Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Why technology didn’t (and won’t) destroy the church

Former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller once warned that advances in technology could demolish the Christian Church. But new data indicates that technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. - Image courtesy of Barna Group
Former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller once warned that advances in technology could demolish the Christian Church. But new data indicates that technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. - Image courtesy of Barna Group

Former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller once warned that advances in technology could demolish the Christian Church. But new data indicates that technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. – Image courtesy of Barna Group

It’s been nearly four years since former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller warned that advances in technology could demolish the 2000-year-old Christian Church. The advent of Bible apps for tablets and smartphones, Miller argued, amounted to a “new crisis for organized religion” whereby “believers can bypass constraining religious structures – otherwise known as “church” – in favor of a more individual connection with God.”

Prophetic predictions of the demise of the Christian Church have almost become a tradition among religion writers. As with the others, Miller’s has amounted to naught.

Instead of having a completely negative affect on the Christian religion, technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. Online versions of the Bible are one factor people point to when citing reasons for increased engagement with the Good Book. But on the other side of the pulpit, technology is now empowering pastors to minister more effectively.

According to a Barna Group survey, 97 percent of pastors now use the Internet to find information compared with 78 percent in 2000. Thirty-nine percent of pastors said they had a spiritual or religious experience via the Internet while only 15 percent said the same in 2000. The only surveyed function of technology that did not grow among pastors over the same period was using the Internet to play video games.  As it turns out, your pastor isn’t playing Minecraft when he or she should be preparing a sermon.

The survey also showed that pastors are warming to the idea that it is “theologically acceptable for a church to provide faith assistance or religious experiences through the internet.” Eighty-seven percent of pastors polled said they agree with that statement. Only 8 percent of pastors considered websites and Internet activities to be a distraction and more than half said the Internet “is a powerful tool for effective ministry.”

Courtesy of Barna Group

Courtesy of Barna Group

“Most church leaders realize the potential for continued connection with members and visitors alike through the Internet—from podcasts, to social media, to blogs, to sermon discussion questions and even community prayer requests,” said Roxanne Stone, a Vice-President at Barna Group. “No matter the church’s size, location or demographic, the Internet has become and will continue to be a vital tool for connection, outreach and even spiritual formation.”

Websites in particular have proven to be a powerful tool for churches and ministries. It increases their ability to collect charitable donations for critical community ministry projects and has provided a low-pressure way to connect with potential converts. Of the 1.6 million conversions recorded by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 2014, only 15,000 did so in person. In less than four years, BGEA has recorded more than five million conversions online. And according to BGEA’s Internet evangelism director–yes, that’s a thing–more than 20,000 individuals view a “gospel presentation” per day via their sites.

BGEA isn’t the only one pursuing evangelism online. Global Outreach Media, originally launched as part of Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), recorded more than 30 million conversions online in 2014. One can assume that some of these conversions do not lead to long-term commitments to the Christian faith. But if only a tiny percentage of BGEA and Global Outreach’s are legitimate, these numbers are still significant.

But technology’s effect on spirituality and ministry is not all positive. Technology can shift ministers’ attentions from substance to style as they become concerned about logos and websites and the fonts and backgrounds projected on worship screens. Technology makes it easier for ministry leaders and parishioners to access spiritually damaging materials, such as pornography and half-baked theological ideas. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think the advent of fully online church “campuses” is a net negative.

Stone acknowledges technology’s potential to replace many of the local church’s functions in believer’s lives and, in so doing, will require ministry leaders to assess and emphasize the aspects of church that can’t be replaced by the Internet.

“You can hear a great sermon or your favorite worship music or even share a sense of community with like-minded believers online,” she said. “So what does the physical church offer that the Internet can’t? You can’t take communion online. You can’t physically serve others together online. You can post your #ashtag picture, but you can’t have those ashes administered online. In a virtual age, it will be important for churches to place a renewed emphasis on those tangible, corporal activities as a significant reason to come to church.”

Lisa Miller was partially correct. Technology does have a shadow side and could very well weaken organized religion if not properly stewarded. But it has not proven thus far to be the usher of doomsday Miller predicted. So long as the Internet remains less powerful than “the gates of hell,” we should expect the Church to persevere.

Like most advances in human knowledge, technology comes to us as a mixed bag with the message: “handle with care.”

Author’s note: The Barna data cited above included telephone surveys of pastors in two nationwide studies conducted by Barna Group among a nationally representative sample of senior pastors of Protestant churches. The first survey was conducted from December 7 to December 28, 2000 and included 610 Protestant senior pastors. The second survey was conducted November 14 through December 3, 2014 and included 601 interviews with Protestant senior pastors.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


Click here to post a comment

  • Thank you for such an encouraging piece! Proves technology, in itself a gift from God, is neither good nor evil, and can be used for either purpose. And though there be many challenges, we know that good will win out in the end.

    I volunteer as an “online missionary” with one of the web organizations you mentioned, and in addition to the decisions for Christ — which are so encouraging — A LOT of good discipleship is occurring, and I in particular am so blessed by the prayer relationships established between those who respond online and those of us who seek to serve them.

    Technology will never be threatening to the church as long as we continue to use it as a tool to enhance, and not to detract from, human relationships.

  • This silly article only exposes the superficiality of the thinking inside lots of the evangelical Christianity community.
    “97 percent of pastors now use the Internet to find information compared with 78 percent in 2000. Thirty-nine percent of pastors said they had a spiritual or religious experience via the Internet while only 15 percent said the same in 2000.”
    Really? I had no idea!
    The Catholic Church might just have a different view, what with the difficulty of containing the child abuse scandal, largely due to the internet. The Evangelicals are whistling past the graveyard, if they think their dirty laundry will stay hidden.
    In the bad old days, the Church burned most books and chained the remainder in their controlled libraries. Not likely such a tactic will work today.

  • “You can hear a great sermon or your favorite worship music or even share a sense of community with like-minded believers online,” she said.”

    Sure. But….
    You can also question the claims made in those sermons immediately with Google or Yahoo. In about 10 seconds you will find out that “Jesus is God” is no different from “Zoroaster is God”

    You can also find Youtube debates with (pick your favorite Christian) and some Atheist and discover your favorite Christians cannot compete – there is nothing supporting the claims of Jesus at all.

    You can also find thousands of other religions and interact with believers who make opposing claims and who speak of the suffering caused by the religious dictators in their own societies.

    Technology is not destroying religion. Information is.

  • Dana Wise- Read Romans 1:18-32 where it says that God made it known
    to us He is real through the miracle of creation but people choose to deny
    Him/God/Jesus cause they love their sin/do not want to be told how to live.
    Read Bible prophecy that came true with 100% accuracy proving Jesus is
    the Messiah and only way to heaven! Psalm 22:16-18 and Isaiah 53:3-7
    are both specific about Jesus plus Jesus being betrayed for 30 pieces of
    silver and Him/Jesus starting a/His public ministry in 483 years are all very
    specific prophecy that all did come true. God is very,very real! God bless.

  • Dana,


    Believers are not morons. Most believers mean well and are intelligent.
    People have rights. Their ideas are a different matter.

  • Interesting how some folks respond so intensely and that they read this column. The resurrection, the ultimate cause, the void we all know and these responses – confirm the truth of the Gospel. I hope all keep searching.

  • Right Jacarch. My unbelief confirms your belief!
    Your belief only confirms that my unbelief is rational.
    I do wish I had the budget that the Christians spend on propaganda, but then I would have to tell lies, and promise what no one can deliver. Christians have been promising (and not delivering) the end of the world, at least since Paul.
    All it proves is that they drank the Kool-Aid.

  • samuel- God is not slow in His return as many say but is full of Grace
    by allowing people to Repent/accept Christ so people don’t go to hell.
    Jesus will come like a thief in the night for those who are not saved or
    expecting Him but for those who are saved they know the day is near
    for His return/the second coming because they know God/Jesus and
    know what the Bible says. Israel becoming a nation again and many
    other things had to happen before the return of Christ but the Bible
    says in Luke 13 Repent or perish cause we don’t know when we are
    going to die and all sin is wrong! We all must bear good fruit and the
    fruit of Repentance not good works because many non-believers do
    many good works so we need to/must Repent! We all must Repent!

  • Karla,
    “Repent or perish”. What a sweetheart you are Karla.
    How would you react if I prescribed the same for you?
    I do you not know about you personally, but I will die soon.
    I am grateful that I lack the desperation of an unsettled mind, or wish for a miracle. My life has been such that i am sorry to leave. In that I am fortunate.

  • samuel-God is real so I hope you stop being so stubborn/let go
    of your pride and admit you are a sinner just like the rest of us.
    Telling somone to Repent/telling someone the Truth is love and
    people who don’t warn people about hell are not doing what the
    Bible says. Luke 13 says to Repent or perish so read Luke 13
    plus Romans 1:18-32 and give God/Jesus a chance. God bless.

  • Samuel, you’re assuming as settled fact that the church’s basic message, its raison d’etre, the cause for which it embraces the technology spoken of in the article, is demonstrably false.

    But what if Karla is right and you’re wrong? You’re human, she’s human, and to be human is to make lots of mistakes…..even the smartest people can often be spectacularly wrong on some mighty big issues. And the real world does not often protect us from the consequences of being wrong. Ask anyone who’s been in an auto accident that was caused by their own recklessness.

    These boards are not here so we can all pat each other on the head and affirm one another. Part of what’s supposed to happen is real challenge.

  • Hi Jack,
    There is the possible, then there is the likely, then there is speculation. means
    Stories from the imagination are ordinary, but often contain that which is understood to be impossible. (Jack and the Beanstalk). The Christian story contains lots of impossibilities. (the moving star, the water walking, the healing of physical infirmities, and the raising from the dead, etc.) For proof all we are offered is third hand testimony. No self respecting lawyer would take such evidence into court because the judge would throw it out.
    Repetition is not argument. Karla does not debate or discuss, she only quotes the Bible and gives it her interpretation. My father was a protestant minister, as was my maternal grandfather. I minored in Philosophy and religion. Immanuel Kant and Alfred Loisy are my principal authorities. Arguing with religious sales people is a waste of time because they have nothing to say except what they have been told.
    I am neither atheist nor Christian. I am a sceptic. Humans are unreliable, dishonest and self centered. If the are thus defective, I blame their creator. Happily, organic chemistry, being a natural phenomena, is inanimate and therefore blameless.
    Get on with your search for self importance Jack. Your God is waiting.
    I have no such illusions.

  • You call yourself a skeptic, Samuel, but I see no evidence that you are skeptical about your skepticism. (Remember, this board’s about challenges, not patting each other on the head and massaging egos.)

    If you grew up with a family of ministers, then unless they got their degrees from Mail Order University, PO Box Moonshine, Backwoods, USA, part of their training involved apologetics, involving a rational defense of the faith — the philosophical, scientific, historical, legal, and textual evidence for it being the case. And unless you were totally tuned out, you must have heard those arguments somewhere along the way.

    No matter what you believe or disbelieve, if you are totally unfamiliar with the arguments on the other side, you should familiarize yourself with them. Again, I’m surprised given your background that you seem unaware.

  • Jack,
    “apologetics, involving a rational defense of the faith” That ship has sailed. I have no interest in justifying the fraud that is Christianity. Alfred Loisy, whom obviously you have not read, put and end to that- for which crime he was excommunicated. Unhappily for the Church, he was soon appointed chair of history of religions in the Collège de France.
    You just do not listen, so I will be blunt. I have no love for a creator god. He is at fault for the suffering of the innocent and the guilty alike. Therefore, I do not find any pleasure or comfort in the idea of his existence. Evolution helps me suffer the pain of the horrors of life, because organic chemistry has no intent and no responsibility.
    I find the Christian heaven repellant. To paraphrase Mark Twain -I cannot imagine a more exquisite punishment for those old hypocrites than for them to have to sing the praises of god in a celestial choir FOREVER! More seriously, I find the Christian God totally repellant.
    If I were to wish an after life, I would wish one that was far, far away from faith.
    My father put it this way. He said he longed for that sweet spirit that he remembered from his grandmother. I would wish something else myself, but I appreciate what a far cry his understanding was from Karla’s. She is just an unfortunate victim, like so many.
    So what gives you the right to pass judgement on the world and it inhabitants Jack?
    Vanity I surmise. For most ministers I have met, that pretty much covers it. The truth, i strongly suspect, is that most would be exactly the same regardless of their “faith” or religious views. Me, I always have questions. A Christian friend calls me an “operationalist”.
    I do not object.

  • I am skeptical about being skeptical about being skeptical (raise you one skeptical). It’s just a word, not a religion. Believers just believe, see “The True Believer” (Eric Hoffer).

  • Very good article. I’d like to add just a bit more to it from my experience. St. Anne parish in Gilbert AZ streams all of their service LIVE over the internet. And they are recorded so you can watch them if you missed it.
    Worship Media TV offers live streaming for the homebound. Using this type of technology enables those that can’t make it the ability to still feel like part of their local parish. An when the EMofHC drops by, it’s no longer just a short prayer but the entire service that they have experienced. Think about when you or your child is sick. Do you go to Church and risk spreading the cold? We often will go to Church and have the child watch online. When we come home we know they have heard the same homily we did.
    St. Anne uses it also for weddings and other sacramental services.
    Please check out and consider it for your parish and community.

  • I have another thought how churches and minister can use the modern technology. I study Biblical Hebrew on online and the teachers are in Israel , the students are from all corners of this world. They use a software where we can interact together. It works magnificent. The holy communion cannot be taken on online. This is a poor excuse, layperson can be accredited by the church hierarchy, and they can hand out the communion. Where there is a will there is a way. The church people (the powers to be) have to move with the time. A country as large as USA and Australia have a lot of small congregations who cannot employ a minister/pastor fulltime this is the best way forward and no need to close places.