WASHINGTON–At a time when some worry that the Internet is isolating users and replacing traditional communities with virtual ones, a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that many churches and synagogues have found new energy and purpose through use of the Internet. Most of the 1,309 responding congregations say their Web sites and email use have helped the spiritual life of their faith communities and bound members closer together.

The findings in this holiday-season report, “Wired churches, wired temples: Taking congregations and missions into cyberspace,” show that many congregations offer a wide array of material on their Web sites that range from simple brochure-type material such as directions to the church to space for prayer requests to features that allow global mission work.

“These responses show that email and the Web are being used by many real, not virtual congregations to sustain and deepen their members” faiths, to enrich their worship, to evangelize, and to fulfill their missions,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “These very traditional places tell us that their use of these 21st Century technologies has made a difference for the better.”

This study by the Pew Internet Project is believed to be the first extensive quantitative effort to discover how churches and synagogues in the United States use the Internet. This is not a representative sample of all the congregations in the United States because it comes from people who voluntarily responded to an email invitation to fill out an online questionnaire. However, the wide-ranging and extensive responses of churches to this survey suggest that the Internet has become a vital force in many faith communities:

  • 83% of those respondents say that their church”s use of the Internet has helped congregational life–25% say it has helped a great deal.
  • 81% say the use of email by ministers, church staffs, and congregation members has helped the spiritual life of the congregation to some extent–35% say it has helped a great deal.
  • 91% say email has helped congregation members and members of the staff stay more in touch with each other–51% say it has helped a great deal.
  • 63% say email has helped the church connect at least a bit more to the surrounding community–17% say it has helped a lot.The report itself contains an extensive list of Web addresses for congregation Web sites that illustrate a wide range of features.

    Some 471 of the respondents to the survey were ministers and rabbis and they were asked about their own personal use of the Internet. “A striking number of the clergy at these churches have turned to the Internet to get material for sermons, worship services, church-education programs, and their own personal devotions,” says Elena Larsen, the Research Fellow at the Pew Internet Project who authored the report. “They use the Internet like many others as a vast library in which to hunt for material that matters most to them.”

    Most of the respondents are eager to use their Web sites to increase their presence and visibility in their local communities and explain their beliefs. They are much more likely to use the Web for one-way communication features such as posting sermons or basic information about the church, rather than two-way communications features or interactive features such as spiritual discussions, online prayer, or fundraising. The most commonly used features on these Web sites are:

  • 83% encourage visitors to attend their church.
  • 77% post mission statements, sermons, or other text concerning their faith.
  • 76% have links to denomination and faith-related sites.
  • 60% have links to scripture studies or devotional material.
  • 56% post schedules, meeting minutes, and other internal communications for the church.The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a research center funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Washington-based project will explore aspects of the Internet that have not received sustained attention from policymakers and commercial research firms: its effect on children and families, communities, schools, the work place, and civic and political life.