Congregational life on the Web

Our survey

We believe this is the first extensive quantitative effort to discover how churches and synagogues in the United States use the Internet. Over 1,300 congregations responded to an email from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and filled out an online survey that asked how they built and use their Web sites, how congregations and leaders use email, and whether their use of Internet tools has helped the spiritual and everyday life of their members. This is not a representative sample of all the congregations in the United States. However, the wide-ranging and extensive responses of congregations to this survey suggest that the Internet has become a vital force in many faith communities.

Congregational life on the Web

The survey reveals that the Internet is being used being used by congregations to strengthen the faith and spiritual growth of their members, evangelize and perform missions in their communities and around the world, and perform a wide variety of pious and practical activities for their congregations. Many believe the Internet has helped these faith communities become better places.

  • 83% of those responding to our survey say that their use of the Internet has helped congregational life – 25% say it has helped a great deal.
  • 81% say the use of email by ministers, 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 congregation connect at least a bit more to the surrounding community – 17% say it has helped a lot.

Most popular congregational Web site features

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, than they are to have 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
  • 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.

The breadth of activity online

Many of the activities on the Web sites of responding churches and synagogues are those that might be expected: homilies are posted; pictures and perhaps a pictorial history of the church or temple and the denomination are offered; maps and directions are available; meeting times and places are listed; the basic activities of the congregation are highlighted; worship services are Webcast at some places; and online fundraising conducted.

But the scope of other activities is quite broad. Some congregations use email and online cards for recruiting new members. Some have pursued special missions such as serving a global community of believers, providing spiritual material for the deaf, offering worship and activities for gays, ministering to the homeless, serving the needs of diaspora Gypsies, and staying in touch with far-flung former members or those who have left the congregation to serve in the military or go to college. Some provide online activities for teenagers. Bible trivia quizzes, games, and graphics features are used to appeal to children. Some ministers and lay members use their church’s Web site to teach college-level courses on theology. Others keep the congregation informed about mission work – for instance, we heard from one church that keeps in touch with a mission group in Siberia and another that collected clothes for a needy congregation in Grenada after hearing online from someone there. One church maintains a set of “mission apartments” which it lets out to travelers and church groups, and claims to have had a 95% increase in occupancy since publicizing them on its site.

The Web sites of respondents also offer intimate faith and service activities online. Several provide spaces for prayer requests. Some provide content that helps with daily prayer and devotional work, including Bible study. One maintains a robust dialogue over issues of science and faith. Many offer links to crisis counseling services and sometimes provide such help themselves. Some post Frequently Asked Questions (and answers) about the church or temple and the beliefs of members. Others offer “Ask the Pastor” email services. Several have used their Web sites to conduct searches for new clergy and other key staff. Some post guidelines for marriages. Others use the site to post homework assignments for confirmation class. Several offer members of the congregation free email accounts. And many told us that they know of newcomers who came to visit the church only after they checked out the Web site and after they vetted the background and beliefs of the pastor or rabbi.

What the congregations are contemplating next on their Web sites

Most of the congregations responding to our survey said they might add more features to their Web sites. In many cases, the new features would make the Web site more dynamic and allow it to serve more purposes. These are among the most likely additions we heard about:

  • 29% say they might add photographs of congregation events to their sites.
  • 27% hope to post material for teens and their youth group.
  • 22% want to provide space for prayer requests.
  • 22% are thinking of including a sign-up feature for classes and programs.
  • 18% want to provide links to scripture studies and devotional material.
  • 16% are thinking of providing links to community sites such as the local media, the government, and festivals.

Internet use by clergy

A striking number of the clergy have turned to the Internet to get material for sermons, worship, education programs, and matters of doctrine. In all, 471 rabbis and ministers responded to this survey; here is what they have done online:

  • 81% have gotten information for worship services.
  • 77% have sought information on the Bible, Torah, or other scriptures.
  • 72% have gotten devotional resources.
  • 72% have gathered information for education programs.
  • 59% have hunted for information on matters of doctrine.
  • 57% have gotten information on other denominations and faiths.
  • 54% have sought information on matters of faith.

Those who seek religious and spiritual information online

The ongoing phone polling by the Pew Internet Project shows that about a fifth of Internet users have gone online to get religious and spiritual information. Middle-aged African-American women are the most likely to get religious material online.

  • 21% of Internet users (about 19 million to 20 million people) have used the Internet to seek spiritual and religious information. On a typical day online, more than 2 million people are getting such material.
  • 33% of online blacks have sought such material, compared to 20% of online whites. This means that African-Americans with Internet access are 65% more likely to have sought religious information on the Web than online whites.
  • 26% of online Southerners have sought spiritual material, 22% of online Midwesterners have done so, 20% of online Westerners have done so, while only 14% of those with Internet access in the Northeast have.

Methodology note

The results given in this survey are based on the responses of 1,309 Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist congregations from 49 states. Unlike many previous Pew Internet & American Life Project Reports, which are based on phone surveys designed to reach a representative portion of the population, this sample is not a scientifically accurate representation of the estimated 336,000 places of worship in the United States.1 There is no single registry of congregational URLs from which to draw a random sample. Our survey population consisted of congregations that had chosen to register with some umbrella organization, usually with their denomination, and then agreed to participate in the survey. Some major church organizations, such as the Roman Catholic church, the Southern Baptist church, and the Mormon church, do not have portals that allow for one-stop, nationwide gathering of congregational URLs. That made it harder to find such congregations and include them in the email solicitation to participate in the survey. All who participated filled out an online questionnaire on a password-protected server hosted by Princeton Survey Research Associates.

It is likely that this group of congregations is more enthusiastic about the Internet and more interested in using Internet tools than a randomly chosen group of congregations. This report is based on the responses of those who filled out the questionnaire.