Sara Batts, a PhD student at Loughborough University, introduces her findings on churches and new media use.
I am just beginning my fourth year of what I hope will be a five-year project. I’m based at Loughborough, but work in London with a full-time day job as a researcher for a City law firm. It’s the way information is handled online by churches that is of interest to me, and this sparked enough of a curiosity to embark on a research degree.
The key questions that I am addressing in the project are:
- Are English churches establishing their own individual web presence, and then using online tools?
- Is this having any influence on, or being influenced by, traditional hierarchies within church organisations?
The first major work was to establish a baseline of how many churches have a findable website. I then followed my sample through over two years to see how the numbers changed.
I took a sample of English churches from four major denominations – Church of England, Baptist, Methodist and Roman Catholic. I used the website Findachurch.co.uk and with permission polled its database using random numbers to represent the database index entries. In this way I could create a list that was not biased by geography – other online church-finding websites depended on using a postcode as an index. Given the vastly different proportions of church denominations in England, having 100 of each allowed for relatively straightforward comparisons. It means that Church of England churches are under-sampled and the others are over-represented, but this is preferable to having wildly varying numbers that would be needed for a proportional sample.
I either followed links from the findachurch.co.uk site or I used Google to search, and looked at the first two pages of results. Other studies have shown that that is consistent with most people’s real search techniques. Over two years, the percentage of churches I found websites for are as follows.
So the number of church sites I could find has been increasing, but increasing at different rates for different denominations. I have not yet established why.
The other key piece of desk research from last year was a content analysis of 147 church websites, from the area roughly equivalent to the Diocese of Chelmsford. I classified over 1,000 external hyperlinks and found that there were clear patterns of links. Christian Aid, Rejesus.co.uk and the Alpha Course were the three most linked-to independent organisations.
There were many more categories and types of information and the analysis is ongoing. It’s worth noting that although I collected data on photographs and some basic design elements (was navigation on the site straightforward?) this project is definitely not concerned with overall design choices, rather the information content on the sites.
I am moving into the next – and final – phase of data collection now and away from my desk. I will be interviewing leaders about their choices of online media, about their websites and the thinking behind them. From my desk I have been able to answer some of the ‘what’ questions in my research, now I hope to tackle the ‘why’ questions.
I blog about the PhD at http://phdinprogress.wordpress.com and aim to be posting content analysis results in late spring.