The advent of congregational sites
Among our respondents, Web sites were fairly well established: 44% have been up for over 2 years, and 78% for at least one year. They were generally created on an ad hoc basis by volunteers (66%) rather than as a planned action of the clergy or a committee (27%). Once running, however, the sites were not left entirely in the hands of volunteers; 81% of congregations have some sort of clearance procedure before new content can be added. One Webmaster wrote that his pastor deliberately curbs use of flashy technology on the site – “our page stays focused on the Word of God, and not on cyber display!”
Some 53% of sites can gauge the use of their sites through tracking hits, and a few track hits on every page so they can evaluate traffic patterns. One congregation stated that it had received hits from every continent.
Congregations host their sites through a variety of means. Many employ an account with commercial ISPs to host their sites and provide email accounts. Others use commercial ISPs that provide free space in return for advertising space on the site. Tripod.com, for example, provides free Web sites. Whenever a Tripod-run site is accessed, a pop-up window appears on the top of the user’s screen indicating that the site belongs to a Tripod member, and offering advertising messages or links to such things as travel sites or mortgage lenders. Angelfire.com offers a similar service, although in at least one case, the Angelfire pop-up window offered a lottery-style powerball-type game suggesting the viewer could win several million dollars. When we revisited the site, the pop-up screen offered a service to find old high-school friends. Apparently, Angelfire runs a variety of ads through its pop-up windows regardless of whether the client is a church or more secular kind of institution.
Web space was also provided by denominations and by organizations that appeared to exist solely to provide Web services for congregations. One very active church body in this regard is the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), United Methodist Church. Of the initial 20,000 congregational Web addresses we collected, over 3,000 were part of the gbgm-umc.org domain. Netministries.com and Forministry.com offer free, template-based Web pages to congregations who might not otherwise have the means or the expertise to post their own sites.
One particularly intriguing domain, now defunct, was www.housesofworship.net, or www.hows.net. None of the congregations with URLs under these domains still had existing pages. When we explored the links to the URLs on the homepage of this screen, we were led to either clickheretofind.com, a tenacious commercial site that features online casinos and aggressive marketing pop-up windows, or to http://search.vu/christian.html, a Christian search engine, marketing window, and dating service.
The Internet’s role in community building
Web sites and email are making a difference in congregational life. Fully 83% of respondents noted that their Web sites had helped congregational life “some” or “a great deal,” and 81% agree that at some level, email has helped improve the spiritual life of the congregation.
These general sentiments can also be understood in particular contexts. We analyzed the use of the Internet by churches and synagogues along four demographic lines. First, we looked at how religion and denomination corresponded to some activities. We divided the congregation into three main groups: Christian churches (which made up the large majority of respondents to our survey), Jewish synagogues (91 of which responded to the survey), and Unitarian Universalist churches (74 of which responded). Second, we analyzed the responses based on the size of the congregation’s budget. Third, we looked at the relationship between the Web site’s function and the overall Internet connectivity of the congregation. Respondents could choose one of three options on this. If they felt that less than 30% of the congregation members have Internet access, they claimed had “low” congregational connectivity. “Average” connectivity fell in the 31%-50% range, and “high” connectivity came when more than 50% of the congregation has Internet access. Finally, we looked at the changing size of the congregation, which we discovered by asking each respondent to say whether membership had grown, shrunk, or remained the same in the past three years.
The best-funded churches and synagogues with the most-wired congregations were the most likely to report that their Web sites had helped the congregation’s spiritual life. Fully 91% of the churches with budgets over $500,000 said the Web site had helped, compared to 78% of the churches with budgets under $150,000. Similarly, 90% of the high-access congregations say their Web site helped the church’s spiritual life, compared to 67% of those with low access. Finally, congregations with well-established Web sites (those in operation for more than two years) were more likely than those with newer Web sites to report that the site had aided the congregation’s spiritual life.
When it comes to the impact of email on the life of the faith community, one surprising finding is that congregations with increasing or decreasing membership are equally impressed with what email does for their faith communities. Improved communications between congregational staff and members due to email is more noted among congregations that have grown (94%) or decreased (92%) in size than for congregations whose membership has remained stable (79%). The level of Internet access in the congregation, of course, is also a major factor influencing their satisfaction with email. Some 90% of high-access congregations express pleasure with email’s role in their community, compared to 62% of congregations with lower levels of Internet access among members. An example of how email improves spiritual life came from a Conservative synagogue whose Webmaster noted that email is used at times to inform members of a death in the congregation, and to ask for volunteers to sit with the body and pray with the family.
The most frequently cited use of these congregational Web sites was to attract new visitors. Furthermore, the most prevalent accomplishment of Web sites is to bring in visitors and new members. One small, new church noted at all of its new members first learned of the church through its Web page. Another church noted that it was rebuilding after going into decline 10 years ago, and that the Web site was helping bring in new visitors. In addition, a small number of congregations say their Web pages were important in bringing in new clergy.
Many congregations also noted that their sites have allowed former members to stay in touch. This is particularly common among sites that serve military families. A few churches even note that if they are slow in updating the site or posting the most recent sermon, old members are quick to write and point this out.
Although most sites are focused on serving a single congregation, a small number noted that they exist to serve disperse populations who are more readily reachable on the Web than elsewhere. These included sites that serve Messianic Jews (www.mjaa.org), gays and lesbians (www.MotherFlash.com), and the deaf (Calvary Lutheran Church for the deaf at http://www.ioweb.com/calvary/home.html.) One Lutheran site focuses on reaching Gypsies throughout the world (http://www.newlifeforthegypsies.org).
The features of congregation Web sites
Most congregations responding to our survey indicate that the primary function of their Web sites is to promote their presence in a community and support their basic faith and worship activities. These Web sites are created principally to serve the local needs of the faith community. The three most common features of congregational Web sites are content that encourages visitors to attend services, faith texts including mission statements and sermons, and links to denominational and faith-related Web sites. “The site is used primarily to introduce us to a community which is 75% unchurched and who don’t know what goes on in a church,” said one of the respondents to the survey.
The next most important Web site features are those that enhance the spiritual and organizational life of the congregation. They include links to scripture studies and devotional material, schedules of activities, photos of congregational events, youth group material, and links to sites that assist with congregational administration, such as national associations for the clergy.
Less than a third of the sites have features that perform outreach functions to the local community or wider world. Some 33% of the respondents said their sites contained links to community sites such as the local media, government agencies, or local activities like festivals and 31% had material promoting missionary or evangelical work by congregation members.
The least common Web site features were an eclectic mixture. They included space for prayer requests, community-based activities such as volunteer work outside the congregation or legislative or social justice activities, technically sophisticated activities such as Webcasts, and sensitive activities such as online fundraising.
When we examined the Web site features along the different demographic lines, we saw that several of our findings were intuitive: Christian sites were more likely than Jewish or Unitarian sites to promote missionary and evangelical work. Congregations with high levels of Internet access were more likely to use email in communications between clergy and congregations, or between committee members. Yet other findings were surprising. Congregations whose membership is changing, either increasing or decreasing, in general showed greater adoption of Web site features and email than did congregations whose membership has remained stable for at least three years.
Here is a rundown of the major activities on congregational Web sites:
Visitors invited to attend. Fully 83% of the responding congregations, regardless of faith, budget, the congregation’s level of access, or the growth status said features to attract visitors were part of their sites. Many said new visitors had come into their midst after learning of the church or synagogue through its Web site. One small, new church noted that all of its new members first learned of the church through its Web page. Another church noted that it was rebuilding after going into decline 10 years ago, and that the Web site was helping bring in new visitors. Congregations note that they get calls from visitors who just moved to an area and first went hunting online for the names of local parishes. Some say they hear from families who have gone searching online before they move to an area in quest of finding a new church home. One synagogue noted that its site has prompted calls from people asking if they can visit even if they are not Jewish.
Of course, one reason this type of information is so readily available on congregational Web sites is that it is easy and inexpensive to post. Service times, directions to the church or temple, and welcome material is generally static content – it does not require revision or maintenance once it is posted. Some of the Webmasters at these congregations were frustrated by the lack of time and resources available to them to institute other Web site features. Thus, it is easy to see why many felt that welcoming material gave them the most bang for the buck.
Faith-related text. We asked congregations if their sites contained material such as mission statements, sermons, and other faith-related content and 77% said they did. This kind of information was most prevalent among Unitarian Universalist congregations (92%). This makes some sense because the basic precepts of Unitarian Universalism are probably less well known than those of Christianity and Judaism, and the web site offers an opportunity to explain those beliefs.
Links to denominational and other faith-related sites. About 76% of respondents said their sites provided links to other Internet sites related to their faiths. There were no great variations in the incidence of this feature when it came to a congregation’s religious affiliation, budget level, or access level of the congregation. In addition to making pages more interesting, links are easy to create and do not require frequent maintenance, particularly when they relate to material as timeless as the basic beliefs of different religions and denominations. That may be one of the primary reasons such links are so popular.
Links to scripture study or devotional material. Some 60% of congregations provide links to devotional material or information that assists in scripture study. From the comments we received, we know that these resources are used both for the personal benefit of individuals who use them, and for the preparation of worship services and religious-school activities.
Internal communications. Some 56% of our respondents say they use their Web sites to publish the schedule, calendar, and weekly bulletins. This material is most prevalent (63%) on the Web sites of high-budget congregations (those over $500,000). This content was frequently cited as the most popular and well-read part of congregational Web sites. One congregation noted that it gets 10 times its normal traffic on Friday nights because younger church members like to check for service times and other activities over the weekend.
Photos of congregational events. Photos of congregational events are a means of providing a service for congregation members and promoting the congregation to the community. Overall, 50% of respondents said their Web sites posted photos of congregational events. High budget congregations (60%) were more likely than low budget (42%) to post photos, and Unitarian congregations (33%) were less likely than others (49%) to do so. One Unitarian congregation noted that its policy of asking permission of every person involved before posting photographs kept such postings rather low.
Youth group material. The popularity of the Internet with young people, coupled with general fears concerning the material available to youth at other places on the Internet, suggests why many congregational sites are eager to provide interactive material for their youth. One church noted that such material “greatly increases youth participation, since they live on the Web.” Some 44% of our respondents said that their sites do contain youth group material and activities. Wealthier congregations appear more eager – and able – to do so. Some 61% of congregations with budgets over $500,000 provide youth material, compared to 30% of congregations with budgets under $150,000.
Material to promote missionary/evangelical work. As noted already, this is primarily the domain of Christian sites (35%), although a handful of Jewish congregations (3%) and Unitarian congregations (7%) also include it as a feature. Among Christian sites, it is almost twice as prevalent in high-budget congregations (47%) as low budget (28%). It is also most prevalent among Fundamental (48%) and Greek Orthodox (44%) respondents, and least prevalent among Ecumenicals (25%) and Roman Catholics (22%).
“Evangelism” may have different meanings from church to church, so it is expected that it would manifest itself in different ways online. For some churches, simply inviting visitors to participate in worship and fellowship may constitute evangelism. Other congregational sites take evangelism further, inviting cyber-visitors to take steps of repentance and commitment. One church noted that its prayer section offers an opportunity for evangelism, particularly to non-Christians who write in to request prayer.
Prayer requests. Space for prayer requests is not a widely adopted feature. Just 18% of these respondents offered a feature like this on their Web sites. It is a relatively popular feature of Christian sites (21%) rather than Jewish (2%). None of the Unitarian Universalist sites said they provided such information on their Web site. It is possible that many sites are reluctant to encourage prayer requests online because they want to protect the privacy of those who are experiencing difficulty. At times, these types of requests might be better handled in email.
However, churches that do accept prayer requests have encountered unanticipated opportunities for outreach and ministry. One noted that it had linked with prayer sites from other churches, so that it could now pray for “thousands of hurting people.” Such opportunities also appear when churches receive prayer requests from non-members, and one church noted that most of its prayer requests come from non-Christian countries.
Volunteers and service. Most congregations need volunteers for church or temple functions and for community programs such as soup kitchens and fundraisers. Web sites are not yet a prime communication tool in this matter; just 15% include these goals. As with the creation of prayer chains, this may be an activity that many feel is better left to the telephone or in-person conversation. However, some congregations report reaping benefits from posting such material on their site. One church piqued the interest of teenagers who were not members but who wanted to join a mission trip a Mexico. Another site received a message from someone in Grenada, which led the church to head up a clothing drive to send assistance. Yet another provided overnight accommodations for a youth group visiting from out of town. Someone in the group had contacted the church office after finding its site.
In a related question, we asked congregations whether their sites advocated legislative or social justice action. Just 9% of all sites did this, though the Unitarian Universalist sites (32%) were most likely to do so. One church noted that it had received calls from non-members who were interested in its social justice projects.
A few congregations support cyber-activists by providing links to the Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com). Just by clicking on the site, visitors can ensure the donation of food to hungry areas of the world, and on the site can learn more about what they can do to abate hunger.
Pages to sign up for classes or programs. Congregations are much less likely to have two-way communication features on their Web sites than one-way broadcast features. Only 8% of Web sites provided sign-up capacity to their members. High budget congregations (19%) were more likely than low budget (4%) to use this feature, and, controlling for budget, Jewish congregational sites were more likely than Christian or Unitarian Universalist to offer it. We did not receive any comments that would shed light on how the availability of this feature affected congregational life.
Live services. When broadband services are widely deployed, it is possible that many congregations will provide live sound and video feeds to allow meetings, discussion, and worship participation for far-flung participants. These interactive features are virtually unknown now. Fewer than 5% of even the wealthiest congregations provide live Webcasts of services, or two-way discussion space for prayer or study groups. A few comments, however, suggest that one-way Webcasting is more successful than two-way communications. Relatives in Israel watched a Bat Mitzvah ceremony in California, and former members now overseas were able to “attend” regular worship services at their old church. However, the only comment we received concerning chat functions remarked that the feature had seen “little use.”
Online fundraising. In an age where people are becoming used to making purchases and even political donations online, the idea of online fundraising for congregational fundraising has not taken off. Only 5% of congregational Web sites reported having online fundraising. There are several potential reasons for this. Most of these faith communities wanted to provide a welcoming site for potential visitors without leaving the implication that they had created the Web site for the purpose of expanding the donor pool. It is also true, though, that many congregations do not want to incur the expense of creating a secure-server environment for cyber-stewardship. Fully 87% of respondents noted that they had no plans for or had never considered adding fundraising to their sites; that is higher than the rejection rate for any other feature.
Of the sites that do engage in online fundraising, only about 1 in 5 actually take only credit card contributions or pledges. Nearly one-third merely mention an on-going fundraising or stewardship drive (often in the form of on-line bulletins or newsletters) or provide information on who to contact regarding making a donation.
The most common direct fundraising technique emerges from Internet entrepreneurship. Sites can help members find books or music of interest by providing links to Amazon.com or another vendor, which then remits to the congregation a portion of the purchases made through their site. One third of sites with fundraising features used this model, which provides members with merchandise they want and the congregation with an extra revenue stream.
Other special features. In the course of the study, we have learned of several Web site features that were not easily placed in the categories about which we were asking. Some congregations have adopted Web tools in quite individualistic and ingenious ways. A few are listed below:
- Catholic parishes in Mobile, Alabama use the rcamobile.org domain include links to a hurricane tracking service on their sites: http://rcamobile.org/hurricane.html.
- A Methodist Church in California notes in small print on its front page that, in order to prevent injuries, it makes free gun locks available to the public: http://www.gbgm-umc.org/fumcv.
- One church offers a feature that generates graphics and site navigation tools for the deaf: http://www.ioweb.com/calvary/home.html.
- Churches with schools on their premises post school closing notices during bad weather [see, for example, http://www.mkorshalom.org].
- A synagogue in Tulsa, Oklahoma includes a link titled “Move to Tulsa”, which provides enthusiastic information on the Jewish community in Tulsa: http://uahc.org/congs/ok/ok004/.
- A Methodist Church in Ohio offers a “random encouragement generator” on its front page, which provides brief messages of encouragement to visitors: http://www.gbgm-umc.org/cosumc/.
- A Maryland church that suffered the murder of its priest this summer used its site to maintain communications with the congregation, and posted a memorial page that includes tributes from the community and news clippings that track the story through the eventual arrest of a suspect: http://members.aol.com/setonpage/Welcome.htm.
The next wave of development in congregational Web sites
We asked respondents to tell us what kind of features they might add to their Web sites. In many cases the features being considered were those that would give more information about the basic life of the congregation and its activities. The least likely add-ons were those that related to outreach to the wider community, interactive features, and those that involved transactions.
Congregations hope to include the following features on their sites in the future:
- 29% said they hoped to post photos of congregation events
- 27% hoped to post youth group material
- 22% hoped to provide space for prayer requests
- 21% hoped to include a sign-up feature for classes and programs
- 18% hoped to include links to scripture studies or devotional material
- 16% hoped to include links to community sites such as local media, government agencies, or community events like festivals
- 15% hoped to post schedules of events, meeting minutes, and other internal communications
- 15% hoped to post material promoting missionary or evangelical work
- 15% hoped to post information on volunteer needs in their community
- 14% hoped to include a feature to solicit ushers and volunteers for congregational work
- 13% hoped to provide discussion space for study and prayer groups
- 12% hoped to post mission statements, sermons and other text concerning faith
- 12% hoped to begin Webcasting services
- 12% hoped to post material on non-faith matters related to services in the community such as after-school programs
- 11% hoped to link to denomination and faith-related sites
- 11% hoped to include material promoting legislative and social justice action
- 9% hoped to include material inviting visitors to attend
- 7% hoped to create online fundraising features
The darker side of the Internet
Very few of the congregations that responded to us had problems with their Web sites. Fully 90% said they had experienced no problems at all. About 8% of the sites said they had experienced problems with their Internet service provider and a mere 9 out of the 1,309 respondents said they had experienced problems with hackers – that is less than 1% of the respondent population.
Still, a small number of the respondents sounded some familiar and bedeviling complaints. Several noted that their Web site had not generated any new enthusiasm or any new activity at church. A few noted with sadness that some of the features of the Web site had hardly received any traffic. Others said there was little congregational support for the Web site and that, in a few cases, a decision had been made to scale back or abandon the site. Several noted that it was hard to get anyone to update the Web site with new material.