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Congregations Embracing Technology, Study Finds

Websites, Facebook and other tools are helping churches stay connected to their members and reach out to the wider community.

Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Pullman, Wash., decided to go digital this Lenten season.

Through email and Facebook, members of the church have engaged in Words for the Journey. Each morning a word, an image and a related reflection are posted, igniting an online discussion that lasts throughout the day.

The church isn’t alone in its innovative use of technology. According to “Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations,” a report by Faith Communities Today, the use of websites and email by congregations has more than doubled in the past decade and more than 40 percent of congregations say they use Facebook.

“Ordinary members’ lives are enmeshed in technology. If their faith isn’t also, then it is less relevant in modern American society,” the report reads.

Until last year, Community Congregational had a static Web page — a never-changing, online billboard. Since the church redesigned the site, using a WordPress template, more guests have come through the doors. About 90 percent of Community Congregational visitors have checked out the church online before attending a worship service.

And through online projects like Words for the Journey, communication among those already regularly attending the church has increased.

“It [the Web] is an outreach tool and way to tell the wider world who we are and what we’re interested in,” said the Rev. Chip Laird, associate pastor.

Additionally, by using email and Facebook, church members are able to interact with one another at their own leisure. One member is even chiming in to the conversation from Hawaii, where she’s on vacation.

“People are getting to know things about people in the congregation that they otherwise wouldn’t know,” Laird said. “And that’s precious.”

Dr. Scott Thumma, author of the report, said Community Congregational’s experience isn’t uncommon.

“Properly employed, technology can make members’ daily lives outside of the worship service richer with religious meaning. It can function as a medium to carry one’s faithful living into everyday life – whether sharing prayer requests on Facebook, tweeting about a recent sermon, surfing to religious websites or actually participating in online worship services,” he said.

Community Congregational’s online work makes it a “hybrid congregation,” according to Thumma’s study.

“Ministry should be, even must be, a technological hybrid venture in this day and age,” the report reads. “Increased use of tech is strongly related to the congregation being characterized by willingness to change to meet new challenges.”

Laird agreed, noting his church’s digital efforts reflect its readiness to evolve and to “change and try to exist in this strange new world.”

Though websites and Facebook pages remain the most popular interactive tools used by congregations, the report shows more than 10 percent of faith communities use blogs or podcasts.

The pastors at Community Congregational plan to start a blog, though they haven’t yet, and they don’t technically have a podcast. However, MP3s of the sermons are uploaded weekly to the website.

“We want to start a blog because it [the website] is something that should be tweaked and changed regularly,” Laird said. “It’s a new mindset.”

A congregation’s ability to interact online tends to make it more spiritually vital, according to the study. Laird has seen that to be true, particularly with the Words for the Journey experiment. Because people have the opportunity to share with one another outside of the church’s walls, and because they get feedback, relationships are built, which Laird said has spiked the congregation’s energy.

However, Community Congregational doesn’t exactly fit the mold when it comes to digital trends in faith communities. The church doesn’t use a projector screen or have contemporary worship, and it’s a mostly female congregation.

“As the use of technology in a congregation increases so too does the likelihood that it will use drums and electric guitars...” the survey report states. “The larger the percentage of female members, the less likely the congregation is to employ a wide array of technology.”

Researchers also found predominantly white congregations are more likely to embrace technology than black congregations, and the wealthier the community is, the more likely it is to advance digitally.

Nevertheless, Community’s example shows that you don’t have to embrace technology in a stereotypical manner; rather, church leaders must strategize how best to use it in their context and to advance their unique ministry goals.

The Insights into Religion portal and its affiliates offer a wide array of resources and research on the use of technology by churches, including the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, the Center for Congregations and the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Check out all these fine resources and help bring your congregation into the 21st century.

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