Churches aren’t making full use of the power of the Internet

(Original release date:  January 6, 2006)  Research results being released for the first time in the January/February edition of Facts & Trends magazine show one out of every four Protestant churches in the United States has virtually no involvement with the World Wide Web.

The study, conducted by Ellison Research (Phoenix, Ariz.), among a representative sample of 871 Protestant church ministers nationwide, explored how churches use Web technology. It shows 27% of all churches have no connectivity at all – no staff e-mail, no Web site, and no Internet connection.

While the research shows 58% of all churches provide Internet access for their staff, a similar study conducted in 2004 by Ellison Research showed 91% 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 Web site.  The proportion with an active Internet site has not changed significantly over the past year. 

Relatively few Protestant churches use e-mail prayer chains (23%), have an e-mail church newsletter (18%), or have an online member directory (4%). 

The proportion of churches making some use of the Internet is lower in the South (65%) than it is in other parts of the country.  The smallest churches (with fewer than 100 in the congregation) are much less likely to use the Internet (60%) than are mid-size (100 – 199 people – 86%) or larger churches (200 people or more – 96%).  Churches led by older ministers are also much less likely to be connected than are those with a pastor under the age of 60. 

Presbyterian churches are the major denominational group most likely to be using the Internet (92%).  Most other major denominational groups were about average, but Baptists from outside the Southern Baptist Convention (such as Progressive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, American Baptist) are much less likely than others to make any use of the Web (54%).  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 Web site:  a map and/or directions to the church (70%), a calendar of upcoming events (65%), a statement of beliefs (60%), and pages for specific ministry departments (56%).  In addition, half provide staff e-mail addresses on their site. 

Other types of information provided by a significant proportion of churches include denominational information (43%), staff biographies and/or backgrounds (42%), special pages for youth and/or teens (42%), a regular church newsletter (38%), a way to submit prayer requests online (27%), and information about joining a small group (25%).

Among content less likely to appear on a church Web site are Bible study material or helps (19%), sermon transcripts (16%), upcoming sermon titles or topics (14%), sermons available in streaming audio (13%), a bulletin board, forum, or chat room (12%), sermons in streaming video (4%), testimonies (4%), and a way to donate online (2%).

Larger churches are not only dramatically more likely to have a church Web site than are smaller churches, but their sites tend to be more sophisticated, with far more content.  For example, 60% of large churches with a Web site provide special pages for youth or teens, compared to only 25% of small churches.  Forty-five percent of large churches provide information about joining a small group, compared to just 8% of small churches.  And 65% of large churches provide staff e-mail addresses, versus only 37% of small churches.  About the only common type of content equally likely to appear on church Web sites regardless of the size is denominational information.

Mainline and evangelical churches differ somewhat in their Web content.  Mainline churches with a Web site are more likely than evangelical congregations to have a regular church newsletter on their site (46% to 32%).  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% to 36%), special pages for youth/teens (48% to 34%), a way to submit prayer requests online (27% to 15%), Bible study materials or helps (26% to 10%), sermons in streaming audio (17% to 6%), and testimonies (7% to 1%). 

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, explained that this 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 Web site, but they have much more content available for visitors to their sites.  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,” Sellers said. 

However, 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 Web site 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 stated. 

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

Facts & Trends, where this study is being published, is designed to assist pastors, church staff and denominational leaders in their roles of ministry by informing them about LifeWay resources and how they relate to current issues in Christian ministry.  It is published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.  For information about Facts & Trends, contact Chris Turner at 615-251-2307. 

The study was conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors from all Protestant denominations.  Respondents’ geography, church size, and denomination were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.

Access to Internet technologies, by type of church…

Technology  All Small Church Mid Church Large Church Pastor
<45
Pastor
45-59
Pastor
60+
Staff internet access 58% 43% 70% 89% 62% 62% 42%
Staff e-mail 49 34 58 82 54 51 36
Church web site 47 29 62 82 46 50 41
E-mail prayer chains 23 14 27 48 31 24 14
E-mail church newsletter 18 10 22 38 17 20 14
Online member directory 4 2 5 9 4 4 5
None of these 27 40 14 4 27 23 38

 

Access to Internet technologies, by denominational group…

Technology  All Southern Baptist Other Baptist Meth-odist Luth-eran Pente-costal Presby-
terian
All Others
Staff internet access 58% 67% 41% 64% 60% 52% 76% 69%
Staff e-mail 49 58 36 49 43 45 70 60
Church web site 47 46 30 42 52 55 71 58
E-mail prayer chains 23 28 13 23 18 18 32 34
E-mail church newsletter 18 20 10 14 21 16 30 30
Online member directory 4 5 5 2 4 3 2 7
None of these 27 25 46 25 23 32 8 14

Access to Internet technologies, by region of the country…

Technology All Northeast Midwest South West
Staff internet access 58% 54% 61% 52% 64%
Staff e-mail 49 56 50 41 52
Church web site 47 49 40 43 57
E-mail prayer chains 23 25 23 19 27
E-mail church newsletter 18 15 16 15 25
Online member directory 4 5 3 3 6
None of these 27 20 27 35 21

Content of the church Web site…

Available on Web Site  All Small Church Mid Church Large Church Mainline Evangelical
Map/directions to the church 70% 62% 68% 81% 68% 73%
Calendar of upcoming events 65 55 61 82 71 67
Statement of beliefs 60 54 59 68 36 72
Pages for specific
   ministry departments
56 39 58 73 54 64
Staff e-mail addresses 50 37 50 65 53 53
Denominational information 43 44 44 40 53 47
Staff biographies/background 42 32 37 57 36 47
Special pages for youth/teens 42 25 44 60 34 48
Regular church newsletter 38 27 36 51 46 32
Submit prayer requests online 27 21 26 34 15 27
Info about joining a small group 25 8 23 45 24 24
Bible study materials/helps 19 18 16 24 10 26
Sermon transcripts 16 12 13 23 17 15
Upcoming sermon topics/titles 14 10 10 20 14 15
Sermons in streaming audio 13 5 11 24 6 17
Bulletin board, forum, chat room 12 8 15 13 9 12
Sermons in streaming video 4 4 2 7 3 4
Testimonies 4 3 5 5 1 7
Online donations 2 2 2 3 1 2
Any other content 4 4 6 4 5 6