Pastors were not prepared for the digital demands of the pandemic. What does that teach us about the next crisis?

A pastor from a small Methodist congregation in Indiana has to borrow a smartphone from one of her elders. She watches a quick tutorial on Facebook livestreaming, then films a makeshift service from her living room.

And there’s the pastor of a rural Presbyterian church who discovered that the church did not own a tripod — moments before recording his first online service. He fastened his iPhone to a ladder with duct tape.

These are just some of the stories coming out of the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 research project, a two-year study on how churches and their leaders have adopted — and adapted to using — digital technology in ministry.

Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and working with the Center for Congregations, a team from Texas A&M University is investigating 2,700 congregations that received grants to purchase technology resources during the pandemic to enable them to move their services online.

Before 2020, many churches had never considered the importance of having Wi-Fi connections in their church buildings, let alone internet-enabled cameras or livestream setups. In fact, most American pastors likely never even considered holding worship services online.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and social-distancing regulations quickly showed congregations that having access to up-to-date digital media technology was not simply a novel ministry opportunity but a necessity.

The forced migration of worship services online in March 2020 brought with it many stories of churches being caught off guard by these new technological requirements.

Nearly two-thirds of pastors in this study felt that of all the new things they were asked to take on during the pandemic, it was technology work and decision making they felt the most unprepared for.

Through conversations with 500 church leaders, we heard responses like, “This wasn’t the job I signed up for as a pastor”; “I have no training in ‘putting on the tech hat’”; and, “I am a novice at tech — but the only one willing to try and get the church online.”

Leaders’ widespread lack of technology skills, knowledge and experience was further complicated by the digital divide, which many churches encountered for the first time. The digital divide describes the gap between individuals and groups that do and do not have access to technology, especially the internet.

The experience of the pandemic revealed for churches the challenge of what it means to be among the digital have-nots. Smaller and rural congregations in particular discovered that being in a community with limited internet access was not just a disadvantage but often a major barrier to acclimating to or addressing changes in gathering.

Yet the struggle was often more than churches simply not having key technologies on hand or the funds to purchase them. Many congregations battled self-imposed limitations on technology and roadblocks they created for themselves.

This we describe as digital reluctance, an unwillingness among leaders and/or members to embrace technology due to fear or lack of familiarity.

This was expressed by senior members of congregations as well as by church leaders, and this digital reluctance often prevented them from innovating worship and adapting to public gathering limitations.

For example, one leader, who described his congregation as “very anti-tech” and said that he personally “never had an interest in going online,” felt that these factors created significant obstacles for his church during the pandemic. In his view, the congregation’s initial reluctance to consider or even experiment with technology-driven service solutions created unnecessary tensions during already uncertain and tense times.

In other cases, congregational resistance toward technology often corresponded with a church’s general unwillingness to change its liturgical practice or re-envision the church. As one pastor said, “For some, getting on board with online worship was seen as giving up on the core of their faith.”

Digital reluctance also created friction in some churches between the generations. Younger and more digitally fluent members, excited about the possibility of re-imagining the church through digital platforms, often found themselves in conflict with older members or those less familiar with digital media.

Some leaders said the generational digital divide, and the tensions created around it, contributed to the slower return of some younger members once face-to-face services resumed.

“Some of those folks haven’t returned. … Our seniors were taught that you were here every Sunday, so they’re ready to be back. But that’s not the case with our younger people and those who were willing to try to go online from the start,” one pastor told researchers. “Time will tell what impact online tensions created.”

As a grand experiment and learning opportunity, the digital transition many churches underwent during the pandemic provides us with several valuable lessons.

First of all, our research found that pastors who had a positive and open mindset toward changing worship practices and/or engaging technology had a less stressful experience adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. This shows that attitude can greatly influence one’s outlook in times of forced change.

Second, congregations and their leaders who were willing to experiment with technology and learn from mistakes made in the process found that moving to online services opened up the possibility to reconsider the very nature of church.

Congregations are asking questions, for example, about whether church is primarily defined by its Sunday worship service, its community outreach, its technology use or something else. This is a challenging and tiring task, but pastors who felt empowered to be creative in their problem solving seemed to demonstrate greater resilience when handling pandemic stressors.

Third, pastors who used difficulties with technology to facilitate conversations about the nature of the Christian community helped create space for new perspectives to be shared.

This helped refocus the discourse from what was lacking in online worship to one centered on exploring new opportunities for community building, such as reinventing how small groups meet, how leaders perform pastoral care and how hybrid Sunday school can redefine religious education.

While the digital divide continues to be a challenging reality for many churches, the pandemic revealed important traits church leaders need to prepare for future cultural disruptions and technological shifts. Duct tape and an online tutorial won’t solve all church tech problems, but they do demonstrate creativity and a willingness to try — which can go a long way in moving churches forward.

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.