On The Cusp Of Change: Churches And The Internet

Mick Turner

If you can imagine for a moment what life would be like without the Internet as we know it today. For some of us older folks, that isn’t so hard to do. In fact, if you came of age before the early to mid ‘90’s, it should not be too much of a reach to imagine what life was like without so much instant information at your disposal.

 

I have been thinking about the Internet and the church for sometime now, along with how other current realities may affect the Body of Christ as we march forward in this new century. Technology, like it or not, has a great potential to help churches both meet the needs of its members in this fast-paced day and age, and further, has even greater potential in reaching those who are still outside the faith. The question before us is: To what extent is the church currently using this valuable tool and what are the future directions this use may take?

 

Christian researcher George Barna has recently completed a study dealing with churches and their use (or lack of use) of technology in general and the Internet in particular. The findings of this study are both interesting and enlightening. With proper reflection, these results are also quite educational.

 

Let’s start with something basic, like web sites.

 

In 2000, 34 percent of Protestant Churches had web sites. By 2005, according to Barna’s findings, this number had jumped drastically to 57 percent. Since that time, the number of churches with a web presence has grown slowly and is currently around 62 percent. While this is a significant percentage, it does raise some interesting questions.

 

Recently, I attended a small group meeting of local pastors and church leaders, during which several topics were discussed related to church growth and future trends. The use of the Internet was among the topics on the agenda and I found that here in the Bible Belt, although an increasing number of churches had web sites, most of these sites primarily functioned as venues for delivering information to members. A significant number of these sites, located mostly in North Alabama and South Central Tennessee, had as their primary content information gleaned from the church bulletin passed out at the door of the church the previous Sunday. There was little material included that dealt with evangelism, discipleship, or even the most rudimentary Bible teaching. Instead, worship times were printed and various and sundry announcements relevant to congregational activities were prominent.

 

A majority of those pastors and church leaders (elders, deacons, and the like) admitted they had never considered using the church web site for any other purpose than to provide up to date information for their members and to let outsiders know when the church gathered for worship. In discussing the matter, most acknowledged they would be open to expanding the content of their respective web sites, but just about every person in attendance agreed that they would never want to do this at the expense of informing their members of what was going on. To a man (and two women pastors), this group saw the primary function of Internet presence for the church as dispensing information that members could easily obtain by other means. A few agreed that evangelism might be a worthy use of web space, but no one felt discipleship could be done through electronic means.

 

I found this most disturbing as one of the primary missions we have here at LifeBrook Ministries is providing discipleship materials on the Internet. When I raised this issue and discussed it, I met with a cordial response but might just as well have been speaking a foreign language.

 

I should say that this particular group consisted mostly of rather conservative pastors and leaders, mostly Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and Assembly of God. When I launched the same discussion in another setting with Methodist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and Independent Charismatic leaders, the response was much different. In fact, many of these leaders were already working toward adding things to their sites like Pod casting and Blogs.

 

All of this spurred me to look into the research on the matter and that’s how I stumbled upon the recent findings by Barna. Let me share just a few of these findings with you:

 

One out of every four Protestant Churches (26%) now has a presence on social networking sites like MySpace.

 

Pod casting is now being implemented by one out of every six churches, roughly 16%.

 

13% of Protestant Churches now have blogs.

 

These numbers represent a major underutilization of perhaps the most efficient tool for reaching large numbers of people available to churches today. Further, it indicates reluctance on the part of many church leaders to invest in new, creative ways to do evangelism, discipleship, and other functions normally carried out by congregations. What are the reasons for this?

 

First, there is resistance for resistance’s sake. Some folks, church leaders included, a hesitant to embrace change out of fear or lack of information. In other cases, smaller congregations appear to feel that they simply cannot afford these sorts of technological innovations due to small and shrinking budgets. Even larger churches sometimes avoid services like blogs and pod casts because they fear the expense would be too great. The problem with this line of thinking is that it isn’t grounded in reality. There numerous avenues whereby pod casts, blogs, and other up-to-date services are available at little or no cost. For some churches, lack of a knowledgeable person to design and maintain the site is yet another factor creating resistance.

 

Whatever reasons a church may offer for not utilizing this important resource, I believe it would be to their benefit to move past their resistance and get on board. The potential benefits are just too great to be left behind scratching their chins and wondering what happened.

 

Barna sums things up quite well I think:

 

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

 

Without a doubt the importance of the Internet and its impact on ministry both inside and outside the traditional church setting is going to continue to expand. The question each church must ask of itself is, “Will we keep up with these positive changes and exert a growing influence on our culture, or will we wait patiently on the sidelines while other spiritual groups, philosophies, and secular movements leave us in the dust?”

 

It is really up to you to decide.

(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved

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5 thoughts on “On The Cusp Of Change: Churches And The Internet

  1. Hey Mick,

    Nice post. I think most pastors attitude about their use of the Internet is probably reflective of their attitude about their church in general. If they are mostly focused on meeting the needs of the people in their congregation, they’ll probably use their website to do that. If they’re more focused on reaching the lost in their community they’ll use their website to that end. And if they care about using the best tools available for evangelism and discipleship they’ll do they’re best to learn about the Internet and how their church can benefit from its use.

    Keep bringing up the subject, educating, and prodding. Hopefully more and more churches will take advantage of the opportunities to evangelize and disciple online.

    – Paul

  2. Hi Mick,

    I couldn’t agree with you more that the Church needs to ride on the advantages of using the internet cos there’s where everyone’s staying connected these days.

    However, the internet should never replace an offline connection which is eroding our social skills and personal touch, especially seen in our youths.

    Here’s a related entry I wrote last year- http://andrew-ong.com/2007/10/18/more-on-the-power-of-the-internet/

    Thanks for engaging us (through your site) to think more in being kingdom-minded! =)

  3. Kathryn Paterson

    I stumbled upon this blog by accident and really enjoyed this post. I’m with you–I think it’s amazing the church hasn’t realized the great potential here with the Internet. For instance, I have always been disappointed with Sunday School; it’s too short, people tend to say what they think will be accepted, and prayer requests often take up half the time. But what if SS teachers began organizing Facebook groups or forums around their classes and provided additional content for them? What if on those forums, they threw out thought provoking questions that their members could then discuss? Every forum I’ve ever been on has drawn much more participation than a face to face grouping. People also seem more willing to be honest, particularly if they can respond anonymously. I realize this could also be dicey for the church (what, get church people to THINK? Shocking!), but I really think it’s an underutilized tool. Also, I think the tide will turn as Gen Y enters the ministry. These younger members don’t know what it’s like to live without the net, and they’re going to come in with a whole bunch of new ideas.

  4. Mick Turner

    Kathryn

    You have some great ideas and the points you mention, about Internet Forums as an extension of Sunday School classes is a great idea. I have seen a few churches that are doing similar things, but very few. I also suspect that many changes are afoot as the younger folks gain more leadership positions within the church. Even though I am a Boomer, I think this will be a positive trend. I just hope we Boomers, by sheer numbers, don’t hold them back too much. Somewhere on this site, I have a brief review of a book “Who Stole My Church” by Gordon MacDonald, which addresses this theme in a realistic way. Thanks so much for your insightful comments and I hope you come back to visit often.

    Mick

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