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By Junior Melo (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

High Internet Use May Account for 20% of the Decline in Religious Affiliation in the US since 1990.

I use the Internet more hours of the day than I do not. Much of this is for my work, which involves a substantial amount of time not only producing resources (many of which I research by using the Internet) but also interacting directly in GBOD and UMC-related social networks and chat with church leaders across the globe via Facebook and Twitter. I also use the Internet (Google Hangouts) to meet with my Covenant Discipleship Group when I am not in Nashville, and will even be offering a Holy Saturday service online via Twitter this coming Saturday (April 19, 10 AM ET, #holysat). And I use it personally– for free texting to stay in touch with family and key friends, to stream video to our Roku player (we don’t have cable), and to play a few games on my mobile devices (but not during regular work hours!). And, of course, there’s email. And search.

In March 2014, Allen B. Downey, Professor of Computer Science at the Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Massachusetts, published “Religious affiliation, education and Internet use” (pdf) in the online science, mathematics and statistics journal, arXiv, hosted by the Cornell University Library. arXiv is not a peer reviewed journal, but rather an outlet for established researchers with appropriate institutional relationships to publish their work in these fields.

The overall findings of Downey’s statistical research ascribed such high correlations (p-values less than 0.01) between religious disaffiliation and three particular factors (religious upbringing, education and Internet use) that unless some additional explanatory variable or variables could be identified, these correlations may be considered compatible with causation. In particular, reductions in the rate of religious upbringing account for 25% of the observed rates of disaffiliation since the 1980s. Increased amounts of of college and graduate education account for 5% of the change. And Internet use accounts for 20% of the change since the 1990s. Rates of disaffiliation are higher, on average, as Internet use increases beyond 7 hours daily.

That leaves 50% of the causative factors unaccounted for. Within the data, there is an explanation for the other 50%– a lack of generational replacement– but as Downey notes, that basically comes down to birth year analysis, and birth year, of itself, cannot function as an independent variable. In other words, when you are born can’t, in general, be said to be causative.

I’ve already noted I use the Internet more than 7 hours per day. I am also a college graduate and hold two graduate degrees (M.Div. and M.A. in Peace Studies). So it would appear I have at least 25% of the risk factors for becoming religiously disaffiliated. However, both my parents were raised with deep religious involvement, and so were myself and my sister, and both of us in my generation are also deeply involved in the life of the church, so that 25% is more than counterbalanced by the other 75%– or at least the other 25% if we admit we can’t account for the other 50% statistically.

So What?
Why would Internet use correlate so strongly with increases in disaffiliation? Downey’s research does not attempt to answer that question.

But among these factors, and with support from Barna’s most recent research, we might be able to pinpoint better for whom a church’s increasing engagement with the Internet might enhance affiliation rather than have no effect or even increase disaffiliation.

The top 4 reasons Barna identifies evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics attend church is a) to be closer to God (43%), b) to learn more about God (38%), c) a biblical call to be with other believers (34%) and because I’ve always attended church (28%, primarily Roman Catholics). At the same time most who attend admit they’ve not felt close to God in the last month (80%) or learned anything new about God as a result of the last time they attended (94%). In other words, the two most prominent driving factors for attending worship are not at all being satisfied by doing so.

So it should not be surprising that Barna also finds 40% of those who do not attend say they can find God elsewhere and 35% say the church is not relevant to their lives in any real way.

And where else might some of these folks be finding God or something that seems more relevant to their lives? Barna did not ask this question, but certainly the Internet, and particularly the social Internet, with its immediate feedback of likes and comments on content we post, is a likely candidate.

This might lead church leaders to conclude there’s a mandate to reach these disaffiliated persons by using the Internet.

But putting Downey and Barna together might lead to a different conclusion.

Remember, increased Internet use is highly correlated with increased disaffiliation, so highly correlated it might be said to be causative. So it may well be the case that trying to reach people who are disaffiliated via the Internet may either not work at all, or, worse, actually lead to further disaffiliation.

For some, at least.

Just do the math. Persons not raised in the church, a rate that is continuing to rise, are already 25% more likely not to affiliate at all. If they are college educated, that jumps to 30%. Add Internet involvement, and that goes to 50%. And the later they were born, the more likely they will not affiliate at all.

In other words, the odds of a church being effective at using extensive Internet-based engagement with persons (including younger persons) with zero church background for the purpose of leading them to affiliation are not very favorable. At all. You’re simply adding one more risk factor for moving people away from church life into the mix.

Short answer: Targeting the “never-affiliated Nones” with “internet church” isn’t likely to accomplish much.

Okay, how about those “Nones” who had been affiliated, but now have dropped out, including that 59% of Millennials Barna notes have dropped out at some point.

They were affiliated at one point. That’s significant. But even when they were, the vast majority of them weren’t getting out of church what they said they would value most about it. So they’ve already left. Maybe they’re finding that somewhere else. And from Pew we know that 72% of those who have disaffiliated say they aren’t interested in reaffiliating or being part of any group larger than their immediate circle of friends, ever. If they’re using the Internet, and likely they are, they’ve got that additional 20% “drive away” factor in play. So again, the odds are low online strategies will be effective at generating renewed affiliation.

What these two bits of evidence taken together may say, then, is the primary value of church social media and internet sites may be far more for increasing ties with “insiders” than evangelizing or seeking to reactivate those who have become “outsiders.”

So that leaves those who have been raised in the church and have not disaffiliated. For these people, and perhaps primarily for these people, the negative effects of Internet use on church affiliation may not outweigh the overall “affiliating” forces already in play. Let me suggest further, to help strengthen these affiliating forces, that online strategies for reaching and supporting these people aim squarely at the two highest factors Barna identifies for attendance– getting closer to and learning about God. If the congregation focuses its efforts online in providing what the affiliated say they seek the most but clearly aren’t getting in worship or educational opportunities (getting closer to and learning about God), it may be positioning its online ministries for maximum effectiveness.

The key in this is the church making its online ministries clearly part of its ministries, its web of communications, its work of community building within its life. Such online ministries needn’t be members-only walled gardens, but the value they add needs to relate to the specific ways those already affiliated with the congregation can give witness and support to getting closer to God and learning about God as part of that congregation.

Internet: Use It… Wisely

When the Online Communion Conversation was convened in Nashville last fall, and then when the Council of Bishops acted on the recommendations of that panel of church leaders, practitioners and scholars, probably the biggest message most people heard was the call by the Council of Bishops for a moratorium on all online sacramental practice.

But that was not our first recommendation.

Our first recommendation, and in fact the first one the Council of Bishops approved in November 2013, was that:

“The Council of Bishops, in collaboration with appropriate general agency staff and other partners, actively lead the way to promote and develop excellent practices of online ministries across the United Methodist connection.”

In other words, while the most widely spread outcome may have suggested United Methodists were some sort of Luddites regarding online ministries, the reality is quite the reverse. We were calling for and the bishops agreed to dramatically step up the excellence of United Methodist online ministries worldwide.

Excellence in online ministries involves not just excellence in their technical platform and execution– and we absolutely were seeking that!– but also and most importantly excellence in their results toward our mission as a church– to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What I think the recent studies from Downey, Barna and Pew show, fairly definitively, is that the most likely arena in which United Methodists (or anyone in the US) will be able to develop online ministries that enhance affiliation, and so, we trust, discipleship, will be in those that focus first on amplifying the capacity of all the affiliated in our congregations, of every age and ability, to get closer to God and learn more about God, both individually and collectively.

What do you think?