Bridging the tech divide: catering for the digital generation at church
As a generation of young people reach adulthood, they've had life-long access to digital information and communication technologies. So we asked churches what technology they use in church life, either for administration, communication or worship.
How do Australian churches take advantage of technology to cater for younger, more digitally literate generations? Findings from the 2016 National Church Life Survey show that some 71% of churches had a website, and 63% used email for communication with attenders as a whole group. Over a third (37%) of churches had Wi-Fi access on their church premises.
Just over half of churches (54%) had a Facebook page and a few (3%) had even developed their own app. Some variations were seen by church location, between urban, regional and rural areas*.
For many people searching for a church or wishing to attend a special church service throughout the year, e.g. Christmas or Easter, there's a reasonable chance that they will use an internet search to find a church, particularly in cities and urban areas. Thus, for local churches it is becoming increasingly relevant to have an online webpage, essentially the new 'sign out front' showing their service times, locations and contact details.
When surveyed, some 71% of churches overall reported having a website in the 2016 NCLS. Churches in urban areas were twice as likely to have a website than those in rural areas. Around nine in 10 churches in urban areas (89%) had a website, compared with 65% of churches in regional areas, and just 45% of churches in rural areas.
Over a third of churches (37%) reported providing Wi-Fi access within their church building (whether publicly available or for staff use only was undefined). The geographic location of churches appeared to affect the presence of Wi-Fi access. Whether due to infrastructure, budget or choice, rural and regional churches indicated lower levels of Wi-Fi provision than urban churches. Half of churches in urban areas reported Wi-Fi access in their building, in comparison with 28% of churches in regional areas and 24% of churches in rural areas.
Posting, tweeting and pinning are becoming common ways to share information on social media platforms. So to what extent do churches use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter?
We found that just over half of churches (54%) had a Facebook page, only 5% used Twitter and 7% used other social media platforms. Higher rates of social media use were evident in urban churches, with 67% of churches in urban areas using Facebook, compared with 47% of churches in regional areas and 40% of churches in rural or remote areas.
We also asked churches how they used internet or device-based communication and administration tools. We found that 63% of churches used email to correspond with their attenders as a whole group. Just over a third (35%) had an e-newsletter as their way of regularly circulating the church notices electronically.
Three in 10 churches (30%) used a Church Management Software program for administration purposes. A few churches (3%) had even developed their own app for their church, to be used on smart devices such as mobile phones and tablets.
Text messages are also a form of quick and efficient communication amongst most generations. The 2016 NCLS findings indicate that 31% of churches used text messages as a way of communicating with their churchgoers.
When asked about use of projected media in worship, nearly eight in 10 Protestant and Anglican churches** (78%) reported having at least one worship service where visual projection tended to be used. Differences between churches by their geographic location were clear. Nine in 10 urban churches reported the use of visual projections in worship services, compared with seven in 10 (71%) regional churches and around six in 10 (64%) rural churches.
Just over half of Protestant and Anglican churches overall (57%) reported having at least one worship service where video clips tended to be used. Again, urban locations reported higher use of video clips (71% urban, vs 50% regional, vs 41% rural churches).
Particularly where a church is in a rural or remote area, or where there is no accredited clergy, churches can take advantage of multi-media recordings and projections as a worship and teaching resource. Or churches wishing to engage their attenders with creative and dynamic presentations also make use of such technologies.
Just under half of Protestant and Anglican churches** (48%) reported having at least one worship service where pre-recorded music tended to be used, at some point during the service. The use of pre-recorded music was similar across churches, regardless of their geographic location (48% urban, 49% regional, 48% rural). Also consistent across church locations was the use of a recorded or streamed sermon or homily. Four in 10 Protestant and Anglican churches overall reported having at least one worship service that typically involves hearing a sermon or homily either via live broadcast or a recording (41% urban, 40% regional, 37% rural).
Another use of web-based technology can be seen in churches uploading their sermons or homilies to the internet, for people to view online. Around a third of churches (34%) in 2016 reported that they recorded their sermons or homilies and posted them on the internet. With more people using device-based technology, such strategies for online teaching and learning may be beneficial.
As device-based digital communication is prevalent in society, it is clear that some Australian churches are also taking advantage of technology to cater for more digitally literate generations. Where technology meets liturgy, where devices facilitate new communication methods and where the online world now builds a sense of community for many, churches are wise to consider ways to reach the emerging digital generation into the future.
* N.B. Urban areas are defined as having a population of over 100,000 residents; regional areas as having a population of 20,000-100,000 residents; and rural areas as having a population of less than 20,000 residents.
** Some results in this article were derived from survey questions only asked of Protestant churches. Sets of results are sourced from both Catholic and Protestant churches unless otherwise specified.
Powell, R. Sterland, S. Pepper, M. and Hancock, N. (2016). 2016 NCLS Operations Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.