Churches and a digital divide during COVID-19

COVID-19 has pushed more churches into the digital realm but there are patterns in who is operating online and in what ways:

Photo by Shelagh Murphy on Pexels.com

“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, a theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, which has surveyed religious groups in the US since 1998. Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes. Those realities have factored into church outcomes too. A survey from LifeWay Research, which focuses on Christian ministries, found that white pastors were the most likely to report offerings that were higher than expected in the past year. Black pastors, by contrast, were most likely to report that the pandemic economy was impacting their churches “very negatively.” Churches often run on tight margins, and those impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut down on outreach, suspend Sunday School or small group programs, or lay off staff members. Black pastors were more likely to say they cut staff pay or deleted a church position…

For the faith sector, the acceleration of new technologies could lead to massive changes. Other industries, like media and retail, have been transformed as they progressively moved online; money, influence, and attention now converge in a small pool of winners, often at the expense of smaller outfits. Some believe churches might experience something similar. “You’re going to have the top 40 preachers that everyone listens to, and the regular everyday preacher is not going to be able to compete,” says William Vanderbloemen, a former pastor and founder of the Vanderbloemen Search Group, an executive search firm for churches. That’s not to say more niche markets couldn’t also emerge. “People will still show up to hear a message from a pastor who knows their specific community on a micro-contextual level. Like, here’s what happened in our zip code this week, and here’s how it relates to how we think of our God.”…

Chaves, who runs the National Congregation Study, says it’s too soon to know whether this year will have a lasting impact on worship practices, and what that impact would be. “Church attendance has been declining slowly for decades,” he says. “Will we see a shift if online participation stays ubiquitous? Or will it mean that more people are participating?” Some early research suggests that churchgoers are eager to get back to in-person services and worshipping together with their community. While smaller congregations, like First Baptist Church Reeltown, are unlikely to continue broadcasting their sermons on Facebook Live, other churches may find value in a hybrid model, where some people come into Sunday services and others watch from their computers.

One way to think about this is to consider the marketplace of American religion. Because there is no state-sponsored religion and there is the free exercise of religion, religious traditions and congregations can compete for people. In this competition, innovation and flexibility can help lead to increased market share. The Internet and social media are additional tools in this competition. Want to appeal to those using those mediums? You have to have a presence. Or, perhaps a group can seek others who eschew digital worship.

Using the Internet for church is not new. But, COVID-19 may have accelerated this market competition. Could churches compete without going online? Just as businesses suffered, how many churches might close because of COVID-19? Who can provide a compelling church service and other activities in online forms? Can you easily translate online viewership to attendance or membership measures? Could certain churches flourish in certain platforms while others utilize other options?

And what this means for religiosity in America is hard to know. In addition to church attendance figures, does this push Americans further down the path of individualistic and voluntaristic faith? Is church via Internet or social media really church in the same way without embodied action and sacred spaces?

Plans for an Internet-driven Census in 2020

The next dicennial census may just be largely conducted via Internet:

People may be asked to fill out their census forms on the Internet instead of sending them through the mail. Census takers may use smartphones instead of paper to complete their counts…

Despite outreach and advertising campaigns, the share of occupied homes that returned a form was 74 percent in 2010, unchanged from 2000 and 1990. The majority of the money the bureau spends during a census goes to getting everyone else to fill out their forms, Census Director John H. Thompson said…

Americans are ready for an Internet-driven census, officials said. During 2014 tests in in Washington, D.C., and nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, 55 percent of the families who were asked to fill out their census tests on the Internet responded without major prodding, an “exceptional response,” Thompson said. Census workers used iPhones to collect information in follow-up visits…

For government officials, going digital means they can do real-time analysis on areas to figure out which households have not responded, and be able to use their workers on the ground more efficiently, he said.

Three things I’d love to know:

1. Officials cite a high response rate but how accurate are the responses? In other words, who is likely to fill out the Census online? Internet users as a whole tend to skew toward younger and wealthier users (the digital divide) so this might skew the Internet data.

2. How exactly are households matched to email addresses? Or do people go to a website and input their own address which is then matched with a government database?

3. Given the threats to digital security, is the Census Bureau prepared to defend the data (particularly not allowing information to be matched to particular addresses?

“The digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness”

Having access to technology isn’t necessarily the same as knowing what it can do or feeling comfortable with it, as a new study suggests:

A new survey suggests that the digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness. It found that nearly 30% of Americans either aren’t digitally literate or don’t trust the Internet. That subgroup tended to be less educated, poorer, and older than the average American.

In contrast, says Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study, those with essential Web skills “tend to be the more privileged. And so the overall story … is that it’s the people who are already privileged who are reaping the benefits here.”

The study was conducted by John Horrigan, an independent researcher, and released 17 June at an event sponsored by the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the study of 1600 adults measured their grasp of terms like “cookie” and “Wi-Fi.” It asked them to rate how confident they were about using a desktop or laptop or a smart phone to find information, as well as how comfortable they felt about using a computer. Of those who scored low in these areas, about half were not Internet users.

Horrigan believes that policymakers have ignored the problem of digital readiness while concentrating on providing people with access to the Internet and the necessary hardware. Relatively little attention has been paid to teaching people the necessary skills to take advantage of online classes and job searches, he maintains.

It can take quite a while to feel comfortable with new technology, particularly for those not immersed in it. The problem may be compounded by the relative speed of new technologies and their increasingly fast spread throughout the population.

It would be interesting to then see the differences in productivity, comfort, and acquisition of information (or whatever other metric you want to use to measure technology use) among different groups. Imagine we measured improved efficiency in life from using new technology amongst three groups: power users, average users, and non- or limited-users. I imagine we would get a classic Matthew Effect graph where the power users would be able to expand their initial advantages at a higher rate than others.

Education, income still linked to American digital divide

The gap between those with Internet access at home in the United States is marked by education and income differences:

The quarter of American households still without Internet, not surprisingly, are disproportionately made up of families with less income and education. Of these 25 percent, half say they simply don’t want Internet, and about a quarter say it’s too expensive. As computers are increasingly replaced by other devices, from phones to tablets, any gap in penetration will seem less significant. Differences in internet access, though, will only become more so…

The Census Bureau’s latest data tracking internet and computer use in American homes suggest that both have become ubiquitous with impressive speed. About three-fourths of American households now boast both technologies, according to the Current Population Survey’s data, collected through late 2012. That’s up from 8.2 percent for computers back in 1984, and 18 percent for the Internet in 1997, when most of us who were online were dialing up to get there.

This is a persistent issue: those with fewer resources are not able to take advantage of what is available online. This becomes more and more problematic as all sorts of information and government services are accessed primarily through the Internet. Additionally, kids in lower income and education households don’t get as much exposure to the Internet.

It will be interesting to see if that number of Americans who say they don’t want the Internet changes in the near future. It may drop as more people see it as necessary. But, it might also rise if people see the Internet as a nuisance or is still better accessed elsewhere (like at a library).

Google Fiber and the racial divide in Kansas City

As Google Fiber rolls out in Kansas City, they are running into an issue: the existing racial divides in the city.

With Google’s promise last year to wire homes, schools, libraries and other public institutions in this city with the nation’s fastest Internet connection, community leaders on the long forlorn, predominantly black east side were excited, seeing a potentially uplifting force. They anticipated new educational opportunities for their children and an incentive for developers to build in their communities.

But in July, Google announced a process in which only those areas where enough residents preregistered and paid a $10 deposit would get the service, Google Fiber. While nearly all of the affluent, mostly white neighborhoods here quickly got enough registrants, a broad swath of black communities lagged. The deadline to sign up was midnight Sunday…

For generations, Kansas City has been riven by racial segregation that can still be seen, with a majority of blacks in the urban core confined to neighborhoods in the east. Troost Avenue has long been considered the dividing line, the result of both overt and secretive efforts to keep blacks out of white schools and housing areas and of historical patterns of population growth and settlement, said Micah Kubic, with the nonprofit Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Corporation…

During the sign-up, Google faced other practical problems. Many people did not have credit or debit cards, which were required to register, or e-mail addresses. And it failed to account for numerous vacant homes in some communities, so it lowered the number of registrants needed to qualify in those areas.

Many people in black neighborhoods had not heard about Google Fiber, and many who knew only had a vague understanding of it.

This is a reminder there is a “digital divide” between those who have Internet access as well as have knowledge about it and how to use it versus those who do not. As Google has found out, this project also involves public education about the value of having the Internet. It does read as though the company is making a strong effort to inform people about Google Fiber but it may take some time to get the information out.