Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Could Virtual Church Enhance Physical Church? Surprising Confirmation from the Pew Research Center

Part 8 of series: The Challenge and Opportunity of Virtual Church
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The Pew Internet and American Life Project, a project of the Pew Research Center, has just released the results of a fascinating and timely study on the Internet and its effects on American social life. This study, called “Social Isolation and New Technology,” suggests that fears of the Internet taking away from face-to-face socializing are unfounded. In fact, according to the Pew press release: “People who use modern information and communication technologies have larger and more diverse social networks.” Thus, the findings of the Pew study “These new finding challenge fears that use of new technologies has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation in the United States.”
The lead author of the study, Prof. Keith Hampton, observed: “This is the first research that actually explores the connection between technology use and social isolation and we find the opposite. It turns out that those who use the internet and mobile phones have notable social advantages. People use the technology to stay in touch and share information in ways that keep them socially active and connected to their communities.”
There is much in this study that is fascinating and relevant to my recent consideration of virtual church. For example:


Some have worried that internet use limits people’s participation in their local communities, but the Pew Internet report finds that most internet activities have little or a positive relationship to local activity. For instance, internet users are as likely as anyone else to visit with their neighbors in person. Cell phone users, those who use the internet frequently at work, and bloggers are more likely to belong to a local voluntary association, such as a youth group or a charitable organization. However, we find some evidence that use of social networking services (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn) substitutes for some neighborhood involvement.

There is much more here to ponder. You can read or download the entire study from this webpage.
If the Pew report is anywhere near to true, then this should allay fears, including my own, about the potential negative impact of virtual church. It seems quite possible that a person’s participation in virtual church not only wouldn’t detract from his or her involvement in physical church, but that it might actually enhance or promote it. Of course the Pew study is just one research project. Many more will follow, I expect. But these results are encouraging.
And, in fact, consistent with some of my own observations. I have noticed, for example, how teenagers who in a former day would have relatively few relationships because they are shy now have an opportunity to make friends and stay connected with these friends through social media. I have also seen how these teenagers can use their online relationships as a base for in-the-flesh relationships. A shy person can build friendships through Internet social media, and then gain the confidence to be with these friends in person.
The fact that people want and need to be with people in the flesh is, I think, a fact of basic human nature. Internet relationships, no matter how real and genuine, will never fully satisfy the human need for relationship. Thus the Pew findings are not altogether surprising to me, though they contradict much of the popular wisdom from the anti-Internet folk.

  • Ray

    I think an overdependence on facebook and texting does a couple of things. First, as you noted and the study reported, it facilitates “larger and more diverse social networks.” I can agree with that finding based on my own experience.
    However, I also have a hunch that increasing use of facebook, email, text messaging and other forms of “distant” interaction tends to reduce the quality of those interpersonal relationships. Thus, while the magnitude of our social interaction increases, the depth of those relationships probably suffers. I’m not saying that electronic communication is negative in any way. But I am saying that an overreliance on it probably has a negative effect on the quality of the relationship. Again, just a hunch.
    My teenage daughter and her boyfriend recently broke up after a months-long relationship. How did they do it? Text messaging. When I was that age and broke up with my girlfriend, I had to look her in the eye. Somehow, I don’t think my daughter learned as much about relationships with her experience as I did with mine. But, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s no difference.
    As it relates to the church, I still think the discussion is framed too much as an either/or…either virtual, or physical. I think it’s very much a both/and situation. While in theory it might be possible for a completely virtual church to exist, that idea doesn’t excite me. What excites me is the church using new technology to increase its reach into the world.

  • Davld L. Henderson MD

    I am interested in reading this article and seeing how they define social relationships. I agree with the previous comment that social media may increase the quantity of our relationships but I think the quality of our relationships can suffer. I have 300 something friends on facebook but there is no way I can go deep with all of them.

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