When Churches Closed, Religious Leaders Turned To Tech
When congregations were forced to turn to online services when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, some religious leaders had to embrace digital platforms for the first time.
Not all churches were technologically equipped to produce worship services online. One Methodist pastor had to lend her own digital camera to the church, which had no digital resources. Another duct taped a borrowed smartphone to a ladder in order to stream a service. An Episcopal priest from Indianapolis described feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, saying that her online services fell flat and “wasn’t the job I signed up for.”
They are among the pastors, volunteers andstaff members who provided insight into their experiences with technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heidi A Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies media and religion, prepared a report issued last month on their decision-making processes and the sources of tension or challenges they faced.
Campbell, who is the principal investigator, and other researchers analyzed data from a technology grant program through the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, which supported 2,700 congregations across Indiana in 2020 and 2021. The program enabled churches to purchase digital equipment and other technological resources to facilitate their transition from traditional meetings to online services.
“A lot of churches found because of the health and safety guidelines that their only option to meet was in a mediated format,” Campbell said. “A lot of leaders for decades had been avoiding or not paying attention to digital media as resource, and had to get a crash course in using the internet for religious purposes.”
Her team analyzed data from 478 religious leaders who attended 50 technology assistance sessions through the grant program in 2020 and 2021. While a third of the leaders said that the use of digital technologies to hold services was a temporary solution, two thirds said they are exploring ways to use this technology in the long term.
Many turned to Facebook for its built-in livestreaming services, Campbell said, and some chose to record and upload worship services to YouTube. Zoom was the third dominant platform used.
“Pastors during the pandemic had to put on many new hats,” Campbell said. “In our research we found that most of them felt that the tech hat was the hardest and most challenging one to put on, because they had little experience and training, let alone knowing where to go to find resources. Most of them learned by doing and making mistakes.”
At some houses of worship, especially those with older congregations, leaders often had to be public relations advocates for online services to members who were resistant to the idea, she said.
The report notes discomfort expressed by leaders who encountered a vast learning curve. Campbell said in many of these Indiana churches, keeping services running during the pandemic was the sole responsibility of a pastor or minister, a church secretary or a volunteer.
A main complaint from church members, Campbell said, was that services didn’t have “that Sunday morning feeling.” One person said the found online worship “unnatural, forced and difficult,” saying that “it really feels like less of a real community and more of a composed one.”
“For most people, especially in Christianity, being religious means you go to a service at a certain time at a certain place and it’s an embodied experience,” Campbell said. “And so what they took away was, ‘You’re taking away my ability to be religious and be faithful.’ It was a hard transition for congregations to think about church in a different way because religion has become so place-based for many people.”
Many congregations found this unsettling, she said, but some pastors reported the transition to be an opportunity rethink what it means to be a church, which is “supposed to be a relationship with people and not an event.”
For all the ways that online services felt uncomfortable or compromised for some members, the report found that digitizing services made it possible for many people to worship more easily. People tuned in to watch from other states, former members could watch from their new cities, and spotty attendees turned into regular participants.
A 2019 Pew American Religious Project report found that the two fastest growing religious groups in the U.S. are those who would describe themselves as being spiritual, but not religious, and people who haven’t left their faith but have decided that being active in a church is no longer important to them. Campbell notes that for the first time the country is actively moving toward a post-Christian society, but with the power of the internet and a few pieces of basic technology, small churches could reach more people than ever.
“A lot of pastors who were seeing people leaving the church prior to the pandemic, saw that they can still connect to some of those who would drift away through online means by providing another alternative to connect,” she said. “This becomes another tool in a pastor’s ministry toolbox.”
More information about the research is available at the project website.