Informing, inviting or ignoring? Understanding how English Christian churches use the internet.

Would you like to read the Introduction? This gives the rationale for the project and the aims and objectives. The file also includes the glossary, TOC, and acknowledgements.

Here’s the abstract.

This thesis investigates how English Christian leaders and churches use the internet for personal and corporate communication, and looks for evidence of challenges to traditional understandings of authority arising from online communication. Early studies in this area suggested that online religion would cause enormous change but more recent studies reflect less polarised opinions. Religious people tend to use the internet to augment rather than replace practice of their faith, holding true for different religions globally. Leaders use the internet for a wide variety of religious information tasks.

The project uses a longitudinal website census, quantitative content analysis and semi-structured interviews. 400 churches in four English denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Anglican and Catholic) were surveyed over a three year period to establish if they published a website. 147 churches from the same four denominations, located in an area equivalent to Chelmsford Diocese, were assessed on 75 categories of information and their hyperlinks analysed.

Interviews with church leaders and interested parties helped foster understanding of why and how sites were created, and explored the leaders’ personal use of the internet. The percentage of churches with a website increased over the survey period for all denominations. Content analysis showed that currency, extent and accessibility of information on websites varied, with some being out of date, others showing no contact details and few having specific information for newcomers to church.

Interview findings revealed perceptions of email overload, varying degrees of governance and control of websites by church leaders, and leaders’ own use of the internet and social media. Interactivity was rare on church websites. Different levels of expertise are mooted as reasons why control and governance varies between leaders. Perceptions of the internet may be influenced by moral panic. The influence of the age of congregations on adoption of social media, and the impact of volunteer webmasters are examined. Recommendations for churches planning to revisit or review their sites are included, limitations are noted and suggestions for further research made.

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