Why are so many Americans not online?

September 20th, 2015

A shock

My first Sunday at a new church brought an unanticipated shock. As I asked the congregation to register their attendance, I requested that the members write down their email addresses. One man responded with a laugh, “We don’t use email.” Many voices joined in assent. I knew then that my next two announcements would fall on deaf ears — inviting everyone to look at the church’s new website and asking everyone to “like” the church’s new Facebook page. I had entered another world, only four miles from my home.

Less than half of my congregation has email addresses, and half of those don’t check their email on any kind of regular basis. Only two church members use Facebook. Forget Twitter or Instagram. Most of the members prefer texting to reach one another. Our newsletter goes out via the United States Postal Service. All of the resources I had read about using the Internet and specifically social media to enhance ministry suddenly rang hollow.

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 37 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population, don’t use the Internet. Of those not online,

• 44 percent are over 65 years of age.
• 41 percent don’t have a high school diploma.
• 24 percent have a household income less than $30,000 a year.
• 20 percent live in a rural community.

From these numbers, we see the offline population is mostly older, poorer and undereducated. But these numbers mask some of the reasons people don’t use the Internet. Of those not online,

• 34 percent believe the Internet is irrelevant to their daily lives.
• 32 percent mention usability (for example, frustrating or not easy to use).
• 19 percent cite cost as a factor.
• 7 percent note lack of availability or access.


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) operates a program called Lifeline, created when Ronald Reagan was president, which gives “$9.25 a month to Americans who meet income requirements or who already receive some form of federal assistance.” Recipients use that money to purchase telephone or cell phone service, or Internet access if it’s bundled with such service. In June 2015, the FCC expanded this program to allow recipients to use the government funds to purchase “standalone Internet plans.” This decision “recognizes high-speed Internet as a key to pulling the poor out of poverty.” FCC officials say, “Ensuring equality of Internet access is an important priority.”

In 2014, 12 million Americans received funds from the Lifeline program. Just as telephone service was considered a necessity for all Americans in the 1980’s, Internet access is being recognized as a critical communications tool today.


Speaking about the expansion of the Lifeline program, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said it will help solve “the cruelest part of the digital divide ... School-aged kids without broadband access at home are not only unable to complete their homework  they enter the job market with a serious handicap. And that loss is more than individual. It’s a loss to the collective human capital and shared economic future that we need to address.”

Education is more than learning the basics. How we learn what we learn can be just as important. Lack of Internet access may lead to higher high school dropout rates and lower college acceptance rates. We can’t expect children to grow up to be responsible citizens in society if we don’t give them access to the tools they need to be contributing members of society.

Cost and availability

26 percent of people who are not online cite cost or availability as a primary reason. The FCC has a goal of “universal broadband deployment” in the United States by 2020. At the end of 2014, nearly one-third of US households still had no broadband service. Many rural areas are passed over by major communications providers because, according to a Washington Post article, “the low density of potential customers makes it unlikely that a large provider will make much of an effort to connect them to the Web.” The FCC and other government agencies are working to fill that gap.

For example, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering loans and grants to rural providers to build out fiber for high-speed Internet access. Since farming has become far more “high-tech” than it was in previous generations, the USDA sees the need for farming customers to be connected.

For some people, simply having broadband availability isn’t enough to get them online. The FCC estimates a drop of prices by 15 percent is needed to increase Internet access by 10 percent. The combination of poverty and living in a rural area makes Internet access almost impossible for some Americans. 


Over one-third of the people who aren’t online believe the Internet is irrelevant to their daily lives. However, according to Lawrence E. Strickling, head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), “Americans who don’t have access to the Internet are increasingly cut off from job opportunities, education resources, health-care information, social networks, even government services.” Without Internet access, people find it more difficult to access vital services such as Medicare, Medicaid and the health-care exchanges created under President Barack Obama’s health-care law. The NTIA reports that 73 percent of unemployed Internet users look for a new job online.

Although many Americans say the Internet is irrelevant to them, according to Pew Research, “44% of offline adults have asked a friend or family member to look something up or complete a task on the [Web] for them at some point.” People who choose not to access the Internet may find life will become more difficult without it.


Today, churches use many aspects of the Internet to connect with members and to reach out to the community. Churches use email, Facebook, Twitter and other tools to communicate news and to invite guests. Pastors and lay leaders blog on various issues. Worship services are live-streamed, and sermons are recorded as podcasts. Worship planners search for videos online. Pastors use online commentaries for sermon preparation. Teachers lead online interactive Bible studies. More and more, churches and church leaders are discovering, learning and using the wealth of information and tools available through the Internet to do ministry.

However, we must remember that not everyone who needs to know that God loves them can be reached through the Internet. Those who can’t afford Internet access and those who don’t have the Internet available at home must be reached in what some would call an old-fashioned way. Face-to-face communication and outreach still work for ministry. No availability or speed of Internet access can replace the ministry of presence or the intimacy of human touch. Churches who wish to reach those without Internet access must remember to disconnect sometimes.

Churches can also help those without Internet access to get connected in several ways. Churches can be in ministry with school-age children living in poor or rural areas without Internet access through donating electronic equipment or operating a computer lab. Churches can offer training classes to those who believe the Internet is too difficult to use. Intergenerational ministry in which younger members teach older members and grandparents how to navigate the Internet offers an option with benefits associated with nurturing relationships. Church leaders can engage in conversation with people who believe the Internet is irrelevant to their lives and discover if the church might offer some type of assistance to enrich their lives through Internet access. Don’t be surprised, though, if these conversations lead to an understanding that the Internet may not bring enrichment; the lives of these persons may be rich enough without it.

We may be surprised to learn that millions of Americans are not online. The reasons why may surprise us more. Churches will continue to use the Internet to connect with people in need of God’s love and grace. But, we need to remember that face-to-face human interaction will always be valuable in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Ministries that use the Internet and ministries that don’t complement each other in serving the fullness of God’s creation.

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