May 21, 2001

From the Archives

More Americans Are Seeking Net-Based Faith Experiences

You can buy books on the Internet, strike up relationships on the Internet and a growing proportion of the population are experiencing God in cyberspace, as well. A new study released by the Barna Research Group, of Ventura, California, indicates that among the growing number of Americans who use the Internet, millions are turning to the digital dimension to get them in touch with God and others who pursue faith matters. The report projects that within this decade as many as 50 million individuals may rely solely upon the Internet to provide all of their faith-based experiences.

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Among the findings of the studies described in the report is that born again and evangelical Christians are every bit as likely as non-Christians to use the digital superhighway. Catholics and mainline Protestants are slightly more likely to use the Internet than are Baptists and Protestants who attend non-mainline churches. Adults who are affiliated with a faith group other than Christianity have one of the highest concentrations of Net usage (85%). Adults use the Internet for a wide variety of activities, regardless of their faith commitments. The most universal value of the Internet is to find information, but other common uses include maintaining existing relationships, buying products, and previewing new media.

Religion on the Internet

Presently, 8% of adults and 12% of teenagers use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences. This application rated eighth among the eight possibilities explored. Less than 1% of all adults and just 2% of teens currently use the Internet as a substitute for a physical-church. Most people indicated that they do not expect to replace their involvement in a bricks-and-mortar faith experience with a Net-based faith experience.

However, the Barna study also found that people are in the early stages of warming up to the idea of cyberfaith. When people were asked about their likely future use of the Internet to seek or engage in specific types of religious experiences, more than two-thirds indicated that they were likely to engage in such pursuits on a regular basis as the decade progresses. Among the Net-based religious endeavors deemed most appealing were listening to archived religious teaching, reading online “devotionals,” and buying religious products and resources online.

In fact, if the research projections hold true, even the least appealing of the 11 Net-based faith alternatives tested (online worship) would likely attract some 30 to 35 million adults. The most attractive option (listening to religious teaching online) would likely draw more than 100 million adults.

Of special importance was the finding that teenagers have a very different profile of cyberfaith interests than do their elders. Activities such as reading devotional passages online and submitting prayer requests were of much greater interest to younger people.

Hispanics and blacks have a far greater level of hope and trust relative to the cyberchurch than do white adults. Other population segments that are more willing to give the Internet a try in regard to significant faith dimensions are men and people under the age of 35.

Pastors and the Cyberchurch

While few clergy consider themselves to be computer experts or cutting edge technologically, more than nine out of ten Senior Pastors use a computer at home or at the church. They tend to use computers mainly for communications and study, with word processing clearly the dominant application.

Four-fifths of all Protestant Senior Pastors have access to the Internet, while about half pastors gain entry to the Internet daily. Pastors use the Internet differently than do those whom they serve. While most pastors and laity utilize the Internet for research and information, pastors are more likely than others to maintain friendships, buy products, and have religious experiences on the Net. Pastors are less likely to use it to explore new media products, play online video games, or participate in chat rooms.

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Church Websites

One out of every three Protestant churches has a website – a total of about 110,000 Protestant congregations that have a digital presence. Expansion will proceed at a moderately brisk pace: among the two-thirds of churches that do not presently have a website, 19% say they definitely will have one within the next 12 months, representing another 40,000 or so congregations that are preparing to go online in the coming year. Overall about half of the churches that do not have a website now are not planning to add one in the future. That represents about one-third of all Protestant churches who are expected to ignore the Internet in the coming five years.

The research also showed that the content of church websites varies tremendously. The most common content includes scheduled activities at the church, background information about the church, and current church news. There were no other specific elements that were included online by more than one out of every six churches. Most church websites are developed and maintained predominantly for the use of congregants, although pastors are most likely to say that the target audience was people from outside their church.

Struggles With Technology

George Barna, who directed the study for The Barna Institute, explained that numerous changes in people’s faith experience will emerge in the next few years. “By the end of the decade we will have in excess of ten percent of our population who rely upon the Internet for their entire spiritual experience. Some of them will be individuals who have not had a connection with a faith community, but millions of others will be people who drop out of the physical church in favor of the cyberchurch.” The researcher also stated that virtually every dimension of the faith community will be influenced by online faith developments. “We will have an explosion of self-produced and self-marketed worship music as an outgrowth of sophisticated and affordable digital technology that turns an artist into a full-fledged recording company, including the ability to directly and inexpensively market those products to the millions of consumers on the Internet. Within churches we will see e-mail broadcasting, theological chats, online meetings, broadcasts to congregants who are immobile, live webcasting of mission trips via webcams, and 24/7 ministry training from the best trainers and educators in the world.”

Barna also noted that there will be numerous challenges to churches and faith communities because of the developments in technology. “We found that born again Christians already spend twice as much money on consumer electronics each year as they donate to their church. Believers currently spend seven times more hours each week watching television than they devote to all of their spiritual ventures combined. Christian Internet users already spend more surfing the Net than they do communicating with God through prayer. Clearly, there are many issues related to time management and personal priorities that must be addressed. The Internet did not cause such dilemmas and weaknesses, but its growing significance in people’s lives does magnify the challenges.”

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Survey Methodology

The data described in the research report are based upon three national surveys conducted by Barna Research Group during the last half of 2000. A random sample of 1017 adults was conducted in November. A national random sample of 605 teenagers was conducted in September. The national random sample of 604 Protestant pastors was conducted during November and December. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level; the margin of error for the samples of teenagers and pastors is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence interval. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults, teenagers and Protestant churches in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and their distribution in the survey samples coincided with the geographic and demographic profile of the U.S. population of adults, teens and Protestant churches, respectively. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of people from each of those sample populations.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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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.

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