Who actually uses this stuff?

By Lerone A. Martin

A recent nationwide survey revealed, among other things, that white evangelical Protestants stand out as the most likely to use social media and technology for religious purposes.

The survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), interviewed a random sample of adults, eighteen years of age and older. The results show a digital religion landscape that is spiked, not flat.

Nearly half of all Americans log in to their Facebook accounts multiple times a week. However, the study revealed that only five percent attest to following a religious or spiritual leader on Twitter or Facebook and six percent reported joining a religious or spiritual group on the social mediums. “Outside of religious services,” the survey concluded, “most Americans are not relying on technology to connect to religious leaders and institutions or to generally practice their faith."

However, evangelicals are, in many ways, the exception to this rule.

The use of technology in churches is almost even among Protestants. Among evangelicals who attend church regularly, 49 percent stated that their church uses television and multimedia displays during worship services compared to 40 percent of mainline Protestants. Catholics, however, tallied at only 11 percent. Audio and visual transmission media, it seems, is increasingly commonplace among Protestants.

However, the higher rate of technological utilization in worship, as well as the familiarity with the same, seems to lend itself to higher levels of religious engagement with social media. This religious culture of technology, one could say, encourages the use of new media.

For example, roughly 40 percent of the white evangelical Protestants stated that their church has an active Facebook page or website where people interact, compared to 29 percent of white mainline Protestants and 13 percent of Catholics.

In addition, this culture of technology contributes to the popularity of podcasting and religious commodities. Twenty-five percent of evangelicals admitted downloading a podcast of a sermon or having listened to and/or purchased a digital sermon, compared with six percent of mainline Protestants and Catholics.

Moreover, 19 percent of white evangelical Protestants reported that they have posted status updates on their Facebook page or another social networking site concerning church attendance, compared to six percent of white mainline Protestants, and two percent of Catholics.

I’m curious; do these numbers seem to be reflective of our contemporary religious climate? And if so, what accounts for such a spiked digital religious landscape?

Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, MO.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmedia@uts.columbia.edu.