Survey: 1 in 4 churches neglect ministry potential of the Internet

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--One out of every four Protestant churches in the United States has virtually no involvement with the World Wide Web despite the emergence of the Internet as a leading communication medium in the 21st century, according to a new study conducted for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The study, which utilized a representative national sample of 871 Protestant church ministers, explored how churches use Web technology and found that 27 percent of all churches have no connectivity at all -- no staff e-mail, no website and no Internet connection.

Conducted by Ellison Research of Phoenix and published in the January/February issue of LifeWay’s Facts & Trends magazine, the survey revealed that 58 percent of all churches provide Internet access for their staff. Given that 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 website. The proportion with an active Internet site has not changed significantly over the past year, Ellison found.

Just 23 percent of Protestant churches use e-mail prayer chains, 18 percent have an e-mail church newsletter and 4 percent have an online member directory.

The proportion of churches making some use of the Internet is lower in the South, where just 65 percent of churches are connected, than it is in other parts of the country. The smallest churches, those with less than 100 in the congregation, are much less likely to use the Internet (60 percent) than are midsize (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, the study said.

Presbyterian churches, at 92 percent, are the major denominational group most likely to be using the Internet. Most other major denominational groups were about average, but Baptists from outside the Southern Baptist Convention, such as Progressive Baptists, Missionary Baptists and American Baptists, 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 website. Seventy percent provide a map and/or directions to the church, 65 percent provide a calendar of upcoming events, 60 percent post a statement of beliefs and 56 percent have pages for specific ministry departments, Ellison reported. In addition, half provide staff e-mail addresses on their site.

Forty-three percent of churches provide denominational information on their websites while 42 percent list staff biographies, 42 percent post special pages for youth, 38 percent carry a church newsletter online, 27 percent provide an electronic way to submit prayer requests and 25 percent give information about joining a small group.

Among content less likely to appear on a church website are Bible study material or helps, sermon transcripts, upcoming sermon titles or topics, sermons available in streaming audio, a bulletin board, forum or chat room, sermons in streaming video, testimonies and a way to donate online.

Larger churches are not only dramatically more likely to have a church website than are smaller churches, but their sites tend to be more sophisticated with far more content, the study said.

For example, 60 percent of large churches with a website 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 websites regardless of the size is denominational information.

Mainline and evangelical churches differ somewhat in their Web content. Mainline churches with a website 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 (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, said the 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 website, but they have much more content available for visitors to their sites,” Sellers said. “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.”

But 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 website 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 said. “Businesses of all sizes are learning how to incorporate the Internet into a broader communication and marketing strategy, using their website 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,” Sellers said. “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.”


More complete data, including denominational detail, is available at http://www.greymatterresearch.com/index_files/Church_Websites.htm.

Download Story