Use of on-line bulletin boards by churches – an exploratory study
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This paper considers the use of an electronic bulletin board or forum as a
part of a church site through detailed examination of 20 of the boards.
Through examination of individual messages, the authors develop a coding
scheme for bulletin board messages and found that the messages serve either
an announcement purpose or a community-building purpose.
Use of on-line bulletin boards by churches – an exploratory study
Churches are using interactive media to communicate with a variety of
audiences. One estimate of web site use from churches is that more than
150,000 churches had a web presence in a 2001 study (Thumma, 2001). Like it
is for other small, not-for-profit organizations, the role of the web site
for a church is evolving. Generally, churches might use a web site as a
mass communication tool to provide information about the church to an
outside community. But some features of web sites can promote interaction
and the development of virtual community to either bolster the real
community or to provide another outlet for community for those who do not
visit the brick-and-mortar church. This paper is an early look at the use
of electronic bulletin boards (BBS) by churches, with an eye to whether the
bulletin boards are common and if they are used like a physical bulletin
board or more of a meeting place.
A recent study performed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project
titled "Cyber Faith: How Americans pursue religion on-line" found that 28
million Americans, or 25 percent of Internet users, have used the Internet
to get religious information (Larsen, 2001). This is an increase over the
2000 Pew results, which showed that 21 percent of Internet users went
online for religious information. Many of those accessing religious
information online are looking for information about their own faith, but
50 percent are looking for information about other religions.
In addition to general religious information, individual congregations are
using the Internet as a part of the church's communication strategy.
Another Pew study, "Wired churches, wired temples: taking congregations and
missions into cyberspace," reveals that churches think they use the
Internet to strengthen faith and spiritual growth for church members, as
well as to provide an evangelical tool for communities. More than 1,300
congregations responded to the online survey. Approximately 83 percent of
respondents said that the use of the Internet has helped congregational
life (Larsen, 2000).
Most of the respondents replied that they use the Internet to "increase
their presence and visibility in their local communities," but they also
said they use it as a tool to connect with other members (Larsen,
2000). The most commonly used features on church web sites were posting
mission statements, posting sermons, links to denomination and faith
related sites, links to scripture or devotional material and postings of
schedules and other internal communication.
Anecdotally, churches have sometimes strongly embraced the opportunities of
online communication. For example, a well-known Dallas area church changed
its name to fellowshipchurch.com. According to the pastor, Reverend Ed
Young, "Dot.com stands for dot.community: community with God through
Christ, community in local venues, community in worldwide venues. It's all
about community." (Delgado, 2001)
The church's new web site, which launched in February of 2001, provides
email, weather, sports, news and stock market updates. Of course, the site
also includes information about the church and its ministries, similar to
other church web sites (Delgado, 2001).
Other churches have gone the technology route as well, and some have found
them to be hugely successful. Walt Wilson, CEO of a Silicon Valley
Internet business and author, helps churches design web sites to reach the
masses. One of his sites for a church in Los Gatos, California, receives
approximately 1,000 hits per day from over 30 different countries. Today
there are references to churches as online communities, and some say that
Christians are substituting church-related Internet activity for the real,
live, in-person experience (Kisken, 2000). It's possible, though, that the
virtual churches provide a tool for people seeking a place where they can
share as well as listen, in a less judgmental or uncomfortable environment
than one might experience in church (Kisken, 2000).
Virtual churches and other religious Internet sites provide a forum for
discussion. Online bulletin board or BBS systems can be such a forum. Eric
Stoltz suggests in his article, "An Internet strategy for local churches,"
that churches use interactivity in the form of bulletin boards to provide
opportunities for sharing information, ideas, and experiences by church
staff and volunteers (Stoltz, 2001). This sharing of information is also
becoming popular among parishioners.
Generally, since the early phases of adoption of the Internet, researchers
have been looking for how the technology the Internet allows affects human
communication processes. In particular, several researchers have noted that
the Internet has a dual mass communication and interpersonal communication
capability. Boards are one of the Internet utilities that could have a dual
capability. The simplest definition of the online bulletin board system
comes from Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch, who defines a BBS as, "a
tool for communicating by computer" (Ogan, 1992). Online bulletin boards
are experiencing a surge in popularity, and the major national bulletin
boards are growing rapidly. The popularity of bulletin boards might be due
to several factors including a large potential audience, fast sending and
retrieval of messages, transparent "posting" of messages, a large variety
of special interest groups available, and relatively low cost (Forrest,
James & Wotring, 1995). A bulletin board is relatively simple to use,
which adds to its popularity. Messages can be posted on a site, read by
other members, and responded to by those who wish to do so. Messages are
placed in order of subject matter, and in the order they were received.
They are removed when the quantity overloads the system (Forrest, James &
Wotring, 1995). Typically, there is an understood set of guidelines for
posting something on the bulletin board, while other times the expected
decorum is clearly stated on the particular site.
Early research documented the nature and extent of bulletin board use
(LaRose & Rafaeli, 1993). In the past, mass communication came from small
groups of people. Either they were newscasters delivering the news, or
they were "symbols of a community of interest" that delivered a message to
a larger body of people. Rafaeli listed "letters to the editor" sections
of newspapers and magazines as one example. But with many bulletin board
sites, anyone can post a message
More recent research has considered models for BBS use and the related
technology of Internet discussion groups, which also allow users to write
and respond to writing, focused on a particular topic. Roberts and Fox
(1998) discuss dual possibilities for Internet-based discussion groups: a
social/professional outlet for members or a "discretionary database" where
members contribute to an information source. A BBS system can act as a
resource for its sponsor. Fulk et al. (1996) posit that interactive
communication systems can create a public good – a support for collective
action. They also use the discretionary database idea. Savolainen (2001)
looked at Internet news groups as a "Living encyclopedia," comparing this
with an "idle talk" social model. In his case study, he found both uses. In
McMillan's 2002 paper, she posits a 4-part model of interactivity that
includes dimensions of direction of information and level of receiver
control, finding that web sites that users perceived as more interactive
tended to offer two-way communication with more equitable control of what
information appears. Fulk et al. address this as well, calling this the
connectivity feature of interactive systems. The one-way communication in
McMillan's model could be similar to the Internet utility allowing the
building of an information source, rather than an arena for communication.
A few researchers have looked at the gratifications of BBS usage. Rojo and
Ragsdale (1997) examined 12 discussion lists and found three user desires,
which included finding information, engaging in debate and developing
relationships. Jeffres and Atkin (1996) asked adults about their motivation
to use computers to communicate and found that desire to send messages via
a mass medium was the strongest predictor, followed by desire for
interpersonal communication. Interestingly, in both cases, building
relationships was a significant, but not the most common, motivator.
Particularly in applied concepts, the ability of BBS to create community
has also been examined. For example, Parks and Floyd (1996) surveyed users
of discussion groups and found that respondents reported being able to
make friends or other personal relationships with those met online.
Harrington and Bielby (1995) point out that in many boards "Members have
potential access to a virtually unlimited set of others to interact with,
but in most cases the individuals are not, at least initially, personal
acquaintances." In their examination of gossip on some entertainment-themed
BBS, they found that "…what matters more is how closely bound the person
offering gossip is to the source of information." Fox and Roberts' (1999)
ethnography of a discussion group for doctors found that participants
interacted as if they were part of a community, using clues from the
physical world to establish identities and create social structure in the
online world. The church BBS might be an open group, such as Harrington and
Bielby describe, or a more closed group, like the one Fox and Roberts studied.
From this review, we posit that BBS for a church could serve one or more
purposes. The BBS could function much as a physical bulletin board does, as
a location for announcements and event notices, either for members of the
church or for the community – the physical analog use. The board could also
serve as a virtual site to build community for members of the church
through sharing of ideas and personal information – the community use. This
paper examines in depth a small sample of church websites how churches use
them and seeks to discover:
Are church boards well-used?
Is the church BBS used like a physical bulletin board?
Is the church BBS used to build community?
This study uses the method of empirical case study. Markus notes (1993)
that this method can be appropriate when the nature of the research is
highly exploratory. Further, it would have been difficult to identify the
population of church bulletin board sites. Suggestions for more systematic
approaches are discussed at the end of the paper. For this work, then, the
universe for the study included church web sites that resulted from the
search engine www.google.com by typing in "church websites." Although this
did discriminate, for example, against organizations that didn't use an
express reference to web site on the web site or use the word church, it
did generate a large list of web sites for case study purposes.
Church web sites generated from the search were individually examined for
the presence of a linked bulletin board until 20 were found. A bulletin
board was defined as an online, interactive, message posting site. Only web
sites in the English language were consulted and only web sites belonging
to individual congregations were considered, although several
denominational sites were found to have bulletin boards.
Each of the 20 sites was examined individually to determine the extent of
use, which was measured by counting messages posted to the board. We also
noted which sites provided archives of old messages. The types of messages
were recorded during an initial read of several sites, leading to the
development of seven categories of messages. These included job postings,
announcement postings, event postings, requests for congregational care,
prayer requests, inquiries, theological discussions and other discussions.
The category for job postings was defined as messages in which there was
verbiage concerning the search for a job or a search for applicants for a
postion. Each job posting was further categorized by whether or not it was
a church position. Church announcements were defined as messages that
contained references to awards, accomplishments of church members,
missionaries in town, newsletters, classified ads not for jobs,
announcements of births or deaths, newspaper articles and references to
other web sites. The category for events was defined as messages that
contained information about workshops, talks, Bible studies, meetings and
Requests for congregational care were defined as solicitations for
personal intervention that did not include prayer. Examples of such
requests included asking that meals be prepared for a family, solicitation
of rides to church and requests that an individual be visited. Prayer
requests were defined as those that requested prayer from other church
members, praises to God, typed prayers to God and thanks for answered prayer.
Messages that were coded as inquiries included questions about the church
or the denomination, comments from old members (often comments about the
web site), comments from existing members (again often comments about the
site) and requests for family members or others to contact the person who
posted the message.
Theological discussions were messages that included comments on biblical
studies or passages, interpretation of scripture, comments on the nature of
God, Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit, and theological discussion of "hot
topics" such as women in leadership and homosexuality. Other discussions
were defined as those not relevant to theology such as pastor salaries, TV
shows, personal anecdotes, personal issues and socio-political messages.
The number coded category of message was incremented by 1 when a message
on the BBS fit into that category. All messages in all 20 boards examined
???Number of posts
101 or more
Number of sites
As Table 1 indicates, the majority of sites did not have many posts on them
at all, suggesting that for this sample, the sites were often not well-used.
As described above, we read through several sites prior to coding in order
to determine what kinds of functions the BBS was used for. In looking at
the areas of discussion most commonly found, presentation of job postings
and church, local and global event announcements seem to be the
most similar to what might be found on a physical bulletin board. Table 2
shows the numbers of these types of postings.
Table 2: Number of posts of items similar to what might be found on a
physical bulletin board
Item Number of posts
An example of a post seeking job applicants was a post on a language
church site that said "I am self employed at a wholesale distributor in
[name of city]. We are looking for an office worker. Jobs include: computer
operation on proprietary sales system; cash handling; merchandise selling;
answering telephones in [name of language] and English."
An example of a church announcement was "Our former school building, now
[name of building] is scheduled for construction to be completed by
July/August and occupancy for October. Names are still being accepted for
an advanced application. Thank you all for your patience as some of our
parking lot is taken up with construction equipment." These and other items
categorized in Table 2 are the kinds of announcements that could appear on
a physical bulletin board at a church.
In contrast, Table 3, shows the number of postings in categories that are
oriented to creating and maintaining community.
Table 3 Number of postings in community-related categories
Item Number of posts
Local care request
Other care request
An example of an inquiry was
"The last time I was at a con, I saw a girl wearing a "Y.R.U.U.?" bracelet,
similar to a "W.W.J.D.?" one, only with purple included in the rainbow
background and it was a whole lot cooler, of course. I'll be attending a
conservative college, and I figured a bracelet like this would be a good
reminder that there are open-minded people out there. I've looked all over
the web and can't find a bracelet like this. If you know where I can get
one, please e-mail me."
Prayer requests were often very specific, such as "Please pray for our
nephew who has been sent into Iraq."
Theological discussion was wide-ranging and included items like
"I mean, there are other Christian churches around where women can be
pastors (either on their own or in association with their husbands), Bible
study leaders, worship leaders...etc...etc...
What do you guys think? I mean..according to the book of Genesis...it's
pretty clear what is written and shown..but then...is what is going on in
the church nowadays contradicting that? "
And items posted as general discussion also seemed intended to develop
community, with items like "You know you're from [state] if…"
When we were coding the sites, informally we noticed that site-by-site,
the postings seemed to be either like those on a physical bulletin board or
like personal communications that would help create community. Although
the sample size was too small to permit detailed analysis of this, we did
run a correlation matrix of all postings. Significant results from this are
presented in Table 4:
Table 4: Correlations of types of postings found on bulletin boards (only
significant correlations reports)
Physical Bulletin Board Elements
Seeking jobs r2=0.99 (p<0.001)
Global events r2=0.49 (p<0.05)
Local events r2=0.85 (p<0.001)
Global events r2=0.47 (p<0.05)
Local events r2=0.79 (p<0.001)
Church events r2=0.69 (p<0.01)
Theolog. discussions r2=0.74 (p<0.001)
Other discussions r2=0.77 (p<0.001)
Other discussions r2=0.99 (p<0.001)
It is interesting to note that the significant correlations largely did
seem to fit in the physically analog and community building categories and
that none of the other variables were correlated with each other.
Also, note that the church-related items church events and church
announcements were correlated only with each other, suggesting that a third
element of categorization relating to just items for the local church
community might also be important. It is surprising that prayer requests
and requests for congregational care were not significantly correlated with
anything else nor with each other.
This look at church bulletin boards suggests that there are types of BBS
use and that boards tend to be of one type only. It does not shed any light
on why. One study that could be of interest would be to combine content
analyses of web site content with interview data from churches to learn
things like congregational size and to learn congregational characteristics
such as age and types of careers. It would also be useful to find out how
and/or if churches promote a BBS feature to their congregations.
The positive correlation of church announcement and church event posting
suggests that a third category relating to just items for the local church
community might also be important. Because prayer requests and requests for
congregational care were not significantly correlated with anything else
nor with each other, this may represent another type of use of a BBS. A
larger study of more sites and postings could be amenable to factor
analysis to further refine categories of use of church BBS sites.
Because of both the size and the selection technique of the sample, the
generalizability of this study is severely limited. Further, there was
difficulty in finding web sites with a BBS at all. A difference in sampling
technique could help, for example visiting a public BBS hosting site and
looking for systems used by churches that they might not link to their web
sites. As elements of Internet use for churches grow in popularity, it
might also be useful to re-examine this issue in a few years, when a BBS
feature may have diffused further.
Use of on-line bulletin boards by churches – an exploratory study -
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