August 3rd, 2012
02:36 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – Despite the attention that major religious leaders have received for their use of Facebook and Twitter – including pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen - a new survey finds that only a small minority of Americans use social media for religious reasons.
Six percent of Americans say they are part of a spiritual group on Facebook, and 5% report that they follow a spiritual leader on Twitter, according to a survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute. The numbers come as nearly half of Americans report using Facebook at least a few times a week.
“We were a little bit surprised,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. “We thought there would be a higher usage given all the press that has surrounded pastors on Twitter and people posting prayers online.”
Some religious leaders have taken to Twitter with gusto.
Evangelical ministers and authors like and Osteen (834,419 followers), Warren (684,144 followers) and Mark Driscoll (262,935 followers) have used the social media site to expand their personal brands and to reach worshipers. Even the Dalai Lama has become active on Twitter, with 4.8 million followers.
The size of Osteen’s, Warren’s and Driscoll’s followings is proof of another trend, Jones said.
“The exception to (the lack of religion on social media), and really this is across the board, are white evangelical Protestants,” Jones said. “They stand out.”
On Facebook, in particular, white Protestant evangelicals are more actively engaging with their faith than people of other faiths. While half of survey respondents said they don’t post their religious affiliations on Facebook, just 25% of white evangelicals said they don't post their beliefs to Facebook.
According to the survey, white evangelicals are more likely than people of other faiths to post about being in church and more likely to have downloaded a sermon.
“Part of the reason why is that social media fits very well with the great commission to go out and make disciples,” Jones said.
The use of social media is also in line with evangelicals' embrace of technology. Evangelicals were some of the first religious leaders to take to radio, to utilize local access television and even, in some cases, to tap into cable and satellite television in the early 1990s.
The survey also finds that younger Americans are significantly more likely to post about religion than their older counterparts. For example, younger Americans are much more likely than older Americans to follow a religious leader on Twitter or Facebook (9% vs. 1%) and are more likely to have joined a religious group on Facebook (10% vs. 1%).
In many ways, Jones said, young and old Americans are mirror images of one another when you compare their social media uses and the level of which they attend church. While a majority of people online are age 18 to 29, a majority of people in church pews are older than 65, says Jones.
“Social media users are a different population that church users,” Jones said. “If you look at who is online and who is on church, those are different groups of people.”
The Public Religion Research Institute phone survey was conducted between July 25 and July 29 with a random sample of 1,026 adults of 18 years of age or older. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
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