Heidi A. Campbell: What can the church learn from the pandemic about engaging with technology?

Sign outside church reads "St. Michael's has gone online"

iStock / Lubo Ivanko

The move to doing church online isn’t just a necessity during the pandemic. It prepares religious institutions to become more flexible in meeting future challenges long-term, says a scholar who researches digital religion.

From the outset, the pandemic has forced religious groups and leaders to re-imagine their traditional practices and forms of gathering.

Religious leaders who had been technologically resistant in early 2020 have had to rethink their critiques of technology; indeed, many have had to embrace it for their very survival. Since March 2020, Facebook, YouTube and Zoom have become hosts to dozens of experiments in digital worship each weekend.

As someone who has studied how religious communities respond to technology for two and a half decades, I quickly realized that this move marked a unique and important moment for contemporary religion.

Over the first six months of the pandemic, I closely studied how a variety of churches engaged with technology. I collected essays and reflections from an array of church leaders, theologians, students and media scholars around the globe and published a series of three e-books -- in April, May and August 2020 -- exploring issues faced by congregations and pastors during this time.

Each of these e-books ends with an essay summarizing the common observations from the authors’ essays on how religious communities and their worship are being shaped by the conditions of the pandemic.

From this work, I’ve compiled a list of key lessons for religious leaders and scholars about how churches’ choices about engagement with technology will affect them in the long run. These 10 lessons appear in a new e-book, published in February 2021. Here are the first five lessons.

Religious leaders are being forced to reconcile their concerns about technology with the clear benefits provided by the internet during this time.

COVID-19 has been difficult for some religious groups -- in particular, those that were previously hesitant about or entirely resistant to the use of internet technology in worship. The pandemic has forced these groups to go online and consider how technology can be a benefit instead of a threat.

For years, researchers have highlighted the potential benefits that moving online can offer religious groups, challenging them to consider how technology could potentially expand their influence to new groups and opportunities. Religious communities are now, out of necessity, taking up that challenge, and seeing in a new way the benefits of technology.

Experimenting with worship online has revealed the power of technology that many religious groups were previously unaware of.

While some religious communities have been gathering online for a while, many communities made their first appearances online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those groups, there was a steep learning curve that was not without its mistakes and challenges. But this hands-on learning has given them technological insights and opportunities to try out new tactics and strategies that have helped build connections within their congregations beyond what was possible in the offline world.

Mediated worship raises the question, How much of religion is -- or needs to be -- embodied?

Many of this project’s researchers questioned what the pandemic might mean for embodied religion. How much of religion is embodied, or how much needs to be embodied to be authentic?

In a period when people are not allowed to gather in person, the very purpose and definition of religion comes into question. This connects closely to the next lesson.

Social distancing practices and the creation of online worship services spotlight what religious groups actually see as their core values and defining rituals.

Not being able to meet face to face has caused many people to rethink the fundamental focus and practices of their religion.

For example, the project’s researchers found that while some churches proudly proclaim in their mission statements that they are focused on discipleship or outreach, what the pandemic has revealed is that they are primarily in the business of worship service delivery.

This revelation should challenge religious institutions to reevaluate their mission and identity. Social distancing is a catalyst that has pushed groups into examining how they define and live out religion in America.

Religious communities that are flexible and willing to innovate during this time are better placed to foster resilience in the long run.

Researchers noted that by being flexible, religious community members help prepare their traditions and groups for future changes and encourage religious creativity. Within days of learning about the crisis and impending lockdowns in the United States, many religious leaders were able to be innovative with the centuries-old traditions and ways of doing church.

By being willing to test out new technologies and experiment with novel ways to celebrate together, these institutions have encouraged adaptation.

This forced flexibility is showing dwindling congregations that they can reinvent religion and build communities able to adapt to changing conditions.

Collectively, these lessons speak to the positive potential of the pandemic to bring about shifts in the way Americans both “do” and think about religion. As the pandemic continues, innovation and adaptation will continue to be demanded of faith communities.

There may never be a full return to the business of religion as it once was -- event dependent and fixed to one location.

Religious groups and leaders that allow themselves to imagine and try out new forms of gathering, relationship building and community engagement will not only adapt more easily to the conditions created by COVID-19 but will also create a platform that will enable their faith communities to prepare for and respond to future change.

 

Interested in learning more?

Heidi Campbell’s four e-books are available free online.

“The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online” presents an international dialogue between church leaders, theologians and media scholars on churches’ practical and theological challenges during their forced migration to online forms of worship and ministry.

“Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World” offers reflections from religious studies faculty and students from Texas A&M University on how their spiritual journeys and their study of religion are being shaped by quarantine and social distancing.

“Digital Ecclesiology: A Global Conversation” addresses in greater depth the ecclesiological questions raised by churches readily embracing digital media and culture. Theologians from around the world explore the ways a church’s technological choices can create unforeseen theological implications for faith communities.

“What Should Post-Pandemic Religion Look Like?” outlines 10 trends religious groups need to understand to survive and thrive in the next decade.