A new study from The Barna Group explores social networking as well as how Americans use digital technology to get the products, services and content they desire. The research identifies the mainstream – as well as emerging – platforms and practices. Additionally, the Barna study also examines how the Christian community engages with such technologies, including the use of church podcasts.
Millions of Americans have become dependent upon the new digital conveniences that provide them with entertainment, information, products and content. The impact of these technologies on interpersonal relationships – a domain often called social networking – has begun to rewire the way people meet, express themselves and stay connected.
People within the Christian community are just as immersed in (and dependent upon) digital technologies and social networks as are those outside of it. Both evangelical Christians and other born-again Christians emerged as statistically on par with national norms when it came to each of the 15 different areas that were studied. In other words, matters of faith played very little role in differentiating people’s technological habits.
One exception was access to spiritual content via podcasting, which not surprisingly found a more eager audience among Christians than non-Christians. The study found that 38 percent of evangelicals and 31 percent of other born-again Christians had listened to a sermon or church teaching via digital recordings available on the Internet (often called a “podcast”), compared with 17 percent of other adults. In macro-terms, an enormous audience of roughly 45 million Americans reports going digital to acquire church sermon and teaching content. In all, one out of every four adults – 23 percent – said they downloaded a church podcast in the past week.
The profile of people who had listened to sermon podcasts cut across generational lines, with older adults just as likely as young residents to listen in. Residents of the South (31 percent) were twice as likely as those in the Northeast (14 percent) to access church podcasts. Similarly, Protestants (32 percent) were more intrigued by such content than were Catholics (18 percent), and the same held true for non-mainline attenders (38 percent) compared to mainline Protestants (16 percent). African-Americans (50 percent) were very loyal listeners, especially when contrasted with Asians (14 percent). Furthermore, those who are economically downscale (35 percent) were more likely to listen to church podcasts than were upscale adults (10 percent).
The research was given context by David Kinnaman, the lead researcher on the project. “Church leaders have to strike the delicate balance between the spiritual and cultural potential of tech tools without surrendering to the false promise of these tools. Having the means of reaching the masses – for instance, through podcasting – is a good thing. Yet, nothing matches the potency of life-on-life discipleship. In this respect, social networking and blogs can be effective tools to intimately connect with a small, natural network of relationships. The key is using the technology in a way that is consistent with your calling and purpose, not just an addictive self-indulgence.”
Kinnaman, the president of The Barna Group, also pointed out the need for a more intentional and broad discussion within the church about how technology shapes its users. “One recent study we completed among teenagers showed that just 9 percent of church-going teens had learned something helpful about technology in their church during the past year. As each new generation becomes increasingly enmeshed with technology, these discussions and choices cannot be left to chance. Control, image, relevance, immediacy, transparency, purity, truth, stewardship and escapism are some of the many issues that technology brings to the surface, not always with benign consequences.
“On the positive side, however, technology can empower and engage people, across generations, socio-economic segments, and physical boundaries. Young people, for instance, think of themselves as creators of content, not merely consumers of it. Technology, in essence, gives them a voice and fuels their search for calling. Whether or not you welcome it, technology creates an entirely new calculus of influence and independence. The stewardship of technology as a force for good in culture is an important role for technologists, entrepreneurs, educators and Christian leaders.” (Click here to read the full story at the Barna Web site.)