways that do not detract from worship or from the community of the Church? When will we learn to use technology to enhance the life of the faith community?
In so asking, I also wonder, when will those churches who are succeeding in using technology to grow disciples and their faith communities start teaching others how to use technology in faithful and applicable ways?