www.connectingwithGod.com: Exploring the Function of Church Web Sites

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By Shonna L. Tropf and Joe Moore

WJMCR 21 (June 2010)

Introduction|Literature Review|Methodology|Results|Discussion

Abstract

The world depends on technology to aid in communication as never before, especially the Internet. Churches are no exception. While many churches across the U.S. have willingly embraced technology, others have resisted. This paper explores the function and role of church Web sites. A content analysis was conducted on 146 church Web sites. Three categories of function were created consisting of church as organization, evangelism, and social network. Overall churches overwhelmingly use their Web sites to present themselves as an organization, including such things as worship times, contact information, and directions. Few, however, are taking full advantage of their Web sites as a social networking tool.

Introduction

Religion is one of the primary foundations of human civilization. It is a place where people create understanding and meaning in their lives and the world around them. Even though religion is tradition in the truest sense, throughout the years advances in technology have played a large role in churches’ ability to communicate with their congregants. As much as the world depends on technology to aid in communication as never before, so too, do religious institutions. In recent years the Internet has played an especially integral part in the communication process as a whole. How do religious institutions fit in with their use of the Internet and Web sites? Many religious institutions have willingly and enthusiastically embraced the use of this newest medium as a way of better communicating with their congregations, sharing messages, and creating meaning. However, other religious institutions have resisted using the Internet for one reason or another. This paper will explore the breadth and function of church Web sites across the country.

Literature Review

The Role of Technology and Communication

William Fore describes communication as the “process in which relationships are established, maintained, modified, or terminated through the increase . . . of meaning.”1 Communication is essential in the construction and maintenance of relationships and aids in the development of a sense of community within a society. Fore asserts that humans develop a sense of who they are based on the communities in which they are involved. “Community, the fulfillment of effective human communication, is essential to our becoming human.”

When considering technology as a means of communication Heidegger2 and others3 argued the two were inextricably linked and that technology also aided in the development of the human experience. He believed that in order to understand the true significance of technology on society one had to understand what it meant to be a human being. Heidegger is not alone in his belief that technology must be understood as it aids communication and the human existence. However, others have a slightly different view of technology’s place in the role of society. Hood posited that technology was “extrinsic to a person’s being and society’s character.”4 He stated, “Technology is subordinate to practical wisdom, to moral and intellectual activities through which humans realize their essence and stabilize society.”5

Religion and Communication

Christians view communication as a vitally important element in the life of the church.6 Reuver wrote that God has been communicating with humans since creation in one form or another.7 Many, including the National Council of Churches (NCC), take the stance that with God as the creator of all things, He gave humans the means to create communication technologies that enable them to disseminate His word through a variety of methods.

When determining the role of communication and communication technologies within the church, Reuver pointed to Hamelink’s summaries of four official documents produced by various Christian churches.9 Each of these documents confirm that, in the eyes of the Christian church, communication and the media should be utilized to help spread the Gospel as well as an educational tool to help put Christian teachings in a context that parishioners can understand and accept.

Many other religious institutions view communication and communication technologies as essential elements in the dissemination of their god’s word. Boomershine asserted that changes in technology and the media can completely alter [and enhance] a community’s understanding of and interaction with the “sacred”. 10 Similarly, Fore noted that communication is important in stewardship and that Christians should take advantage of the media and the various technologies provided by Him in order to spread the Word. 11 Likewise Bausch stated, “The church’s mission is to communicate the Gospel – to make disciples – in every generation. To do that, teachers and preachers communicate the Gospel using the available technologies of their generation.”12 Melheim believed that by adopting and using new technologies churches can improve the overall worship experience for today’s church goers.13

Churches of all shapes and sizes, even those that have not readily taken to other forms of communication technologies, have embraced the Internet. The 2006-2007 National Congregations Study (NCS) found that churches are indeed using more computer technology.14 The study also found that the number of churches using an email system to communicate with their congregants had increased to nearly 60% and over 74% of those polled attended services at a church that had a Web site. This number supports the Barna Group’s 2000 findings that since 2000 there has been a steady increase in the number of Protestant churches using Web sites.15This study revealed that the largest increase in Web site use came from “mainline Protestant churches,” with 70% of these churches reporting having a Web site. Also increasing were churches in the south, with 56% having Web sites, and churches ministered by Baby Boomers, with 65% of their churches having Web sites.

Church Web sites are being used for a variety of reasons. A study of church Web sites conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust found the primary uses of church Web sites are to provide information about location and times of worship, posting mission statements and basic tenets, and providing links to other religious sites.16 A few years later Sturgill conducted a content analysis of more than 300 Baptist church Web sites and determined the primary uses of church Web sites had not changed much. She did note, however, that the main focus of the majority of the church Web sites she viewed was providing times for worship services.17 Others see church Web sites as a very effective marketing tool, a way to reach potential new members.18

Along with providing pertinent information about the church itself and being an effective marketing tool, it is believed that Web sites have helped build “faith communities” for congregants. Churches with Web sites reported that using the Internet helped congregants stay in touch with each other as well as with the church staff and the surrounding community.19 Church leaders see Web sites as one more way to connect with members. “Primarily they see the Web site as another way to transform the lives of their members . . . [a way of providing] stewardship”.20

Many church leaders have gone beyond their own Web sites to reach their congregants. Youth ministers are now using MySpace as a means of keeping up with the younger people in their churches. Lara Blackwood, youth minister at First Christian Church of Fayetteville, Arkansas stated, “They’ll get the word faster if I post it as a MySpace message than if I try to call them.” Others use the popular networking site as a means of watching out for their young charges, making sure they are not posting too much information about themselves.21

Religious leaders are also using technology, the Internet in particular, as a means of communicating and maintaining relationships with their peers across the country. In addition, Hess asserted that technology has helped ministers become more efficient in their worship preparation, leaving more time to devote to the “more personal aspects of their ministry.”22

Insomuch as many religious institutions have embraced the Internet, some have taken it a step further by using their Web sites to stream worship services via audio and/or video file. Those institutions taking advantage of this technology believe it to be a “tremendous” way to minister to those who are unable to attend worship services and as a means of reaching potential new members.23 Likewise, streaming video/audio files is a fairly inexpensive investment, especially if the religious institution already has a Web site, and the returns are well worth the investment.24

Similarly, many churches are using such things as e-mail blasting, blogging, and Podcasting as ways to stay in touch with their congregants. Barna’s study revealed that 56% of Protestant churches use e-mail blasts as a way of communicating with their members.25 This finding was further substantiated in the National Congregations Study of 2006-2007.26 Yet another study revealed Christian blogs can be found in increasing numbers online. These blogs allow Christian leaders to express their thoughts on any number of topics to a wide audience. Likewise, Podcasting is also growing in popularity with not only Christian churches, but with all religious organizations. It is thought that Podcasts “offer a welcome supplement for congregation members and a low-threshold introduction to religious life as practiced by a variety of religions”.27

Virtual churches are also popping up on the Internet. In 2004 the Methodist Church in England sponsored the first church that is completely online, followed shortly by the Church of England’s “i-church”.28 Alyson Leslie, the Anglican Church’s Web pastor stated:

The church is recognizing that it has to be where people are, and people are spending more and more time online. Some are working abroad, some are in countries where they find it difficult to express a Christian faith openly, and some are in residential care and can’t get about. Some are disaffected by the church and want to find new ways to belong.29

While many churches have been taking advantage of communication technologies such as the Internet for several years, many are still resistant or have not fully embraced technology for one reason or another. The NCS found an irregular adoption rate across the country. When it comes to using e-mail and Web sites – but not Power Point slides in worship — congregations associated with more liberal Protestant denominations, along with synagogues, lead the way, and black churches lag behind. There is a digital divide in the religious world.30

Reuver pointed out that many churches are struggling with how to use such communication technologies effectively.31 When incorporating new technology into the day-to-day operations of a church there are some points that need to be considered by those in charge. Postman stated, “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility.” Smart asserted that while the use of media and technology was valuable, the most important tools in communicating God’s word are people.32 Authur took this thought further by writing, “We risk losing sight of people as the most important medium of all, if we fail to take account of the full range of ways in which they express their religiousness . . .”33 Finally, Page suggested that using technology is an appropriate way to “reflect the culture of worshipper,” but warns that if it is not properly used then it serves “little purpose” and takes away from God’s overriding message as well as runs the risk of “becoming the objects of worship themselves.”34

The literature suggests that the Internet has become a vital element in communication as well as in the human experience. Communication technologies and religion shape how people relate to one another, form communities and create meaning from their world. In recent years more and more religious institutions are depending on communication technologies such as the Internet to help disseminate information and messages to their congregations. During the last few years the Internet has fast become one of the primary tools for communication.

This paper examines the breadth and function of Christian Web sites across the country. The research questions are as follows:

  • RQ1: What sort of information is included in church Web sites?
  • RQ2: Is there a difference in the type of information found on church Web sites based on their denomination affiliation?

Methodology

A content analysis was performed, analyzing 151 Web sites from Christian churches across the United States. Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S., so this gives us a good starting point if we decide to examine other religions in the future. Two online directories, A Free Directory of International Churches and ChristianWebsite.com, were utilized to collect the 151 sites. These two sites were selected because they only list Christian churches and because they provide a good representation of churches across denominations and across the United States. From these sites, we only selected churches based in the United States and that were not posted on both sites. A listing of the Web sites was printed and then numbered accordingly. Of the 151 church Web sites selected for analysis, five were unavailable due to bad links or were no longer active sites. This led to a total sample of 146 Web sites.

Three categories were developed, including church as organization, evangelism, and social network. The Web sites were then analyzed with all informational items coded, including text and visual and audio presentations. Church as organization defines Web sites used to post activities that are commonplace in commercial businesses, including marketing and branding. The items in this category may be seen as advancing the interests of the particular church. For example businesses frequently include their mission statement, hours of operation, contact information, and listings of events in an effort to draw interest, attendance, and support. Similarly, churches who utilize their Web site in this capacity seem to be making an effort to promote their services and personnel to the community at large, much as a commercial business would.

Evangelism is used to describe sites that include activities designed to recruit new members into the church as well as aid in the spiritual growth of current members. Such evangelistic activities include the streaming of audio and video of worship services, links to denominational information and Bible studies, and staff blogs and information directed at guiding new attendees in the workings of the church.

Churches in the social network category utilize their Web sites to post activities that allow members to keep in touch with each other individually, with the church as a whole, and with the community in which they are located. Much as social networking devices like Facebook and MySpace are designed to create community, churches that use their Web site in a social networking manner are attempting to expand the church beyond the four walls of the church building. Items in this category include prayer requests, online and printable sign-ups for church activities, feedback forms, bulletin boards, and links to community activities.

Once the churches were selected and the categories defined, the authors developed the code book and tested it by examining three church Web sites. This was done to determine if categories were redundant or incomplete. Criteria were realigned as needed. Next, the authors enlisted the assistance of three outside individuals. These assistants received an explanation on the scope of the study and were trained in using the code book. Finally, the Web sites were divided evenly among the authors and assistants, with intercoder reliability being tested at several stages in the process.

For analysis purposes, the churches themselves were also grouped into larger categories, including Baptist, Non-Denominational, and additional denominations. These categories were based upon the breakdown of churches included in the databases that were used for Web site selection. The churches with the highest presence in the databases included Non-Denominational (n=84) and Baptist (n=24). Churches whose denomination could not be specified or who had too few listed to be considered on their own were included in the additional denominations category (n=38) (see Table 7).

As noted in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Religious Landscape Survey, there are many Christian denominations, including several categories listed in both the Evangelical and mainline protestant churches (e.g. Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian). However, for our study few churches from denominations other than Baptist and Non-Denominational were included in the databases. For example, both the Methodist and Lutheran churches had only eight listings in the databases, while only five were listed as Presbyterian.

Results

The coding units were grouped into larger categories including churches as organizations, evangelism, and social networking functions. In order to be considered as functioning in one of these categories, the church’s Web site must have included at least half of the criteria established for each category. For example there were 18 criteria listed for church as organization. A church’s Web site must have met at least nine of these criteria to fall into this particular category.

This results section will be broken into two categories. The first section will address Research Question 1, relating to the type of information included in these Web sites. Section two will center on Research Question 2, the differences in the type of information found on church Web sites based on their denomination affiliation.

Table 1 shows the usage of information on Web sites designed to present the church as organization. To determine the categories of information that might help create the sense that the church was an organization, several criteria were used. The inclusion of a church logo, address, phone number and worship/service times seemed to hold the same information that would be included in advertisements for other organizations/businesses. Other types of information that could be construed as organizational because of common usage in business included biographies of church leadership, mission statements, listing of board of governance, church policies, newsletters, and employment opportunities. As indicated by Table 1, the inclusion of worship times and directions to the church were by far the most commonly seen organizational categories.

Table 1. Number of Web sites Containing Criteria Designed to Present the Church as Organization

Web Site Itemn
Worship service times138
Phone number & address135
Directions121
Biography and/or photo of pastor112
Weekly schedule109
Special events listing108
Pastor/staff contact information92
Photos87
Logo86
Mission statement86
Listing of church staff83
Church history77
Introduction and/or photo of church staff74
Pastor’s welcome56
Church newsletter44
Church policies24
Employment opportunities7

            N = 146

Table 2 shows the information on church Web sites that is designed to evangelize visitors. Items considered evangelistic in nature included the streaming of sermons either via audio or video, the basic beliefs and tenants of the church, explanation of the denomination, as well as links to various blogs, Bible studies, or other religious information. The presentation of the church’s basic beliefs and/or tenants appeared most often, while video streaming of the worship service appeared least.  

Table 2. Number of Web sites Containing Criteria Designed for Evangelism

Web Site Itemn
Basic beliefs and/or tenants108
List of Sunday school classes and/or small groups94
Audio streaming of worship services71
Links to other religious information/other Web sites63
Bible study materials51
Information on how to give45
Information for new attendees44
Links to denominational information39
Devotionals35
Sermon text30
Denominational information29
Links to Bible study information not found on the church’s Web site29
Link to pastor/staff’s blog28
Video streaming of worship services16

            N = 146

The final category coded for consisted of elements used in the Web site that would encourage or create social networking for church members and visitors (see Table 3). The items coded for in this category are designed to enable the staff members and church goers to create somewhat of a virtual community, allowing them to more easily interact with each other and communicate about important happenings in not only their lives, but the life of the church. Surprisingly, this category had the least amount of activity.

Table 3. Number of Web sites Containing Information Designed for Social Networking

Web Site Itemn
Listing of missions or other service opportunities87
For more information link78
Prayer requests61
Webmaster e-mail address46
Logos other than the church38
Articles from news services or other publications23
Links to community organizations22
Calendar of events for entities other than the church20
On-line sign-up for church activities20
Feedback form19
Bulletin board service15
Guestbook9
Printable sign-up forms for church activities 4
  

            N = 146

The following section addresses research question two. Based on denominational categories, there were some differences in the manner in which Web sites were used.

As shown in Table 4, non-denominational churches had the highest concentration that used their Web sites to present church as an organization. Twenty non-denominational churches utilized their Web sites in an evangelistic capacity, while 10 churches listed under the additional denominations category used their Web sites for the purpose of evangelism (see Table 5). Similarly, non-denominational churches had the most churches using their Web sites for the social networking function (see Table 6).

Table 4. Number of Web sites Containing Material Used to Present Church as Organization by Denomination

Denominationn
Non-Denomination54
Additional Denominations27
Baptist           17

N = 146

The second category coded was evangelism. This category included criteria that are designed to recruit new members into the church as well as aid in the spiritual growth of current members. As reflected in Table 5, non-denominational and churches included in the additional denominations category were equal in the inclusion of evangelism materials, while Baptist churches were last.

Table 5. Number of Web sites Containing Evangelism Material by Denomination

Denominationn
Non-Denomination20
Additional Denominations10
Baptist           7

N = 146

Table 6 shows that only non-denominational churches had items in the social networking category. While this number appears small by comparison to the previous two categories, it must be remembered that in order for a church’s Web site to be qualify for a category it must contain at least half of the established criteria.

Table 6. Number of Web sites Containing Material Used to Present the Church as a Social Network by Denomination

Denominationn
Non-Denomination3
Additional Denominations0
Baptist           0

N = 146

  Table 7. Numerical representation of total sample by Denominations

DenominationnPercent of N (146)
Non-Denomination8457.5
Baptist           2416.4
Assembly of God80.05
Methodist80.05
Episcopalian70.05
Church of Christ60.04
Presbyterian50.03
Catholic20.01
Lutheran20.01
Greek Orthodox00.00

Discussion

Overall the results of our study mimicked the findings of several earlier studies.35Churches do most often utilize their Web sites to position themselves as an organization. The most common criteria presented under this category included worship service times, phone numbers and addresses as well as directions. The literature suggests that it is vital for churches to use technology as a communication tool in order to sustain their existence.36 By using their Web sites to present themselves as organization, churches have become more aligned with the functions of traditional businesses, which will help the churches build and maintain community awareness.

Secondly, the Web sites were presenting materials used for evangelism. This is where our study differs from Sturgill’s. She found that there was a significantly lower use of church Web sites for evangelism as compared to church as organization.37 Our study, on the other hand, found that while there were fewer occurrences of evangelism, they were not as infrequent as Sturgill reported. This could possibly be due to the fact that Sturgill examined only Baptist churches and our study branched out to examine churches of a variety of denominations. Another possibility would be that churches have become more sophisticated in their use of Web sites to further promote their points of view and beliefs concerning religion.

While we found that many churches view the Web site as a tool to evangelize their congregants or potential members, very few look to their Web site as a means of developing a social network. Just slightly more than half of the Web sites analyzed offered a listing of missions or other service opportunities, yet less than half offered a space for such things as prayer requests, “for more information” or feedback, church directories or links to community events. One note of interest is that the vast majority of Web sites contained a newsletter, schedule of special events or weekly schedule, but only 20 offered a place for congregants to sign up for church activities on-line, and only four offered a printable sign-up sheet for activities. This seems to indicate that while churches have become more sophisticated in their use of Web sites, they still have not reached the full potential of creating sites where congregants can come to socialize and build on-line communities.

Overall our results closely followed Sturgill’s assumption that the overwhelming purpose of these Web sites appears to be that of promoting the church as an organization and attracting visitors. She stated,

There was little attention spent in developing relational aspects of the site that might in some way extend the church experience in the online realm. Although the sites did have evangelistic components, they often seemed to follow more of an organizational model of promoting the entity rather than the message the entity had to share.38

Limitations of this study included the use of a relatively small sample as well as the use of only two databases to collect church Web sites. Insomuch as we believe the geographical reach of the churches found within these databases was quite expansive, they did lack volume and breadth. One additional limitation is that we only examined Christian churches. However, this could also be construed as a positive for the study in that, while the different denominations may vary slightly, they do still have the basic belief systems in place, which provided consistency throughout our study.

Nonetheless, this information may be useful to churches across denominations as they seek to make their Web sites more useful to their congregations. This study could also be useful as a starting point to research the use of Web sites of all other religions. While the focus of this study was Christian churches in the United States, Christian churches in other nations, as well as the churches, synagogues, and mosques of other religions around the world may show very different results. A comparative study of these other religions and nations may bear some interesting findings.

Shonna Tropf an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Central Missouri. She teaches courses in mass communication and broadcasting. Her research interests lie in religion in the media and popular culture. She also serves as the department’s graduate coordinator.     
Joe Moore is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Central Missouri. He teaches in the areas of journalism and public relations. His research interests lies in sports communication and religion in the media.    

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