Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Pastor Rick Warren has over 600,000 followers on Twitter. Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California has over 20,000 “likes” on Facebook and a sophisticated website where visitors can check the events calendar, watch streaming video of sermons, and post comments. Warren, however, seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Although a few churches are using social media to connect with their congregants quite effectively, most places of worship have sparse online offerings and few Americans report using technology or social media for religious purposes.
Public Religion Research Institute’s July Religion & Politics Tracking Survey found that only 5% of Americans follow a religious or spiritual leader on Twitter or Facebook, and that only 6% joined a religious or spiritual group on Facebook. Given that successful models of social media integration already exist, what’s stopping most places of worship from upgrading to Religion 2.0?
Churches and other places of worship wishing to leverage social media tools like Facebook and Twitter face two major obstacles: a lack of resources to invest in new technology, at least for most places of worship, which tend to be relatively small; and low congregant interest in these forms of communication.
Despite the high profile of megachurches like Saddleback, the vast majority of Americans (68%) attend congregations with less than 500 members. Fewer than 1-in-10 (9%) Americans who attend at least a few times a year say their congregation includes at least 2,000 people.
The survey found that larger churches and places of worship (500 to 2,000 members), not surprisingly, invest more heavily in technology than smaller places of worship (fewer than 100 members). More than 4-in-10 (42%) Americans who attend large congregations report that their place of worship uses television or multi-media screens, compared to only one-quarter (26%) of Americans who attend smaller churches. Similarly, nearly 4-in-10 (39%) Americans who attend large congregations report that their place of worship has a Facebook page or website; only 27% of those attending small congregations report the same (27%).
The second challenge facing churches and other places of worship has to do with demographics—who’s online and who’s in church. Simply put, the Americans who are most likely to be connected online are least likely to be found in the pews. The survey found that a majority (53%) of Millennials (Americans age 18 to 29) report using Facebook at least once a day, while only 7% percent of seniors (age 65 and up) say the same. However, Nearly half of seniors report attending services at least weekly, compared to only about one-quarter of Millennials. Roughly 1-in-4 (24%) Americans who attend religious services say that they are not sure if their religious leader uses Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that a significant number of congregants aren’t interested in engaging with their church online to begin with.
At this point the social media revolution has not had much impact on many of America’s religious communities. However, with younger Americans increasingly congregating online and increasingly claiming no formal religious affiliation, technology offers untapped opportunities for places of worship to reach them. The message just has to fit in 140 characters.