by Scott Thumma, PhD, Director, Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Co-Chair, Faith Communities Today
Much of the world has changed in the past five years. The short of it is – so too has there been significant advancement in technology use by congregations since 2010. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the dramatic changes technologically and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and social media in society and American culture.
The similarities and the radical shifts
The use of email is near the saturation point at 91% of congregations – and 5 years ago it was 90%.
The percentage of congregations having websites went from 69%, which was a 7 point drop from 2008, to 79% in 2010 up 10 points in those five years. However, this is now back to what it was in first decade of the 2000’s.
The use of any visual projection in worship services has held steady at 2/3rds of congregations (69%), but the 2015 survey shows a slight increase in those using projection “often or always” – mostly among Evangelicals where the use in worship is up 12 percentage points.
These few findings are where the similarities with the 2010 survey ends.
Three changes are particularly dramatic:
- The use of Facebook generally is up from 40% of congregations to three-quarters of them in five years (75%).
- Likewise, texting is being used by roughly a similar percentage of faith communities (76%).
- Having wifi in the religious building and available for services has also reached nearly the three-quarters mark at 71%.
Additionally, most other technology available to faith communities has risen since 2010. Nearly half of congregations (48%) have an automated phone system. About a third of congregations have online giving. Those not using this technology seem to be paying a price. Analysis showed that if a congregation made online giving available to its members, per capita giving increased by $114 per person over those communities without online giving. Even more revealing, if a congregation both had online giving and emphasized the practice of giving online, the per capita giving rose nearly $300 per person over communities without online giving. Clearly this is a technological practice that would directly benefit every congregation to incorporate into its organization and giving practice.
As can be seen in the graphic below, a number of other technological practices have been adopted by roughly one in five congregations. These include Skype/virtual meetings (22%), Twitter (22%), streaming services (19%), other social media (18%), and blogging (17%).
From these increases, one might assume that significantly more congregations are now technologically savvy. This does not seem to be the case, however. From the survey data, it seems that though its presence in congregations is rising, the accurate description of the use of technology by congregations is that it is available but neither overly robust nor effectively used by a majority of America’s congregations. There is a bit of a spectrum of use by congregations, with just 4% reporting no use of any Internet technology. On the other hand, 55% of congregations claimed to have a combination of 6 or more tech tools at any level use. At the same time, only 40% of congregations say they use any of these technological tools often or a lot. Of course, these most often used tools were the web, email, Facebook, wifi and texting (37%). The rest of these technologies are being used, but not very robustly or by very many congregations, or apparently highly effectively, as the graphic shows.
To look at the effects of having and using this technology in a congregation, two scales were created, one based on the number of technologies available and another accounting for the level of actual use of these tools. The patterns between the two scales were quite similar, but not surprisingly the “actual use” scale was a stronger predictor for most items. These scales were subdivided into thirds and the top third labeled as “high tech” for the largest number of tools available or “high tech use” for the greater actual use of these tools in the following graphics.
Ideally, employing a higher level of technology in a congregation should strongly correlate to a congregation’s assessment of themselves using them more effectively. This is the case, but even among those congregations with the highest amount of tech use, over a third of them do not strongly agree they are doing it effectively as the graphic below indicates.
The type of congregation most likely to indicate they have a higher tech use is remarkably similar to the pattern 5 years ago. Basically, it boils down to the larger the congregation (especially over 100 average attendees), the greater the level of robust use of technology. It also helps to have a younger membership.
Congregations who are significantly more likely to be serious technology users are:
- Have higher budgets
- Are located anywhere but rural areas
- Use contemporary worship
- Are more likely to use projection screens in worship
- Are younger congregations with younger members. There is some positive correlation to 18-34 year olds, but robust technological use is more related to having a sizable percentage of the 35-49 age group.
- Not surprisingly, the more 50-64 yearr olds, and especially those congregations with a high percentage of over 65 years, are most likely to have a strong negative relationship to tech use.
- Finally, if a congregation is under 100 attenders, it is much less likely to employ high tech.
Not surprisingly, having a membership of technology users increases the level of the congregation’s use of tech. Almost half of congregations say that “many” of their members are daily tech users, but only 27% say “most or all” members fall into the category of daily user. In either case, being filled with members who are technologically adept makes it more likely that the congregation is also a high user of the technology.
Fifty percent of congregations say their religious leader is a very frequent tech user while roughly 25% claim they are infrequent or a nonuser. Having a clergy person who is a very frequent user makes a significant difference in the congregation’s level of tech use as the graphic below suggests. A congregation’s embrace of technology and use of it increases if that faith community has a male leader (which is also correlated with being in a larger church) who is younger, and is a tech user himself.
As would be expected, significant tech use by a congregation is strongly correlated with a positive attitude toward the use of technology in ministry. 59% of religious leaders agree that “congregations must use technology as widely and as well as possible in today’s world.”
Theology is not related to robust tech use, as it was in 2010, except that Very Liberal congregations are Very Low tech users in 2015 – 72% are in the lowest tech use group. Tech use was not significantly different across major denominational families.
Similar to 5 years ago, there is a strong relationship between increased tech use and a host of positive congregational characteristics. Those congregations who say they are robust tech users are also significantly more likely to claim they are highly spiritually vital, be more willing to change to meet new challenges, be innovative, have a clear mission and purpose, and also claim to have the hope of a bright future.
Likewise, the more a congregation sees itself as making the necessary changes and adaptations to thrive into the future, the more likely it is to use technology at a significant level. This question about the future of the congregation is very interesting. Apparently, technology goes along with optimism about future viability even if the congregation is struggling at the present – or, not surprisingly, if they are presently thriving and intend to into the future.
Additionally, if a congregation has an intentional priority of reaching young adults it is more likely to also have higher tech use; however, having increased use of technology in a congregation is only slightly correlated to an actual increase of young adults coming over the past 3 years.
At this point in 2015, it appears that neither having a wide array of technological tools nor using them effectively guarantees numerical growth within congregations.
However, the use of technology does correlate strongly to a congregation who indicates it is spiritually vital. It is also true that increased use of technology significantly correlates to a great amount of reaching out to young adults and being optimistic about the future.
Based on these findings, it seems fair to say that a greater use of technology by congregations enhances their spiritual vitality and optimism about the future, thus making the possibility for growth more likely to happen. At the very least, the world we live in is saturated with technology. Therefore, it is incumbent upon congregations of all sizes to become fluent in this essential language of the 21st century.