August 22, 2023
Technological hesitancy and digital reluctance can be barriers to digital justice
Negative attitudes toward the adoption of technology during the pandemic raise issues of fairness and justice into the future, writes the author of a study on the post-pandemic church.
Churches have moved out of pandemic management mode in 2023 into a post-pandemic pattern of life. In this time, one question stands out: how — or whether — they should continue to use technology in the long run.
To consider this question, we need to take a hard look at the challenges highlighted by online worship, especially congregational responses to the digital divide.
The digital divide is a term used to describe individuals’ or groups’ lack of access to digital resources or their lack of knowledge and understanding about that technology. In March 2020, many churches bumped into this issue for the first time when they scrambled to figure out what it would take to get online.
In the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 project, we have been studying how churches in Indiana have adopted technology and adapted to online worship services between 2020 and 2023. We have documented many successes in how churches helped one another, shared resources, built new ministries and even expanded their congregations during the pandemic because of their work online.
However, we have also noticed two groups in some congregations that made this work more difficult: the technologically hesitant and the digitally reluctant.
The technologically hesitant were individuals who expressed strong doubts about moving services online and were slow in making decisions regarding technology. These were often older members of congregations or leadership teams who were unfamiliar with digital media and therefore felt uncomfortable and unqualified to make decisions about what technology to purchase or use.
One pastor clearly expressed this hesitancy when he said, “When your average [member] age is 70 years old, it’s hard to make changes. Technology can be seen as a threat, not an opportunity.”
This technological hesitancy created a generational digital divide. While younger church staff or members were often excited about technology solutions, older members with limited digital experience saw these solutions as one more uncertainty they were forced to adapt to during the pandemic.
Churches that were able to swiftly identify and address these concerns were able to overcome members’ technological hesitancy more quickly. Some solutions included purchasing tablets that could be loaned to members and pairing young people with seniors as tech tutors to help them learn how to access online services.
The second group that made this work of adaptation to change more difficult were the digitally reluctant. The digitally reluctant were actively resistant to using digital media, even when technologies were available and offered an easy solution to a problem. The digitally reluctant would also try to dissuade others from using digital resources, often because of ideological concerns about the nature or impact of technology on the church.
For example, one pastor described himself as more than just reluctant. When a congregant first asked him about using Facebook for online services, he said, he responded, “That’s the stupidest idea I have ever heard!”
In some churches, leaders and members in the early days of the pandemic actively opposed online service options. Digital reluctance — by either a single person or a small group — reinforced a digital divide for the whole congregation.
In many cases, the digitally reluctant were forced to give in to online worship when it proved to be the only viable option. Still, digital reluctance remained and was used by many to argue for the return to in-person worship as soon as possible.
There’s an important distinction to draw here. Our research shows that technological hesitancy is based on a fear of the unknown. When the cause of hesitation was addressed head-on and churches helped the fearful overcome tech concerns, leaders said, congregations accepted and seemed to adapt positively to the changes required.
Digital reluctance, however, is based on personal preference rather than a lack of tech access or training. It represents a mindset that is generally resistant to change.
Digitally reluctant individuals made church leaders’ work more difficult and stressful. Often exhausted by having to constantly adapt to technology, pastors, staff, volunteers and leaders were further hindered by congregants who were proud of being tech-free or anti-technology.
This resistance not only undermines the time and financial investments churches put into developing online ministry opportunities but also reveals the broader unwillingness of some to adapt to shifts in culture, even when it is a necessity.
Digital reluctance is often inward-looking, based on individual preferences rather than what is best for the whole community. A digitally reluctant individual or small group can deny the larger community the opportunity to gain from technology — just because they don’t want to.
This speaks to the need for churches to recognize and deal directly with digital reluctance. Indeed, we believe it is an issue of digital justice.
Digital media is not always a democratic or unbiased space. However, we found that offering digital access meant that some inequities that prevented people from safely gathering were removed, creating a space for digital equity and justice. By catering primarily to the digitally reluctant, churches close off pathways for those who cannot attend in person.
As hybrid worship and ministry options become more pervasive and even desired by some sectors of the church in a post-pandemic landscape, we cannot let technological hesitancy or digital reluctance hijack churches’ use of digital media.
We are still in a season of change. Many congregations are trying to determine the best ways to integrate digital ministry options for the long haul. Churches unwilling to continue to experiment and change will miss out on new opportunities — for growth, outreach and justice.
Digital reluctance — by either a single person or a small group — reinforced a digital divide for the whole congregation.