Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Reflections on Shared Themes in the “Navigating the Pandemic” and “When Pastors Put on the Tech Hat” Reports

by Heidi A. Campbell, PhD

The following guest post was submitted by Dr. Heidi A. Campbell of the Network of New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, one of our collaborating organizations. Interested in submitting your research to be featured? Learn more and contact us!

The research report When Pastors Put on the ‘Tech Hat’: How Churches Digitized During COVID-19 put out by the Tech in Churches During Covid-19 project appeared two weeks after the launch of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project’s Navigating the Pandemic: A First Look at Congregational Responses report. While Navigating the Pandemic reported primarily on demographics and surveyed general trends in church life occurring during pandemic practices, it also presented some facts about the use and responses to technology from congregations that resonate with the findings of the How Churches Digitized During COVID-19 report.

Navigating the Pandemic reported that 80% of churches that were surveyed are still engaging in some form of hybrid worship services or other programming, with only 15% of churches meeting fully in-person and a mere 5% meeting exclusively online. Interestingly, the churches that remained hybrid were more likely to have younger staff, be more open to change, and be larger churches. Additionally, churches meeting exclusively in-person have experienced the greatest decline in church attendance, which are often the smallest in membership and had the most difficulty transitioning to an online context. The churches who were utilizing hybrid ministries (both offline and online options) experienced the most growth.

These statistics are consistent with narrative themes found in the How Churches Digitized During COVID-19 report, which investigated the technology decision-making strategies of churches during the pandemic. This report analyzed a series of Zoom conversations with church leaders and volunteers, led by staff from the Indianapolis-based Center for Congregations. Focus groups participants represented churches who received grants through the Center’s Connecting Through Technology program enabling them to purchase digital resources to help these churches transition to online services during the pandemic.

We found that many churches indicated it was their intent to maintain hybrid forms of gathering for the time being. Our study also notes a strong division between churches who felt that the internet was a resource providing opportunities to address unique ministry issues during the pandemic period, and others who felt the internet should be viewed as something to be integrated more fully into church ministry and that should live past the pandemic. Specifically, our study found approximately one-third of leaders viewed digital services primarily as a required short-term response by churches to the pandemic; where two-thirds of respondents spoke of it as a new resource with long-term possibilities. Thus, findings from both studies echo one another.

This isn’t completely surprising, as we still exist in a period where the pandemic continues to create conditions that need to be addressed by churches with technology interventions. It will be important to track as time goes on whether this emphasis on hybrid worship will stay steady or decrease, especially once the pandemic has subsided.

We note that churches who report having more financial resources (and younger in membership, and larger in size) were more willing to transition into hybrid ministry forms. These churches also reported notable growth in terms of attendance and outreach, which made them view hybrid church more positively as a long-term possibility.  Additionally, our study found that church leaders and staff that expressed a greater willingness to be flexible or had less apprehension in experimenting with technology also reported greater success in moving their congregations online in a timely manner. Also, churches willing to recruit younger individuals, who are not typically called upon for central or prominent leadership roles, as tech volunteers seemed to have greater success or at least an easier transition to online platforms than churches dependent upon the pastor or senior staff for technology integration.

These findings suggest a church’s success and ease in making the digital transition can be linked to whether or not churches were able to call on younger staff/volunteers to help with technology, had previously established digital platforms they could build on, or had staff who were willing to embrace change and experiment with different ways of doing online and/or hybrid worship. Ultimately, it is evident that churches were affected by their inherent make up from size to age of the church, and this would ultimately impact the technological decisions that they made. Overall, this comparison shows technology experience and response clearly impacted churches during the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that will likely have long-lasting effects on these congregations.