Study: Social Media Use by Pastors, Churches Spikes

A new study reveals the number of pastors and churches engaged in the use of Twitter and Facebook has significantly spiked in less than two years.

The Barna Group report, titled "The Rise of the @Pastor," reveals 23 percent of pastors now use Twitter while just 13 percent did so in 2011 – a 77 percent increase. Two-thirds (66 percent) of pastors also now use Facebook, as compared to the 59 percent who did so less than two years ago.

Younger pastors are more likely to use these social media platforms than older pastors. Thirty-nine percent of pastors ages 29 to 47 use Twitter, while just six percent of those ages 67 or older do the same. Similarly, 86 percent of pastors ages 27 to 47 are connected through Facebook, while the same is true for just 37 percent of those pastors over age 65.

"Social media is here to stay, especially as younger leaders come to be senior pastors," said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and director of the study, in the report. "While many churches have embraced the platform in recent years, there are plenty who haven't. The research suggests many faith leaders and churches are still resistant to social media or are using it without realizing its full potential."

Churches often use Twitter merely as a tool to broadcast announcements, Kinnaman says, and fail to take advantage of the platform's potential for two-way interaction. For example, 94 percent of pastors have not given their congregation an opportunity during a church service to either text, tweet or e-mail questions for the pastor to address during the service. That percentage has remained unchanged since 2011.

About one-in-five churches (21 percent) now use Twitter, compared to the 14 percent that did so in 2011, though churches that are larger and have greater budgets are more likely to use the social media platform than others. Forty-four percent of churches whose average attendance is more than 250 people use Twitter, as do 46 percent of churches with annual budgets of more than $500,000.

Similarly, while 70 percent of churches use Facebook, larger churches are more likely to be connected to the site than smaller ones. Among churches of 250 people and more, 83 percent use Facebook while just 56 percent of churches with fewer than 100 people do the same. About three out of five (57 percent) churches used Facebook in 2011.

Looking ahead, 72 percent of pastors ages 28 to 47 say social media will be an important part of their church's ministry in the next few years, but more than half (52 percent) of pastors ages 66 and older think it is overrated and won't be too important.

Still, the overall percentage of pastors who think social media will play an important role for their church in the coming years has risen significantly. In 2013, 65 percent of the pastors surveyed said it will be important in the next two years, as compared to 51 percent who said the same in 2011.

"Even as faith leaders take social media tools more seriously, there are at least two challenges," said Kinnaman. "The first is to believe what happens in the digital space doesn't count as real ministry. Most churches seem to be realizing this would be like shutting off the telephone or not having email.

"The equal and opposite reaction is also incorrect: to prioritize digital efforts above others and to equate digital tallies as indicators of ministry success. For example, the number of Twitter followers is not the same thing as a discipleship headcount. Learning to fine-tune the tension between these extremes – and dozens of related digital-ministry challenges – will be critical in the months and years ahead."

A total of 1,263 Protestant senior pastors from across the U.S. participated in the two surveys, one in 2011 and one in 2013, mentioned in the report.

Last week, The Christian Post published a list of the "Top 5 Churches That Use Social Media Best" with the help of D.J. Chuang, founder of Social Media Church. Because of their effective use of social networking sites, churches like Seattle-based Mars Hill Church and Edmond, Okla.-based were included on the list.