March 1, 2012

Church Trends

Action-oriented information about the Adventist Church and the world in which it works
The Internet has become a new frontier for Christ’s mission. Seventh-day Adventists are sharing their faith through e-mail and blogs. Bible studies are conducted on Facebook. Prayer is shared via texting and Twitter. The Adventist message is being proclaimed on Second Life. For more than a year I’ve been interviewing Adventists involved in various kinds of ministry on the Internet.
One way to measure the impact of these new media is to look at the data from search engines. Google, Bing, and Yahoo are Web-based devices through which anyone can type in a word or phrase and immediately receive a list of Web sites in which this word or phrase is used. These searches happen billions of times each day. A 2008 study found that more than 2 billion searches were conducted per day. Now, four years later, it could easily be several times that number.
Google has a system by which it provides information to potential advertisers, and I used that system to discover that last year (2011) there was an average of 1.83 million searches per month for the word “Adventist,” and 1.22 million searches for the phrase “Seventh-day Adventist.”

2012 1507 page30You may think that translates to 20 million people who looked at information about our church, but remember that this is the number of searches. If you used Google each week to look up the Sabbath school quarterly online or The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, you might be responsible for 50 to 100 of those searches all by yourself.
Google provides another indicator that sheds some light on how the number of people searching for information about “Adventist” might compare to the total population on the Internet. Google Correlates indicates that it’s currently about 72 percent of the size of a typical search word. Is that good or bad? After reading several research papers, I’ve concluded that no one knows at this point. This whole business is largely unexplored territory.
A few states in the U.S. have exceptionally high numbers of people who searched on Google last year for “Adventist” information—Oregon, Maryland, and Tennessee. A second tier includes Washington, Idaho, Florida, and Georgia.
If you know something about where Adventist membership is most concentrated, this list does not surprise you. And if you care about the mission of the church, this is not a comforting list, because it doesn’t comprise the largest states in the country.
Internationally, the nations with the highest percentage of Internet users searching for “Adventist” information are Papua New Guinea, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Jamaica, Fiji, Rwanda, Botswana, Kenya, and Uganda. This reflects many of the nations with the highest percentage of Adventists, which suggests that nonmembers are not doing most of these searches.
Another metric is perhaps the most disturbing. During the past five years there’s been a steady decrease in the number of searches for “Adventist” information on the Web. Proportionately fewer people are looking for information about our faith.
Google has found a total of 24.8 million Web sites that include references to Adventist information of some kind. Yahoo has found 18.1 million such Web sites. It’s gratifying to find that the official Web site operated by the General Conference is at the top of the list, meaning that it’s most often the one people look at, but how many of those millions of Web pages are produced by people who are misinformed or even negative about our message? How many of them are operated by people who simply want to “wash our dirty linen” or carry on internecine arguments? There’s a lot of “garbage” out there on the Internet.
Pastors tell me that when they begin Bible studies with a prospective member these days, they soon discover that the person has already done a search of the Internet. Often they are asked questions about issues they’ve never heard of.
The Internet can be a powerful tool for the Holy Spirit to use in achieving Christ’s mission. If we’re faithful to the call of the Spirit, we can be agents of that mission. But it does require learning new technology and new realities. What are you doing to share the good news on the Internet?
Monte Sahlin is director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference and a senior consultant at the Center for Creative Ministry. Questions and suggestions can be sent to him at [email protected]. This article was published March 8, 2012.