For the past six years, the Center for the Digital Future, housed at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications, has conducted a longitudinal study on the impact of computers, the Internet, and related technologies on families and society. Each year since 2001, as the impact of technology on societal life changes, the Center updates its findings to reflect these changes.
In 2005 the study noted an impressive if not astounding finding. Respondents reported that Internet users (78.6 percent of all American households in 2005) were more loyal to going online than they were to watching television or using their cell phones. “When asked which technology they would be most willing to give up,” the report stated, “39.4 percent of Internet users choose their cell phone, followed by 32.7 percent who would first give up television. Only 27.8 percent of users say they would be most willing to give up the Internet.” These numbers continue to grow away from television and toward more Internet loyalty even as the number of Internet users levels off.
The 2007 report was entitled “Online World as Important to Internet Users as Real World?” Its focus was the phenomenon of online communities. These include social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), blogs, and other online communities. The online encyclopedia site Wikipedia (itself part of the online social phenomenon) has, as of this writing, a list of some 80-plus social networking sites, and I’m sure there are many more that either have yet to be included or will spring up in the near future. In July of 2006, Technorati, a search engine for blogs, tracked its 50 millionth blog.
What does this have to do with congregations? As the most important source for creating meaningful, lasting community in American society, it might behoove congregations to pay attention to these trends. Not that some congregations aren’t already using the Internet to its fullest potential. Some certainly are. But most are not. I frequently check Technorati’s list of top 100 blogs and I have yet to see one that mentions religious communities.
I recently introduced a local pastor to blogging (and an excellent resource, The Blogging Church by Brian Bailey and Terry Storch). He and his church now have two excellent blogs up and running, with an amazing amount of readership and traffic. He recently wrote me, “We’re now trying to put together a network of blogs for the church and the various ministries in it. I’m finding that they are a tool that is ideal for the kind of things our congregation needs to do.” The cost? A mere $19.95 for the book (the blogs are hosted free of charge).
Most congregational Web sites continue to function as glorified online brochures. In 2000, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research stated, “People who use the Internet to ‘shop’ for a church home will likely be turned off by a poorly produced church Web site, while a slick, interactive site could help draw new members in if a church invests the right resources.” Our experience validates this statement. It is true that the first place potential congregants do their “shopping” is online. Churches and synagogues with poorly produced and managed Web sites are less likely to attract visitors. It is sad to see a vibrant congregational community, with much to offer new members, impeded by its poor online presence. It’s even sadder to see our suggestions for improving their Web site rebuffed, often because of financial issues or a lack of internal talent. Both of these are perceived rather than actual problems. The cost of creating and maintaining professional looking Web sites can be as little as $20 per month, and the level of skill necessary to maintain the site is the same as using Microsoft Word.
Congregants are “using” their congregations differently. Instead of getting their “religion fix” once a week, it’s not unusual for an attendee to download the pastor’s sermon to her iPod after church on Sunday. While she’s working out Monday evening, she listens to it again. When she gets home she logs on to the pastor’s blog, where after reading how the sermon impacted others, she offers some feedback. The pastor, who is offering responses to the feedback, offers some resources for further study. The conversation encourages another attendee to post the sermon to another blog and start an entirely different discussion. And the scenario snowballs. The Internet offers us the ability to affect the world in ways we literally cannot imagine.
The 2008 Digital Future survey reports that online community membership has dramatically affected participation in social causes. Several years ago I heard the prolific American religious scholar Martin Marty say that congregations need to lead societal change rather than respond to it. Well, we are way behind in the method and manner in which our congregants (and potential congregants) communicate and interact with their worlds.
Aaron Spiegel is a former congregational rabbi, currently the information technology director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations.