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Faiths navigate how to engage congregants using technology

By Katie Harmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012 4:47 p.m. MDT

Few Americans are using social media to connect to their faith communities, according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute.

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At the Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, Md., congregants are divided over plans to remodel the chapel.

The church is in the process of remodeling the chapel to accommodate larger screens and projectors, but they may cover a larger painting of Christ, traditionally decorating the front of the chapel. The decision resulted in a large outcry, said Cindy Brown, the church's director of programs.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, the pace of the transition appears to be moving much slower when it comes to faith and churches. Few Americans are using social media to connect to their faith communities, according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The study found only 5 percent of Americans surveyed reported following a spiritual leader online, and only 6 percent reported joining a religious or spiritual group on Facebook.

The survey looked at ways Americans use technology in relation to their faith, including everything from the use of video, cameras and phones during church services to congregants using websites and social media to connect to their faith community between services.

The driving force behind the survey was the recent increase of anecdotes in the media about faith leaders utilizing social media to connect with congregants, said Daniel Cox, PRRI's research director.

"We didn't have any sense of how much individuals were actually using social media in relation to their faith," Cox said.

When the survey results countered previous anecdotal claims, the researchers were taken aback.

"We were kind of surprised that it was so low. It was sort of shocking," Cox said.

Cox said generational difference played a large role in the low levels of online involvement reported.

"When we look at who's online and who's in church, there's a stark difference," Cox said. "We have older Americans overrepresented in the pews, and younger Americans overrepresented online."

Lauren Rochester, 27, said she sees a similar gap in her congregation. Rochester is a member of the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis. The church has several thousand members and hosts a website, but it doesn't actively promote online resources. Most of the congregation is older.

"I don't think most of the congregants would actually be interested in checking online," Rochester said.

However, generational differences were not the only consideration. Even if the online community was stronger, Rochester said she would hesitate before joining.

"I try to keep a little separation (on Facebook)," Rochester said. "I think that if they had a Facebook page I would 'like' it. … I would be a lot more comfortable with that than adding a bunch of people from the congregation as friends."

While some avoid the mingling of media with faith due to generational or privacy reasons, others feel technology, particularly in church services, can distract rather than engage members.

With more than 1 billion members, the Catholic Church does have an extensive online presence to connect with members and nonmembers alike, but its services continue to be low tech. However, among participants in PRRI's survey, Catholics tended to report lower levels of social media engagement in relation to their faith than their Protestant counterparts. Only 6 percent of Catholics surveyed reported downloading or streaming a podcast of a sermon, compared to 25 percent of white evangelical Protestants.

Colleen Gudreau, the communications liaison for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, said in an email Catholics tend to primarily express and experience their faith through"personal presence," such as in the sacraments or acts of charity.

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