Is Time Spent Online Cutting into the Clergy's Prayer Time?

Christian clergy are keeping pace with technological advances, a trend that should only grow stronger as a younger, more wired generation takes their place in pulpits, according to a new study.
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"Prayer is not easy," the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen constantly reminded his readers.

Hearing what he called "the still, small voice of love" amid the cacophony of secular voices calling for attention needs special effort: "It requires solitude, silence and a strong determination to listen."

The Internet has not made the spiritual life any easier.

Christian clergy are keeping pace with technological advances, a trend that should only grow stronger as a younger, more wired generation takes their place in pulpits, according to a new study.

Ninety-five percent of Christian clergy use the Internet at least weekly, and more than three in four send e-mails to worshipers once a week or more, according to the latest wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

Younger clergy and mainline Protestant pastors are the most active online, with Catholic clergy the least likely to be found surfing the net for religious or other purposes, Ida Smith-Williams reported to the recent annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Baltimore.

All that time online, however, does not mean the Internet has become the favorite media pastime of clergy. Television is still their first love. In a survey measuring activities outside of their regular duties, time spent watching the tube ranked in the top three for Catholic, mainline Protestant and conservative Protestant clergy.

What may be suffering is time spent in prayer.

While mainline clergy said using the Internet was among their top three activities each week, they reported spending less than half as much time as Catholic clergy in prayer, meditation and Bible reading.

Journey Toward Cyberspace

The ways congregations have embraced the Internet is one of the biggest changes since the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce say in their new book, "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why."

The latest survey found 77 percent of congregations maintained a Web site, up from 43 percent in 2001.

A random sample of 693 clergy in the fall of 2008 show as part of the overall study show spiritual leaders are keeping pace with their congregations and the general public, reported Smith-Williams, a researcher with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and database manager of the congregational life survey.

Ninety-seven percent of mainline Protestant clergy, 95 percent of conservative Protestant clergy and 84 percent of Catholic clergy, the oldest demographic, said they used the Internet at least weekly.

Eighty-two percent of mainline Protestant clergy said they send e-mail to worshippers each week, as did 68 percent of conservative Protestant clergy and 59 percent of Catholic clergy.

And there is strong evidence the trend will continue:

Ninety-eight percent of clergy younger than 40 said they used the Internet weekly; 89 percent of clergy 60 and over go online each week.

Eighty-one percent of younger clergy, compared to 68 percent of older clergy, reported sending emails to worshippers each week.

Eighteen percent of clergy younger than 40 reported maintaining blogs; just two percent of pastors 60 and above have blogs.

What Percent of Congregations have a Website? View Data from the National Congregations Study

Balancing Family, Prayer Lives

Time is a valuable resource for U.S. clergy, who report spending more than 50 hours a week at work.

When asked to rank time spent in the last seven days in various activities from hobbies to Internet use, Protestant clergy said spending time with family is first. Mainline Protestant clergy reported spending 14.3 hours with family in the last week. Conservative Protestant clergy spent 12.7 hours with family.

Catholic clergy, who are celibate, reported their top activity was a spiritual exercise, devoting 11.2 hours to prayer, meditation and Bible reading. That activity ranked second for conservative Protestant clergy, who spent 8.2 hours in the past week in such reflection.

All three groups enjoy watching television. The activity, with an overall average of 7.5 hours a week, ranked second for Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy and third for conservative Protestant clergy.

But the online world is catching up. Using the Internet ranked third for mainline Protestant clergy with 5.4 hours devoted to the activity in the week surveyed.

And while younger clergy are more active online, they spend less time on spiritual exercises. The survey found clergy younger than 40 spent 5.8 hours a week in prayer, meditation and Bible reading, compared to the 7.5 hours a week those 60 and older spent on the spiritual discipline.

Nouwen likely would not consider that a good sign. All the great saints in history and all the spiritual directors worth their salt, Nouwen said, maintain "prayer is our first obligation as well as our highest calling."

Yet writing back in 1975, he talked about how, "More than ever, we feel like wandering strangers in a fast-changing world." It takes discipline and risk to make time for prayer amid all the "urgent" demands on the time of believers, he said.

For today's clergy, that discipline apparently includes being able to turn off the TV and shut down the computer.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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