Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Pandemic Church: Adapting to a Digital Culture and On Demand Context

by Scott Thumma (Principal Investigator, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations)

The following article was reprinted with permission from the book “Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches With a Future.” For additional reflections on how hybrid church will endure beyond the pandemic and how to capitalize on the lessons learned in order to do ministry in new ways, we invite you to purchase a copy of the book on Amazon.

I feel shameful to admit it, but, for me, personally, 2020 was the best of times. I observed the loss of over a million lives, and untold suffering, and the anxiety and grief everyone experienced, and I deeply feel and mourn this pain. However, I’m an introvert; plus, I was on a six-month sabbatical from my faculty position at Hartford Seminary. At the same time, I was finalizing a $5 million grant proposal to study how churches were handling the pandemic and its implications for their future, which eventually got funded in 2021. These circumstances, plus fresh, homemade bread from my son, caused my experience of the pandemic to be quite different from most of the country. I am eternally grateful for this. However, this new research project now means I’ll be living with the harsh realities of the pandemic on the religious landscape every day for many years to come. 

For all of 2020, and ever since, I’ve been consumed by the question of what effect the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the religious reality of our country. That is my job as a professor of congregational studies, the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and, now, the principal investigator for the project Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC), which will occupy my professional life through at least 2026. In many ways, my traumatic experience of the pandemic did not come because of personal losses or illness, nor was it contained to the momentary impact of the virus on community disruption. Instead, I have been living with, and will continue to live with, the repercussions of this pandemic reality in my work for at least the next half decade. In so many ways, this research exploration is not a positive experience. These are challenging times for churches and clergy, and I’m committed to documenting this pain and searching for ways to move forward. 

My team of researchers scattered throughout the country are paying close attention to how churches are coping, or not, with the aftermath of the lockdown and impact of the pandemic. We have run three national surveys, with nearly a dozen more planned. We are closely tracking 300 churches across the five years and doing 100 in-depth case studies of congregations in eight locations around the nation. In two years, we hope to survey 100,000 congregational participants about their reflections on COVID and their perceptions about their spiritual wellbeing in the present. All our findings and thoughts can be accessed and followed at COVIDreligionresearch.org and our social media streams. 

Unsplash photo by Dylan Ferreira

Already, we know the pandemic has irrevocably changed the congregational reality, but exactly how and to what magnitude will only be revealed over time. One thing is certain, though: congregations can no longer use the excuse that they are incapable of changing their routines and functioning. Nearly all of them did so, and far faster than I would ever have guessed. Likewise, they can no longer hide under a bushel and pretend the world is as it was in the 1950s. If they choose to revert to antiquated models of church, this will be an intentional choice they are making. Such an action is an explicit repudiation of the truth that the world has changed and a deliberative act of denying their responsibility to minister to this contemporary context. No church or minister could live through 2020 and not be aware of the obvious spiritual and social needs in our country, of the racial and ethnic injustices, of the economic inequalities, of the deep and destructive political divisions within our nation, of the technological fabric of our society, or of the obvious cluelessness of the vast majority of congregations in the United States about addressing these realities. If a congregation is to remain relevant in our contemporary society, it must continue the adaptive practices begun during the pandemic. 

But this chapter tackles just one of those realities: adapting to our digital culture and the virtual “on demand” context of our society, especially in a post-pandemic world. At present, 80 percent of congregations have some form of hybrid worship. While there are many different modes and models of this, it essentially means their weekly worship services can be experienced both in-person and virtually. This chapter will explore the reality of hybrid worship, drawing on data from the EPIC project’s three surveys and then discuss the challenges and possibilities for creating an authentic hybrid church with all its implications. To begin, it is necessary to set the national congregational scenario prior to the pandemic in order to see the challenges most churches had as they entered this moment of crisis. 

The Pre-COVID Context Was Bleak 

In early 2020, our collaborative team of researchers from 21 faith groups conducted a study of 15,278 congregations. These “Faith Communities Today” results marked the sixth such national survey by this group, which began in 2000 (faithcommunitiestoday.org/fact-2020-survey/). This survey series has traced congregational changes over the past two decades. These surveys indicate that congregations are generally small and getting smaller, with increasingly older members and pastors, and progressively less spiritual vitality or organizational health. The median attendance size of faith communities (the midpoint where half are larger and half smaller) declined by 50 percent in 20 years, from 138 in 2000 to 65 in pre-pandemic 2020. For mainline churches specifically, the median worship attendance size is just 50 persons. Fully 70 percent of congregations in the U.S. have 100 or fewer weekly attendees. At the same time, roughly 70 percent of all attendees participate in the 10 percent of churches with 250 people or more.  

Add to this the reality that regular, active participants have been attending less frequently in the last decade, so once-a-month attendance is now viewed as an acceptable level of involvement. Even prior to the pandemic, the situation in mainline congregations was not ideal. On average, their sanctuaries were one-third full. Nearly two-thirds (60 percent) had declined in attendance by five percent or more over the previous five years. In 42 percent of mainline churches, at least half of the membership was over the age of 65. Over a third (37 percent) of churches were led by part-time clergy. Only roughly a quarter (27 percent) of mainline churches were growing by one percent or more a year, and just 28 percent strongly agreed they were spiritually vital. 

Nevertheless, prior to the pandemic, many mainline congregations seemed technologically prepared for what was to come, even if challenged organizationally. Nearly all churches had websites and were on Facebook; half offered online giving, with 25 percent using it a lot. Forty-two percent of churches used online meeting software, and 35 percent streamed their worship services. On top of this, 70 percent of mainline churches affirmed they were “willing to change to meet new challenges.” 

Hybrid Worship Is Not a Pandemic Invention; It’s a Cultural Necessity  

Beginning in late March 2020, nearly all mainline churches had to live up to their affirmation regarding their willingness to change. Parishioners required remote access to receive spiritual nurturance from a faith community. And it was amazing how quickly this momentous shift happened. Congregations that fought having a website or Facebook page, frowned upon the youth leader texting members, and would have died before a screen was erected in the sanctuary, jumped on Zoom or YouTube seemingly overnight. They rapidly adopted virtual worship, online religious education, and Zoom meetings. Giving became digital, as did pastoral care and a host of formerly in-person activities. After the experiences of 2020, it can no longer be said that churches are incapable of change. Now if they resist necessary change, they are doing it stubbornly, consciously, and intentionally. 

The modern world needed congregations to function like this prior to the pandemic, as I regularly implored my DMin students to recognize. Americans live in an on-demand world with online shopping, near instantaneous delivery, streaming TV and movies, and virtual doctors’ visits. All aspects of our lives have virtual modalities and are customizable to fit our individual needs, except for how we interacted with church. Worship and church participation needed to be more expansive than just a synchronous physical Sunday morning experience in a particular building at a specific hour once a week. COVID-19 made this need a necessity. Seven short years ago, only 19 percent of congregations offered virtual, streaming online, and hybrid worship but, as of March 2022, 85 percent did, including 77 percent of mainline churches. But what will this mean for the future of these churches? 

Many of these congregational “adopters out of necessity” were reluctant participants in this adoption process. It was an essential adaptation during the lockdown, but it was hardly a move they would have made without pandemic prompting. The majority of churches were not native digital users, nor all that adept at it. Virtual worship was fine when that was the only alternative, but it was essentially counter to their intrinsic norms and conception of church and worship. “Church,” for most mainline congregations, is an embodied, immediate, synchronous experience and practice in a particular building. At least it was until COVID temporarily changed that for most religious organizations. However, the question is, will congregations revert to the traditional conception of worship and church functioning as the effects of the pandemic wane? Or will these churches build on this era of experimentation and become a new, more vital expression of the Christian community? 

The other equally important question is, has the pandemic experience permanently changed the expectations and behavior for some participants? While many church cultures are intrinsically counter to a digital reality, many of those who experienced church in the virtual space appreciated this approach for a variety of reasons. Individuals’ attitudes and habits have been reshaped, and they may not be willing to change back. Perhaps there is no putting this virtual worship genie back into the “in-person only” bottle. Likewise, it must be acknowledged that for some often-marginalized members such as shut-ins, weekend workers, persons with various disabilities, youth at college, and others at a distance, virtual participation is likely preferrable, even essential, over physical worship attendance.  

It is also important to keep in mind that the use of multiple worship modalities has always been necessary. Many churches employed these in pre-pandemic times without realizing it or framing them as “hybrid” worship. They were essentially attending to member needs through multiple modes such as taking communion to the sick and homebound, having live feeds into the “cry rooms” or nursery, posting recordings of the service on their websites, reprinting the sermon and announcements in the weekly newsletter, or posting the video of the service on YouTube or the Facebook page. Certainly, very large churches have been broadcasting their services, creating online campuses, and establishing video venue multisite campuses for several decades. If one thinks about it, earlier television and radio broadcasts of services, or even “old school” publishing of sermons in the local newspaper, were really forms of hybrid worship for the viewer, listener, or reader.  

A Balanced Hybridity Seems to Work  

Such spiritual hybridity is not all that unusual in this (perhaps nearly) post-pandemic era. Currently, with nearly 80 percent of churches engaging in hybrid worship of some form, it is critical to ask does it work. The member ratio of in-person to online participants is 60:40. Likewise, for the roughly 35 percent of churches that are growing at present, about half this growth can be attributed to virtual participation. It is still too early to know if this will continue; nevertheless, based on the initial findings from the surveys of our Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project, there is a growth advantage to engaging in hybrid worship. 

Among mainline churches in our recent 2022 survey, 32 percent of those worshiping in hybrid fashion were growing by at least five percent since 2019, whereas only six percent of those only in-person and none of those worshiping only online had grown. But this hybrid advantage is about more than growth. Those churches offering both in-person and digital worship were more likely to report they were thinking in new ways about their ministry. They had a greater percentage of young adults and a smaller group of senior adults in the congregation, essentially a more balanced overall age profile. These churches were also more likely to have continued their religious education programs for all age groups in both virtual and hybrid formats and suffer fewer disruptions to their programs. 

Churches with hybrid worship opportunities seem poised to do better than those without, but only time will tell. Also, it is not an either/or scenario. Based on our data, churches where the ratio of in-person and virtual attendees is roughly equal, or no more than up to twice as many in-person members, seem healthier (in terms of growth potential, volunteering, per capita giving, optimism, etc.) than those that have more virtual attendees than in-person attendees or too many in-person without enough virtual involvement. Essentially, the balance of 50/50 to 50/100 of virtual to in-person seems the sweet spot for a hybrid congregation. Both too few in-person attendees and more than twice as many in-person attendees compared to online participants seems to diminish the benefit and vitality of hybridity.  

The Future Is “Hybrid Church,” Not “Hybrid Worship” 

There is no denying that the future is challenging for many mainline congregations. The patterns in place prior to the pandemic foretold an uncertain future, and pandemic stresses only intensified these challenges. But all hope is not lost. The dramatically responsive actions in the face of pandemic difficulties should sustain an optimistic spirit among congregations. Churches that hadn’t altered their functioning in many decades did so in a few short weeks, and it worked relatively well. The hard unyielding earth of routine and “how we always do it here” was tilled and fertilized by the necessity of pandemic adaptation. Two years of trying alternative approaches has diminished the immovable force of tradition and routine. Now is the ideal time to continue pressing for adaptive change.  

Our data also seems to imply that an important aspect of emerging from the pandemic in a state of flourishing is an optimistic attitude shared by the leadership and members. This sense of hopefulness, a renewed vision, and sense of mission and purpose seem crucial, regardless of size, resources, or context. Embracing these changes positively rather than retreating from them, even while exhausted and battered from the past two years, is a primary key to a future for churches, even as they continue to struggle with the pre-pandemic challenges. Positive change comes only when the congregation and leadership envision the possibilities for change. Without a vision, without optimism, the possibility of change perishes.  

Another key to creating a viable hybrid church is to move beyond the idea that it simply means delivering hybrid worship. Making worship available through multiple delivery modes is certainly important, and doing this skillfully is critical. That is not, however, a robust understanding of hybrid church. The hybrid worship most congregations served to members throughout the pandemic was a meager and marginally nutritious fare compared to their usual feast. It is not surprising that the initial robust virtual involvement diminished rapidly months into the pandemic. Who among us shows up in person just for the homily sermon and then leaves satisfied? Contrary to what many clergy think, the sermon isn’t the most essential component of worship and certainly does not encompass the totality of congregational participation. If a member came just to the sermon and left immediately, they would be considered a marginal participant at best. A robust congregational member participates in worship, but they also contribute to the faith community in tithe, talents, and time. They serve, volunteer, sing, gossip, laugh, contribute to the bake sale, and bear one another’s burdens. 

Likewise, a virtual church must be understood as more than digitalizing the worship experience. The leadership must find ways to hybridize the countless other dimensions of a congregational life of faith. An authentic hybrid church will develop virtual networks of fellowship; provide asynchronous avenues for mentorship and discipleship; offer online educational opportunities; inspire members at a distance to engage in service and participate in congregational leadership; and find remote ways for them to bond with the community rather than remain a virtual spectator. This will likely require a distinct hybrid ministry team. 

But to truly be a hybrid church also means to consider how the entire church, both in-person and virtual, can be one. This will be no easy task for an entity that preferences face-to-face engagement. How can congregational leadership create the space, context, and engagement so that virtual participants do not feel like spectators or second-class citizens seated in the nosebleed seats? They will need to become a unified part of a whole hybrid church. 

Ways will have to be made for virtual and in-person members to know and be known, see and be seen, hear and be heard, as well as participate, contribute, and interact. This will require creativity and new approaches from leadership, but it also means that members, whether in person or virtual, must be willing to adapt and revise ingrained patterns of behavior, routines, and rituals. It might even mean some theological adaptations as well. 

Hybrid church requires that leadership also acknowledge all the face-to-face members that they overlook, forget, or regularly fail to recognize as a legitimate part of their ministry. These marginal members who work weekends; require necessary special accommodations that go unaddressed; are homebound for a multitude of reasons; participate in other ways but never attend worship; or faithfully use the building (such as AA/NA, social services, and daycares) are underappreciated as part of the church’s larger congregation. Ecclesiological hybridity requires knowing, seeing, and hearing these “remote” members as well as the virtual participants. It means finding ways for them to participate, contribute, and interact more robustly in the full life of the church. 

A locationally distributed and expansive community—a church without walls—with a radically inclusive vision of its membership must be intentionally and continually interactive. This is essential because a congregation with multiple modes of engagement and remote participation is more likely to run the risk of becoming a shallow experience (as the pandemic online experience showed). This model can intensify spectator mentality, increase individualism, diminish participation, and erode active engagement in community without serious and intentional work. 

Continual Change or Eventual Death 

Why hybrid church? It is the dominant worship model at the moment, and, more importantly, it fits the world we now inhabit. Additionally, how we were doing church pre-pandemic was only working for a small percentage of congregations. Churches have been in a state of reinvention for the last two years. This creativity needs to continue if there is any hope for congregations to remain societally relevant. An embodied synchronous building-centric church isn’t obsolete, but the past two years have proven that the congregation can, and should, be more expansive than that. Members and visitors alike have more interesting things to do on Sunday morning, but they still have spiritual needs that need to be addressed. Whether it is due to busy lives, a homebound situation, work on weekends, employment travel, illness, blended and bifurcated family situations, or a host of other reasons, the entire congregation needs more than one hour, on one day, in one building where spiritual sustenance is offered. 

The need for hybrid church isn’t going away. Two years of a pandemic, in addition to a pre-pandemic “on-demand” world of consuming experiences when it fits an individual’s schedule, makes sure that hybridity is here to stay whether it is in schools, in the media, in business, or in congregations. This world demands a hybrid church and spiritual leaders who are courageous enough to bring this vision into being.  


Our thanks to Dr. Scott Thumma for allowing this reprint of his chapter from Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches with a Future (available for purchase on Amazon). Thumma serves as the Principal Investigator of this project. He is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace and the Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.