Saturday, December 23, 2023

How Churches use Technology in a Post-Pandemic Reality

Similarities and Differences in Findings from the TIC and EPIC Research Projects

By Heidi Campbell and Charissa Mikoski

An African American church leader reads from a Bible while being filmed
A pastor preaches while being filmed for viewers at home.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many congregations to use technology in new ways. Some congregations who were once resistant to implementing technological tools or options were pushed to do so in order to continue worshiping during that time. By looking at two research projects examining technology use by congregations during the pandemic—the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 (TIC) research project and the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) research project—we see a common trend in how technology has and continues to impact religious congregations. 

TIC, conducted research on the Center for Congregations’ Connect Through Tech grant program, which provided small grant to approximately 2,700 congregations in Indiana at the start of the pandemic to purchase technology resources to help facilitate their move from traditional to online forms of worship during the pandemic. In their most recent report, “We’re Still Here’: Reflections of the Post-Pandemic Digital Church,” they provide a snapshot of how these congregation continue to use and make technology decisions. This report draws on survey data gathered in 2022-23 from 246 of these grant-recipient congregations in Indiana. 

EPIC, a five-year multi-faceted research project generously funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., aims to understand how congregations responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, what the long-term consequences are on congregational life, and what congregational life looks like post-pandemic. The most recent EPIC report, “Back to Normal? The Mixed Messages of Congregational Recovery Coming Out of the Pandemic,” presents data from a nationally representative survey of 4,809 congregations conducted in the spring of 2023. The survey included a range of questions about how churches have responded to post-COVID challenges, including congregational technology use. In addition to the data from 2023, EPIC also has surveys from 2020 (as part of the Faith and Communities Today research initiative), 2021, and 2022. 

When comparing the findings of the latest reports from these two research projects, there are a number of notable similarities and differences in the findings about how the use of technology by congregations has evolved over the past few years. Overall, it is abundantly clear from both surveys that congregations have increased their use of technology in the past few years—both in the number of technology tools they use as well as the extent to which they use such tools. 

First, both research studies find that the use of virtual worship has increased in recent years

EPIC data shows that 75% of congregations have online or virtual worship in 2023 and most offer this option every week. This is a big increase compared to EPIC data on congregations surveyed pre-lockdown in 2020 which shows that only 45% of congregations said they livestreamed their worship and only half of these offered it frequently or always. Further, 80% of congregations who offer online or virtual options for their worship service in 2023 plan to continue providing this option for at least the next five years. Similarly, nearly half of the congregations in the TIC data did not use livestreaming pre-pandemic but by 2022, 72% of them were using it “a lot.”  

Another similarity between the findings of the two projects is that Facebook is one of the most used platforms for worship streaming.

TIC data shows that most of the surveyed churches report using Facebook “a lot” (63%) or “some” (23%) in 2022—which is up from 0% using Facebook “a lot” and 51% using it “some” pre-pandemic. EPIC data from 2023 shows that social media is the most utilized platform for online worship and that 53% of congregations doing online worship used a social media platform, like Facebook Live, to stream their worship services. 

Differences between the studies can be seen when comparing the use of technology in the life of the church beyond worship services 

EPIC data shows that, for the most part, congregations have pulled back on offering hybrid or virtual programming outside of worship (such as fellowship time, community service opportunities, etc.). Congregations who were once offering a variety of programs online have done away with the online option in favor of in-person only events. This contrasts with TIC data which shows that many churches in their study have continued to go above and beyond when integrating technology in a post-pandemic world. For example, one TIC church in Marion, Indiana, shared that they “…still maintain [their] livestream platform using this equipment [that they were able to purchase through the grant]. [They] also have begun creating curriculum for [their] discipleship pathway with it as well. [They] have built on this system to make it better for these uses.” The few programs where EPIC data does show a continued use of online or virtual options, however, are religious education for adults and prayer groups. This then is somewhat consistent with how the congregations in the TIC sample are using technological innovations outside of worship services. 

Along those same lines, findings from the two studies differ when comparing the orientation towards change of the congregations 

The latest report from TIC shows that given the resources and a positive attitude, the congregations in their sample were continuing to innovate. On the other hand, EPIC data finds that congregations in 2023 have become less willing than ever to change to meet new challenges than at the height of the pandemic. This could be a reflection of when the surveys were fielded and the ensuing “change fatigue” congregations are encountering as a result of the pandemic. EPIC data shows a sort of “rubber band” effect where more congregations agreed or strongly agreed that they were open to change in 2020 and 2021, early in the pandemic, but over time this has snapped back to the lowest percentage of congregations being willing to change they have ever seen in 2023 (66% agreement in 2023 as compared to 73% in 2020 and 86% in the winter of 2021). It could also be possible that receiving a grant for technology invigorated the TIC congregations and encouraged them to consider new possibilities. 

Overall, both TIC and EPIC studies highlight that the role technology plays in congregations is still changing, and churches are not yet in a place of stasis in terms of their use and long-term plans for hybrid worship. Despite not yet reaching a sense of post-pandemic normalcy in terms of technology integration, TIC data finds technology has come to be seen as important when they look to the future of their ministry and outreach. EPIC data finds that more technology use is associated with more congregational vitality and overall optimism about how the congregation is emerging from the pandemic. Together this indicates that integrating technology into the functioning of the congregation seems to be a positive move for most. Findings from these two research projects show that use of technology is ever changing as congregations assess what works for them in the continually evolving post-pandemic reality. 

(Portions of this post were adapted from “From “We’re Still Here!” to “Back to Normal:” Considering Similarities and Differences in How Churches are Negotiating Technology in a Post- Pandemic Reality” pages 25-26 in “‘We’re Still Here’: Reflections of the Post-Pandemic Digital Church”—Report 3 from the Tech in Churches Research Project.)