VENTURA, Calif. Critics who say churches are stodgy, irrelevant and out of touch, may want to think again, especially when it comes to the fast-paced advances of social media.
According to a June survey by Barna Group, 21 percent of churches are using Twitter, while 70 percent have adopted Facebook as a communication resource. Those numbers reflect a significant change over just two years ago, when 14 percent of churches reported using Twitter and 57 percent tapping into Facebook.
It's not just savvy young people fueling the connection for churches, the survey found. Twitter usage among clergy was a percentage point higher on Twitter (23 percent), but lagged a few points (66 percent) for Facebook. Pastoral use over that time was most significant for Twitter with a 77 percent increase, while Facebook connections increased by 12 percent.
In addition, more than one in five (22 percent) have a personal blog.
"Social media is here to stay, especially as younger leaders come to be senior pastors," said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and the director of the Barna study on social media.
Just as the general population, age and resources tend to play a factor in who uses social media in churches. Forty-four percent of churches that have an average attendance of at least 250 people use Twitter, 23 percent more than the average. With regard to age, nearly two in five pastors aged 29-47 (39 percent) say they use Twitter, compared to just 6 percent of pastors 67 or older.
Kinnaman said the study revealed that in just two years, the overall pattern has shown that Twitter has gone from a narrowly used resource among faith leaders to a key communication tool for many churches and pastors.
Common uses for Twitter include following news, staying connected with friends and followers, reacting to live events and participating in national conversations.
Even though there has been an impressive increase in social media usage by churches and pastors, significant resistance remains.
"While many churches have embraced the platform in recent years, there are plenty who haven't," Kinnaman said. "The research suggests many faith leaders and churches are still resistant to social media or are using it without realizing its full potential."
As an example, he said many churches only use their accounts as an external mode for announcements, shunning the two-way engagement that has made it so popular among the masses.
"While many churches may be uncomfortable encouraging such digital interactions during their worship service, there are plenty of ways to engage with people and events (both local and global) on Twitter throughout the week," the researcher said.
"When used properly, social media should make organizations and leaders more transparent and more connected with the people they lead. In other words, using social media properly should make leaders more social. These platforms should be used to facilitate a conversation, not simply be a broadcast tool."
As the popularity of social media has grown, pastors are increasingly more receptive to using the platform as part of their ministry, with more than three-quarters of large church churches (77 percent) saying they think social media will comprise a significant part of their ministry over the next two years, a 27 percent increase from the 2011 survey.
At the same time, however, a majority (52 percent) of pastors over the age of 66 believe social media is mostly overrated and won't be that important to their churches over the next few years.
While social media is on the increase in churches and among pastors, worship services still appear to be off limits, with 94 percent of responding clergy saying they have not asked church attenders to tweet, text or email questions for answering during a live service.