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IUPUI professor’s new book underscores Internet’s negative impact on organized religion

Religious groups aren’t capturing the hearts of the millennial generation, and the Internet is partly to blame, says the author on a new book on building strong religious communities.

As part of her research for writing “Building Strong Church Communities: A Sociological Overview,” Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Patricia Wittberg examined nearly 700 surveys of Catholic parishes completed by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Some of the questions Wittberg’s book asks include: How close do Catholics feel to their parish community and how close do they want to feel? How has the parish role changed throughout history? What kind of community connections do Catholics want from their religious order? When is community connectedness both beneficial and not beneficial for a parish?

The youngest generational cohort of adults studied — the millennials — were the least attached to organized religion, said Wittberg, who teaches sociology in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.

“Over 33 percent of them claim no affiliation, the highest percentage for well over 100 years,” the sociologist said.

Wittberg’s research is the first to compare the 700 surveys. While her data set had no new information on reasons for the decline, the sociologist uncovered several interesting previous studies on how the Internet is eroding both the authority of established religious leaders and the permanence of religious communities.

“Some of this (lack of affiliation) is due to the individualizing experience of accessing religion and spirituality via the Internet,” Wittberg said. “On the Internet, seekers can pick and choose what kinds of doctrines appeal to them — with little or no consideration of the official teachings of any church — and they can join and leave religious online ‘communities’ much more easily.”

The implications don’t bode well for the future of religious groups, the author said.

“I believe that the survival and health of religious groups, including church congregations, requires that the next generations become members,” she said. “So far, there is little to attract them.”

In some of her background research, the sociologist discovered that the idea of improving church communities as communities was a fairly new one. It’s easy to find books that help individuals better understand and grow in their religious worship, but books that focus on religious community are bit harder to come by, according to the IUPUI professor.

“In the past, Catholic as well as Protestant pastoral books, journal articles, workshops, etc. have focused on the spiritual needs of the individual,” Wittberg said. “Little has been done to develop a similar repertoire that would help them look at the needs of religious groups.”

Wittberg’s aim is for her work to help religious groups thrive and grow and be healthy for their members.

Wittberg was inspired to tackle the project when she realized how few church people were aware of the extensive literature and research about community since Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” which problematized whether and to what extent the sense of community was being lost in the United States and if that was a good or bad thing. “I believed that the findings of this research could benefit church communities,” she said.