Millions of Americans are turning to the Internet to get them in touch with God and others who pursue faith matters, according to a study by Barna Research, which also projects that as many as 50 million people may rely solely upon the Internet for their faith-based experiences before the decade is over.
Barna Research found that 8 percent of adults and 12 percent of teenagers use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences. Religious use of the Internet ranked eighth among the eight possibilities explored. Less than 1 percent of all adults and just 2 percent of teens currently use the Internet as a substitute for a physical church, and most respondents indicated that they do not expect to replace their involvement in a bricks-and-mortar faith experience with a Net-based faith experience.
But the study also found that people are just warming up to the idea of cyberfaith. When asked about their likeliness to use the Internet to seek or engage in specific types of religious experiences, more than two-thirds indicated 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.
If the research projections hold true, even online worship, the least appealing of the 11 Net-based faith alternatives tested in the study, would likely attract 30 to 35 million adults. The most attractive option (listening to religious teaching online) would likely draw more than 100 million adults. Younger respondents are also more familiar with religious applications of the Internet. 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.
“By the end of the decade we will have in excess of 10 percent of our population who rely upon the Internet for their entire spiritual experience,” said George Barna, the director of the study. “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.”
One-third of Protestant churches have a Web site, the study found, and a total of about 110,000 Protestant congregations have a digital presence. Expansion will proceed at a moderately brisk pace: among the two-thirds of churches that do not presently have a Web site, 19 percent said they definitely will have one within the next 12 months. Overall about half of the churches that do not have a Web site 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 Web sites 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 of every six churches. Most church Web sites are developed and maintained predominantly for the use of congregants, although pastors were the most likely respondents to say that the target audience was people from outside their church.
The Barna Research report is based upon three national surveys conducted during the last half of 2000. A random sample of 1,017 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.