(Original release date: May 30, 2012) Twelve percent of all American adults have visited the website of a church or other local place of worship within the past thirty days. Extend the time period to the last six months, and the proportion nearly doubles, to 22%.
These figures come from a study conducted by Grey Matter Research (Phoenix, Arizona) among a demographically representative sample of 1,011 American adults who use the Internet.
Among Americans who are online, 15% have visited the website of a local place of worship in the last thirty days, and 28% have done so within the past six months. A total of 36% have done so within the last year. But who are these people and what are they doing on these websites?
There are basically three types of visitors to church websites (and note that “church” in this research refers to any local place of worship of any religion). The first type is people who are already attending that church. Among online Americans who attend worship services once a month or more, 28% have visited their own congregation’s website in the last thirty days, 44% have done so in the past six months, 57% have done so in the past year, and a total of 68% have done so at some point while attending that place of worship. Thirty-two percent of churchgoers who use the Internet have never visited their own congregation’s website (or their church does not have a website).
The second type of visitor to church websites is people who regularly attend worship services, but at a different congregation. Among online Americans who attend worship services regularly, 13% in the past thirty days have visited the website of a congregation other than the one they attend. A total of 27% have done this in the past six months, and 37% in the past year.
The third type of website visitor is people who do not attend worship services regularly at any congregation. Among these people, 2% who are online have visited the website of a place of worship in the last thirty days, a total of 10% have done so in the past six months, and 16% have done so in the past year.
Grey Matter Research was able to estimate actual numbers of people in each of these three groups. In the past thirty days:
- 21.5 million adults have visited the website of their own place of worship
- 10.4 million adults regularly attend worship, but visited the website of a place of worship other than their own
- 1.6 million adults do not attend worship services regularly, but visited the website of a place of worship
If the timeline is extended to the past six months:
- 34 million adults have visited the website of their own place of worship
- 21 million adults regularly attend worship, but visited the website of a place of worship other than their own
- 10.6 million adults do not attend worship services regularly, but visited the website of a place of worship
Finally, if the timeline is extended to the past year:
- 44.8 million adults have visited the website of their own place of worship
- 28.7 million adults regularly attend worship, but visited the website of a place of worship other than their own
- 17.4 million adults do not attend worship services regularly, but visited the website of a place of worship
With all of these people visiting congregational websites, what are they doing there? Most commonly, people visiting the website of a place of worship are checking to see the times of services (43%). Other common activities include checking what activities are offered (e.g. youth groups, studies, events – 29%), looking for a map or directions to the church’s location (28%), watching streaming video (26%), and listening to streaming audio (26%).
Somewhat less common activities include checking to see what the church’s religious beliefs are (22%), requesting prayer (18%), downloading a podcast (15%), checking what denomination or group they belong to (15%), sending a message to the pastor or leader (12%), and posting on a bulletin board or forum (5%).
Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, noted that it’s critical for places of worship to understand who they are potentially reaching and what those people are seeking. “We randomly checked the websites of ten places of worship in the large city of Memphis and ten more in the small town of Grants Pass, Oregon. Although one of the most common things website visitors are looking for is a map or directions to the church location, we couldn’t easily find that information for about half of those twenty churches,” Sellers said. “In many cases, visitors to the website would have to click around on tabs such as Services, Contact Us, About, or New Here in the hopes of finding that information. Sometimes only an address was provided with no directions or map. In a few cases the desired information just couldn’t be found even with an extensive search. Such a basic thing that so many website visitors want, and yet it’s not clearly provided on many church websites.”
Sellers also cautioned that places of worship need to balance the need to reach out to those who don’t attend with the need to serve the current congregation. “In most cases, one website has to handle the loyal congregant who wants to find out what time the new Thursday night Bible study is, and the unchurched visitor who may not have a clue whether there’s a difference between Unitarian and Baptist. Church leaders need to evaluate their websites from both of these perspectives, because church website visitors are almost evenly split between those who are already involved in that church and those who are not, including millions each year who don’t attend any place of worship,” he explained.
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, a research and consumer insights company located in Phoenix, Arizona. Grey Matter has substantial experience with research related to religious topics. The sample of 1,011 online adults is accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.
The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, education, household income, geography, racial/ethnic background, Internet use, and gender were carefully tracked and weighted to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.