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Religion and the Internet

by Scott Thumma


Dr. Thumma was a guest speaker with Rev. Charles Henderson and Elena Larsen for this Communications Forum lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on April 18, 2002.  

Note: The handouts are provided within the text below in .pdf format.  You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download these files which can be downloaded for free from their website

An audio recording and summary of the discussion are available on the MIT website. 

At the outset of my presentation let me say that Only God knows what the future will be like for Religion on the Internet…. And there are times that I think even God is a bit baffled by it all.

Like my colleagues, I’ve been watching this phenomenon for quite a few years now, but from a slightly different perspective. As a Sociologist who studies congregational life and the social dynamics within churches, three facets of the Internet intrigue me in particular:

First, I am curious about whether Internet technologies are actually being used / being embraced by churches,

Second, in those congregations that truly become technologically sophisticated, how might this embrace affect the cultural, interpersonal and communications dynamics within those congregations and

Third, I am interested by the long-term effects of this reality – particularly as to whether churches will remake themselves, intentionally alter their identities, as they portray themselves to the public through their web sites.

Before I turn to the more speculative interests of mine, I want to share with you the findings from several data sets, which shed additional light on how religious groups are using the Internet.

The embrace of Internet technology by religious groups is still a nascent phenomenon. Some religious persons and groups have adopted it. However, the Internet has not gained the general widespread level of popularity that many assume within the most basic of religious organizations, the congregation.

Even as I say that -- Let me assure you, I am convinced that Internet technologies will, once churches embrace them, have radical implications for the organization, communication and religious patterns of the congregation.

But we are not there yet… it’s too new – we are still in the elementary phases of this revolution. 

In the winter of 2000 my students and I randomly surveyed 63 church web masters and found 21% of these sites were up 12 months or less, almost 50% were less than 2 years old, and only six of these sites (10%) existed prior to the Winter of 1996.

Religious organizations always lag behind other institutions when it comes to appropriating new technology. Religion is inherently a conservative institution, preserver of the past, the "old time religion." But that conservative institution is also being pushed very forcefully into the technological 21st century.

Handout 1 - Findings from various studies

In 1997/98 Hartford Institute for Religion Research, surveyed 550 congregations and just 11 percent of these reported they had web sites at that time, and a third of these were through the denominational site. A little later in 1998 the National Congregations Study research project of 1236 congregations found that now 18 percent of them had web sites. Two years after, in 2000, the Barna Research Group, in random survey of 604 Protestant Pastors, found 30 % of their churches had web sites. By mid 2001, the U.S. Congregations Project of 2000 congregations found that 43% percent had web sites. At this trajectory rate, in five years we may be up to nearly 90% of all churches having web sites…. Where all this will end, as I said before… God only knows.

Yet in this enormous rush to post a web site, there is a stark socio-economic reality lurking behind these figures. This expansion is still predominantly (though not exclusively) a phenomenon of the congregations with RESOURCES -- every one of the 150+ megachurches (huge 2000+ weekly attender churches) I recently surveyed had a web site, and multiple dynamic functional uses of their sites.

But judging by the National Congregations Study data of 1998 (and even Barna’s 2000 study) - there is evidence that a congregation is much more likely to have a web site or use email to communicate with members if that church is large and wealthy, have a pastor who is better educated, and be part of a mainline liberal Christian group or a non-Christian group.

Handout 2 - National Congregations Study data

Combining this information with the fact that 50% of churches have less than 100 attenders suggests that many of these small, resource poor churches will not likely jump on the web very quickly. And if they do, the majority of web sites they produce may leave much to be desired.

As one who has surfed to 1000’s of church sites and also does web reviews of some of the best of these for our Institute site – let me tell you there are relatively few quality church sites.

Basically, most ordinary congregations are not at the point where Internet technologies have made that radical of an alteration to their internal, interpersonal functioning as a congregation… YET ….

But that day is close at hand. When we evaluate how far have congregations have come in the past 5 years, the next five years are certain to be interesting.

Given this assumption, and at this early stage of the phenomenon, there are already a number of indications of how the cultural, interpersonal and social dynamics within a congregation might be changed by a wholehearted embrace of technological sophistication. These thoughts are partially speculative – since much of this complex dynamic could only be found out through an intense ethnographic study of such churches – and this has not yet taken place to the best of my knowledge. Nevertheless there are clues to the possible positive and also potentially detrimental effects the Internet might have on dynamics within a congregation.

So although there are many issues related to religion and the Internet which I hope we get to in the question and answer period (view transcript of Q&A)– I want to focus specifically on three issues.

First, How might this technology might affect the dynamics within a local body of believers in a congregation?

Email communication from church leadership to wired members and communication between members is already taking place in many affluent, middle class, educated churches (maybe in a quarter of the 360,000 congregations if I had to guess – although General Social Survey data from 2000 showed that of those who receive personal email 13% got it from church members). It is quite common for churches to have regular weekly clergy email announcements or electronic versions of their newsletters, and some churches also have electronic prayer requests thru email, bulletin boards or listserves.

This, no doubt, enhances the lines of communication, but it also is mediated interaction and may take the place of the culture building member to member actions of communicating across the fence or over a cup of coffee or even gossiping on the phone. An electronic newsletter from the pastor is not the same as a visit and email gossip is nothing like verbal rumor mongering – email leaves a "paper trail"

A second possible technological implication has to do with power and identity. 

The creation of church web sites, which are seldom initiated, undertaken, or maintained by the minister, empowers a lay person, and often marginal techie," to take a very active role in the church. Likewise, maintenance of the web site puts this significant public relations tool in the hands of an "ordinary member" rather than one of the power players.

On the other hand, embrace of the Internet as a primary mode of communication in a church can create a two-class system within the membership – since even in the most wired churches a large percentage (as much as 30-40 percent of members) may not be online. It is these excluded members who may already be the most marginalized such as the older members, the less affluent, or the less educated.

Handout 3 - PCUSA and US Congregations Study

Perhaps the most significant implication of a wired reality for a church is its public presentation.

Posting sermons, newsletters, bulletins, and prayer requests on web sites or email lists "uncovers" and "exposes" the inner workings of a congregation to outside observation. 

Positively, these technologies open up the organization and make its moral, educational, spiritual resources more available – potentially spreading its influence to the world.

But this exposure to an external world carries with it potential difficulties for the congregation’s dynamics, such as:

  • Church leaders may begin to receive email requests for pastoral aid, advice, or information that can diminish one’s time for congregational duties.

  • Tangible, physical membership boundaries are blurred as an electronic "participant" can listen to a sermon, read the newsletter, and even communicate with staff and members without filling a pew on Sunday morning.

  • Likewise, as numerous interim ministers (who fill in after one pastor leaves and before another is chosen) have complained to me --  because of the Internet the former pastor never really leaves a church’s leadership dynamics. Members can remain connected to the old pastor, reading his or her sermons posted to the web and chatting thru email or IM. The new minister must compete with the cache of the former leader.

  • Additionally, an Internet savvy membership can also raise new questions, worship practices and theologies gathered from the four corners of the web that are completely foreign to a congregation.

Finally, and most importantly, although posting a congregation’s interpersonal communications to a web site does make it more available it also has the potential to blur the divide between a private and public organizational reality. The act of making something publicly accessible alters its reality.

Just as TV cameras radically altered the behavior and demeanor of televangelists and their churches, so too does the potential exist for the web and Internet technologies to reshape the character and identity of a congregation.

It is an accepted fact that individuals often either intentionally or unconsciously alter their online persona, whether height and weight, or even gender as they chat and interact in cyber space.

Is it that much of a stretch to assume that an organization won’t also adopt a persona online – fabricate a digital identity – which then acts back upon the organization and alters its identity and even functioning by having to live up to an html image it created?

I don’t know if this or my other speculations will be long-term effects of a congregation which fully embraces Internet modes of communication and interaction, but it is an issue that I intend to explore over the next several years. 

Perhaps in five years time, God won’t be the only one who knows what the future holds for congregations and the Internet.





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