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.
"On the whole, personal presence is absent in social media and technology; so, although they are useful tools, they do not allow full, active, and conscious participation through personal presence essential to Catholics in liturgy," Gudreau said.
Despite PRRI's survey results, some faiths are embracing the integration of worship and technology.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has utilized social media and mobile apps to connect it. The LDS Church sponsors several apps on the Android and Apple markets. Its "LDS Gospel Library" app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times on the Android market.
The LDS Church also has an extensive website with podcast and videos of sermons as well as additional messages and articles from spiritual leaders. Online directories allow congregants to contact local members.
For the members of Hagerstown's Otterbein United Methodist Church, the controversy of the chapel's technical upgrades has become a matter of balance.
"It's certainly a struggle for churches today," Brown said. "Certainly, social media has to be considered. We know that's a selective audience. Anything that goes online must be duplicated for other congregants. It's not that social media is the prime form of getting information out there."
However, the church has seen an interest in more social media interaction from its congregation. With approximately 1,000 members, Otterbein must serve a diverse congregation. Brown said this includes incorporating online and technological elements to their community.
In addition to its website, the Otterbein Church also sponsors a forum called "otter-chat" where members can connect and chat online. According to Brown, otter-chat has a group of around 75 members who routinely utilize the forum.
The move toward technical upgrades, while spiking some ire among supporters of the traditional painting, could help to increase the spiritual connection some members feel during services. However, Brown said that for some members of the congregation, the picture, as beautiful as it is, doesn't do anything for their faith life.
Technological upgrades would allow pastors to show compilations of hymns or videos illustrating teaching messages.1 comment on this story
"When the pastor is able to take these tools and resources and use them to create a message in combination with his words, it can become powerful," Brown said.
Brown specified the technology itself was not what makes the messages powerful.
"It's not the technology that does it, but what the pastor does with that technology," she said.
The key is not the technological upgrades but rather using technology as a tool to help congregants experience the pastor's message on a different and more personal level.
"If technology does not do that for us," Brown said, "then it's a waste of money."