Several years after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the way congregations worship, many church leaders are still grappling with the question of how technology should shape their services and programs, according to a new research report by the Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies.
Churches with fewer than 100 congregants, which made up 52% of the 246 survey respondents, expressed concerns about their ability to maintain online options in the future, according to Heidi A. Campbell, one of the authors of “We’re Still Here: Reflections of the Post-Pandemic Digital Church.”
At the same time, these pastors and leaders of smaller congregations also expressed concerns about the consequences of not continuing to invest in hybrid worship options, Campbell said.
“They’ve had some good learning moments,” said Campbell, a professor of communication and religious studies at Texas A&M University. “However, many are in a place where they’re not stable with technology because of a lack of resources and volunteers. And because these churches are so small, they feel that if they don’t have an online offering, they may not be around much longer.”
The “We’re Still Here” report is the third in a series of research findings written by the Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies. It focuses on how congregations’ views of technology and online worship have changed over time. The survey respondents were among 2,700 Indiana congregations who received funds in 2020 and 2021 from the Center for Congregations’ Connect Through Tech grant program, an initiative supported by Lilly Endowment Inc.
“The main research finding is that churches are still using technology,” Campbell said. “Most of them are still doing some form of hybrid ministry, whether it’s just [streaming] services or hosting an online Bible study or religious education offerings.”
Larger churches adapt with fewer challenges
The report also revealed that larger churches, those with membership numbers above 100, responded more positively about the influence of technology as part of their services and programs.
Specifically, 50% of churches with congregations of 200‐449 people and 59% of churches with congregations larger than 500 had implemented technology before the COVID-19 pandemic. That compares with 24% of churches with congregations of fewer than 100 people.
“Churches with membership over 200, in particular, expressed enthusiasm and possibilities,” Campbell said. “And many church leaders with membership under 100 expressed exhaustion. … They’re not sure if they’re going to be able to keep the lights on.”
The different responses among congregations of different sizes can be linked to early adoption of technology among larger congregations, the report said. Of the respondents, 25% had already begun using digital technology before the pandemic, but the size of the church was a factor.
Many leaders of larger congregations shared that they were using some form of technology before the pandemic, including audio boards and video cameras. In many cases, the pandemic prompted them to invest in upgraded Wi-Fi services, livestreaming services and equipment.
“These are the groups that are expressing that technology has become second nature,” Campbell said. “Many of them could use more volunteers, but they still have people and the infrastructure to support online streaming.”
Facebook was a major factor in congregations’ communicating with their members about events or, in some cases, hosting events. In one case, a church with a current attendance of 750 people in West Lafayette, Indiana, said it used the social media platform for “weekly sermon discussions.” According to the report, most churches said they used Facebook “a lot” (63%) or “some” (23%) after the COVID-19 shift.
The most pressing question facing larger churches is what a true hybrid church should look like, Campbell said, noting that they may be reviewing technology best practices, which programs besides regular services should be offered both online and in person, or upgrading equipment.
A small percentage of respondents, mostly in smaller congregations, expressed that they were considering dropping technology as an option, Campbell said. “There’s a sense that they’re willing to drop it because they can’t keep adapting all the time,” she explained.
Overall, most church leaders considered digital technology to be an integral part of their model for the foreseeable future. Of the respondents, 33% said the relationship is necessary and 17% said it is integral.
A Carmel, Indiana, church with a current attendance of 75 people experienced a change in mindset about technology following the pandemic. “I don’t think the congregation cared about live streaming before the pandemic,” a church leader reported. “Now, they are so thankful that they can still be a part of the worship service and church family even when they can’t attend, are away from home for short periods, or even relocated.”
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