Feb 11, 2015

From the Archives

Cyber Church: Pastors and the Internet

Much has changed in the world since 2000, and few can deny that many of those changes have been facilitated by technology. The Internet, in particular—both how much we use it and what we use it for—has dramatically altered the way people live their lives, do their work and engage in their relationships. Pastors are no exception: In the past 15 years, church leaders have significantly increased their use of the Internet and have, by and large, come to accept it as an essential tool for ministry in the 21st century.

In a recent study of U.S. Protestant church leaders, Barna Group looked at pastors’ use of the Internet and their attitudes toward it today compared to 15 years ago, at the turn of the century.

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

How Pastors Use the Internet
In 2000, just over eight in 10 pastors said they used a computer at church (83%). Today nearly all pastors do (96%). While the primary way pastors use a computer has stayed essentially the same—in both years, more than half of pastors say they use it for word processing or writing (59% today and 51% in 2014)—the percentage who use it for accessing the Internet (39% today compared to only 24% in 2000) and for email (46% compared to 24%) has increased dramatically. Additionally, more pastors today are using their computers for study helps or research (56% compared to 29%) and for creating slides/presentations (44% compared to 10%). Notice that the largest increase has been pastors’ use of digital communication tools, such as creating graphics, slides, and presentations—one might conclude that pastors are working hard to keep pace in a the screen-driven era of communication.

Read more about pastors’ use of the Internet and the rise of the “@Pastor”

While two of the primary ways pastors used the Internet in 2000—to find information (97% today compared to 78% in 2000) and to keep up on existing relationships (80% compared to 64%)—have increased dramatically since then, pastors are also now using the Internet for an increasing array of activities that they only marginally participated in 15 years ago. Significantly more pastors use the Internet to buy products (88% compared to 46%), check out new music or videos (71% compared to 19%), have a spiritual or religious experience (39% compared to 15%) and make new friends (26% compared to 9%). The only activity surveyed that stayed about the same for pastors’ Internet usage was playing video games (11% today compared to 12% in 2000).

Online Religious Experiences
While pastors are using the Internet for personal and pragmatic reasons, how likely are they to see it as a useful tool for doing ministry and facilitating religious experiences among their congregants? The answer, as you might expect, is that they are increasingly more likely to see the Internet that way.

Today, nearly nine in 10 pastors say they believe it is theologically acceptable for a church to provide faith assistance or religious experiences to people through the Internet (87%). This is up from about three-quarters of pastors in 2000 (78%). Similarly, nearly nine in 10 pastors today say they think people in their area would find it acceptable for their church to provide faith assistance or religious experiences to people through the Internet (86%), compared to only seven in 10 who would have said so in 2000.

While pastors today are still unlikely to agree that, within the next decade, some people will have all of their faith experiences through the Internet, they are a bit more likely than they were 15 years ago to think so. Today, just about half of pastors believe people will have all of their faith experiences online within 10 years (11% believe this is definitely true, up from 7% in 2000, while 36% say people probably will, up from 20% in 200). Of course, this means that just over half of pastors believe this will not be the case (17% say people definitely will not—down from 26% in 2000—while 34% say people probably won’t—down from 44% in 2000).

Pastors show increasing openness to people experiencing religion online—and an increased willingness to see the church as a conduit for those online experiences. They are more than willing to acknowledge that the Internet is playing a key role in how people engage with religion, yet they remain skeptical about those online interactions representing the entirety of a person’s faith activities.

The Internet as a Ministry Tool
When asked questions to gauge pastors’ overall feelings toward the Internet as a good tool for ministry, a more neutral tool or as something more negative, the majority of pastors agree with the positive statements—up significantly from the number who agreed in 2000. Conversely, very few pastors—many fewer than 15 years ago—agree with any of the negative statements regarding the Internet’s effectiveness as a tool for ministry.

More than half of pastors today agree that the Internet is a powerful tool for effective ministry (54%, up from 35% in 2000). A similar percentage say that for a church to be effective in the future, it will need to have a significant website or presence on the Internet (55%). Additionally, more than half of pastors agree that developing a significant presence on the Internet is a good investment of their church’s money (54%). Though these percentages have grown, it’s interesting that substantial numbers of pastors do not agree strongly with these statements.

As might be expected, most of the resistance to digital ministry comes from older pastors. Younger pastors are more likely to agree with these positive statements than are older pastors (72% of Millennial pastors, for example, agree that the Internet is a powerful tool for effective ministry, while only 56% of Gen-Xers, 54% of Boomers and 39% of Elders agree).

Money is a factor here, too. Additionally, pastors who make $60,000 or more a year are more likely to see the Internet as a powerful ministry tool (63%) than are those who make less than $40,000 (49%). This trend is particularly true when asked whether developing a significant presence on the Internet is a good investment of church resources: 69% of pastors making $60,000 or more a year say yes, while only 44% of those making $40,000 to $60,000 and even fewer (40%) of those making under $40,000 a year agree. Another way of looking at this is that pastors of smaller churches are trying to stretch their financial resources, so digital initiatives such as websites are more likely to be deemed nonessential.

When it comes to some of the more neutral—or contextualized—views on the Internet, pastors are less likely to agree. While very rare, one out of 40 pastors (2%) agree that the Internet is a passing fad and won’t continue to be a significant factor in people’s lives. One in nine pastors think the Internet is overrated (11%, down from 19% in 2000). About four in 10 pastors believe the Internet is a ministry tool that will be important for some age groups but not important for others (42%, up from 37% in 2000).

Very few pastors agree with any of the more negative statements regarding the Internet and ministry. Only 3% say that small churches are better off not trying to have a website or a presence on the Internet as part of their ministry (down from 10% in 2000). Less than one in 10 pastors believe websites and Internet activities are a distraction from doing significant ministry (8%, down slightly from 12% in 2000). And about one in seven pastors believe that the chances of the Internet being used to spread spiritual heresy and to distort Christianity outweigh the potential of the Internet to spread authentic Christianity (13%, edging down from 17% in 2000).

What the Research Means
“Increased use and acceptance of the Internet in ministry will come as little surprise to anyone,” says Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group. “While 15 years ago, having a church website or using the Internet as a ministry tool may have seemed like a luxury, for most churches today it has become a necessity. Aside from the obvious pragmatic uses pastors have for the Internet—research for sermons, keeping up to date on news and articles, purchasing products and so on—pastors and church leaders also realize how much of their actual ministry now happens online. They recognize their church’s website will often be the first, and maybe only, impression outsiders get of their ministry. Additionally, most church leaders realize the potential for continued connection with members and visitors alike through the Internet—from podcasts, to social media, to blogs, to sermon discussion questions and even community prayer requests. No matter the church’s size, location or demographic, the Internet has become and will continue to be a vital tool for connection, outreach and even spiritual formation.

“Even so, most pastors aren’t ready for the Internet to be people’s only means of spiritual growth or religious experience,” continues Stone. “Much of a pastor’s role—and the role of a local church—is about presence: presence in a community of believers, presence in the taking of communion, presence in the service of others, presence in communal prayer and worship. The Internet can offer an important and accessible supplement to these physical activities, but pastors are reluctant to say it can fully replace them or duplicate them.”

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @roxyleestone@barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research
The data in this report included telephone surveys of pastors in two nationwide studies conducted by Barna Group among a nationally representative sample of senior pastors of Protestant churches. The study is called PastorPoll(SM).

The first survey was conducted from December 7 to December 28, 2000 and included 610 Protestant senior pastors. The second survey was conducted November 14 through December 3, 2014 and included 601 interviews with Protestant senior pastors.

The cooperation rate of eligible and contacted pastors was 90% or higher in both studies. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with each sample is ±4.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Church leaders in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those congregations coincided with the geographic dispersion of such institutions across the U.S. Some denominational and ethnic quotas were used to ensure a representative sample of the Protestant faith community. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of congregations. Pastors were not contacted via convenience or consumer panels, ensuring the highest possible representativeness of survey participants.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.