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Welcome, Churches, to the World Wide Web

Robert Wayne | Contributing Writer | Friday, July 18, 2008

Welcome, Churches, to the World Wide Web

July 18, 2008

Even at a small Ohio church, where 100 or so attendees gather each Sunday morning, it’s possible to enter a room and find the whole world waiting.

David Mabry wants to walk through the door into that room. The 37-year-old pastor of Orange Road Evangelical Friends Church has a vision to bring blogs, worship samples, sermons and whatever other Internet resources that can benefit the church into his building.

“It’s imperative for communicating with the audience of today,” said Mabry, whose Columbus-area congregation is a highly-educated group that values various forms of emerging technology for communicating the gospel.

As the world widens through the Web, it would seem that churches are enlarging their technical efforts as well. As a recent Barna Group survey shows, the ways in which Protestant churches are implementing the Internet are expanding.

In 2000, only one-third of churches (34 percent) had a Web site, while 57 percent had one by 2005. The latest research pushes the number to 62 percent.

The statistics do show differences between large (more than 250 adults attending per week), mid-size (100 to 250 adults) and smaller (less than 100) churches. Nine out of 10 larger churches (91 percent) operate a Web site, while the number drops to 75 percent for mid-size churches and 48 percent for small churches.

Part of the statistical variation is age related, as smaller churches tend to attract older attendees who do not feel as comfortable with or are even suspicious of the Internet.

“Certainly there is a great deal of skepticism among leaders about the role that technology ought to play,” said David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group. “Some skepticism and unwillingness to see how technology is deeply imbedded in the hearts and minds and lifestyles of people.”

While there are potential dangers involved with the Internet, there also are positives that cannot be ignored, Kinnaman said.

“It is a voice, a means for (young people) to express themselves,” he said. “It empowers them to care about the world. While on one hand there are a great number of things you can criticize, such as access to pornography and instant gratification and the ability to facilitate a false image of self, we also fail to realize the massive potential it serves.”

The Internet is an avenue to achieve a ministry’s purpose, he said, adding that the Web even can viewed positively in the scriptural sense, since “We are a priesthood of believers ... with each people having a voice.”

Those voices are turning up everywhere as churches move even further into the modern information age by connecting with such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook.

Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago keeps its estimated 23,000 attendees connected through e-mails and podcasts and also through blogs and social networking sites. Keeping everyone feeling cared for became essential when the church added four regional campuses to the central site, so pastors began using social media avenues, said Susan DeLay, media relations manager for Willowcreek.

“It’s more on an individual grass-roots level, similar to how it functions on the Internet,” DeLay said. “They are building relationships with people, some of whom never want to go to church, especially a large church where they think they’ll get swallowed up whole.”

It may seem a contradiction to some, but in essence pastors are providing a personal touch through what some consider to be an impersonal medium.

It’s all about increasing interaction and reaching out, Kinnaman said, pointing out how the Barna survey showed more people posting comments on other blogs than on their own. The research also revealed that people over age 40 use no more than four communication technologies, while those in their 20s and 30s use eight. Age 23 and under typically rely on 11.

“What comes to the fore is that Christian young people are more like their peers who are non-Christian than they are like Christians who are older,” said Kinnaman, explaining emerging technology trends. “Technology is a real leveling force with young people because they have more global awareness of connectiveness.”

Mabry thinks social networking is a must for youth pastors.

“Absolutely essential,” he said, explaining that his church’s youth ministry has a name on Facebook where young adults can go to receive messages and ministry information.

At the same time, the current technology is increasingly a dividing wall between age groups, Kinnaman said.

Maybe so, but Mabry shared an example of cross-generational connection that backs the Barna Group conclusion that new technology is here to stay, whether that means churches installing video screens in the sanctuary or using satellite feeds to feature off-site events from two continents away.

“Our e-mail prayer update is sent out by a 90-year-old woman who is more savvy on a computer than most other people in our church,” Mabry said.

More of a drawback than generational issues are staffing issues at smaller churches. Finding highly-trained professionals to fill the roles of sound technician, Web monitor and videographer can prove difficult. That may explain the Barna results showing that technology may be slowing as some churches focus on making the most of what they have.  and Other churches hope to get by without adding technology tools in the first place.

George Barna himself, however, advised churches not to fight against the machine, saying that to do so would be counterproductive.

“The Internet has become one of the pivotal communications and community-building tools of our lifetime,” he said. “Churches are well-advised to have an intelligent and foresighted Internet strategy in order to facilitate meaningful ministry.”