A pilgrim uses an iPad to photograph Pope Benedict XVI as he leads the Angelus prayer in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, last August. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Rise in tech use by congregations mirrors that in society, survey shows

By  Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service
  • March 16, 2012

WASHINGTON - The rise in congregations' use of technology over the past decade mirrors its use in the wider society, according to the results of a survey released March 14.

Email usage by congregations, gauged at 22 percent in 1998, had soared to 90 percent by 2010, according to the study, "Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations."

In 2010, only 7 percent of congregations surveyed used neither email nor the World Wide Web, but two-thirds used both, the study said.

"If you put all the technology that we asked about together, you'd find that a quarter (of all congregations) are major uses of technology, one-third are modest users, and 42 percent are marginal users," said the study's author, Scott Thumma, during a March 13 teleconference tied to the study's release.

Thumma, a professor of the sociology of religion and director of distance education for the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, defined "major" as using seven or more computer applications, "modest" as three to six applications, and "marginal" as two applications or fewer.

The study did not look solely at Catholic parishes, but both Christian and non-Christian congregations.

But "Virtually Religious" did examine tech usage by congregation size. And of those congregations that had 250 or more members -- the vast majority of Catholic parishes are of this size -- 46 percent were major users of technology, 35 percent modest users, and 20 percent marginal users.

"It's the chicken-and-egg question: If you have size, you need technology," Thumma said.

In the study, the only feature that found less favor this time around than in an earlier study was maintenance of a congregation website. In a similar study conducted 2007-08, congregations running their own site peaked at 77 percent, but this figure dipped to 69 percent in 2010. However, 41 percent of congregations have a page on the ultra-popular Facebook social networking site, which was not even asked about in the earlier survey.

"Give me that new time religion," read the headline for one chart in the "Virtually Religious" study, which showed that, compared to 2005, 28 percent of congregations now contact visitors by email as opposed to 19 percent seven years ago; 12 percent use podcasts, 3 percent use blogs, and 10 percent use other forms of technology.

In 2005, 72 percent of congregations maintained membership databases on their computers; the question was not asked in 2010, but Thumma said he expected that percentage to be even higher now. "The shift parallels the public use of technology," he said.

The use of email to keep in touch with visitors was cited as one tactic that helps congregations grow. However, Thumma noted that while growing congregations exploit technology, not every congregation that exploits technology grows; 31 percent of congregations with major tech use reported membership increases of 10 percent or more, while 25 percent of such congregations reported losses of 10 percent or more.

"Half of these congregations had issues of conflict -- clergy style, program priorities -- but most of all they had conflict over worship style. Of that group, 30 percent of those congregations had people leaving, the conflict was so great," Thumma said. "To some extent, you can say change was involved there. ... Change produces tension, and potentially conflict."

Thumma said that if you're part of a high-tech congregation, "you're sending out emails that get forwarded, or you have blog posts, you have more channels to promote yourself." By comparison, he added, "if you're a low-tech church, you've got word of mouth."

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