Churches' adoption of information tech may spark social change

May 27, 2003

Black churches' slow adoption of information technologies (IT) has hampered its access to federally funded programs and its ability to provide members with additional needed social services, according to a Penn State study.

Roderick Lee, a doctoral student in the School of Information Sciences and Technology, said churches need to "catch up to the information society" in order to broaden their traditional role as agents of social change for the African-American community.

"Faith-based organizations can provide the digital literacy that is needed by many residents of urban areas to participate in the information society," said Lee, who presented his findings at the Information Resources Management Association's 14th International Conference May 19 in Philadelphia.

The Penn State researcher surveyed several dozen churches of various denominations in Harrisburg, Pa., and found that few have taken advantage of IT tools. Of the 75 churches contacted, almost half didn't have fax machines; 65 percent didn't have email capability; and only a few had voice mail systems.

The lack of such IT tools leaves Black churches and other unwired grass-roots organizations out of contention for the $65 billion of funding opportunities associated with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The majority of those programs requires Internet skills to access information and applications, Lee said.

As part of his research, he also asked church leaders about how IT can be harnessed to further their social service missions. Services now offered range from food banks to summer camps and computer literacy programs for youths and adults.

"Church leaders see the gains that can be made by embracing information technologies," Lee said. "They want technology centers in their neighborhoods and within their individual churches."

His research focuses on a population different from what many information systems researchers and practitioners study. But Black churches and African-American clergy throughout history have been a resource for their communities, providing support, education, identity and social services. Organizations and leaders who embrace technology will not only model IT use for their members. Those efforts also will begin addressing the digital inequality between the haves and have-nots who don't have access, Lee said.

"Churches need to utilize the Internet to augment or supplement the self-help and social service programs they already provide," said the IST researcher. "Without greater adoption of IT, these organizations with be further marginalized, and the digital divide will become wider."

Penn State

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