Years ago, Ken faced a struggle in the downtown church where he was serving as a young associate pastor. On a return visit to Duke Divinity School, he described the dilemma to Robert Wilson, an approachable and curious member of the faculty.
Wilson listened, paused and then began to talk about a book he had co-written in 1974 called “What’s Ahead for Old First Church.” It draws on a three-year study of more than 300 downtown congregations in more than 100 cities.
“You know, that book has sold and sold and sold!” he said with a smile.
The question at the heart of the book, published almost 50 years ago, remains: What is the future for “First Churches” — those anchor institutions in our cities? Ken returned to the book amid the pandemic and was struck by how much in it still resonates today.
How do you know whether your congregation is a First Church? (Keep in mind that a First Church might be called Central or Trinity or be named for one of the saints.)
These institutions are often described with three words: quality, prestige and leadership. The book notes several signs of an Old First Church:
- Is an easily recognized urban landmark.
- Is a symbol of its denomination.
- Is a symbol of the role that religion plays in a city.
- Is instrumental in giving birth to new churches.
- Is known for excellence in worship and music.
- Counts among its membership persons of affluence.
There are also some less research-based signs: Does your church have a wall dedicated to 8-by-10 photos of pastors past? Do you have a ceramics room, complete with kiln and ceramic figurines? Do you find yourself talking about a nostalgic past, when the congregation carried more influence? If so, you might be a First Church.
For those of us who regard the downtown big-steeple church of 50 years ago as the height of the mainline, it’s important to note that the book also points to these traits of an Old First Church:
- Is in decline.
- Is surrounded by change.
- Has deferred maintenance.
- Has more money than people (although that may be in question).
- Has leadership in denial about the trends.
- Yearns for a pastor who can recapture the glory of former times.
Wilson and his co-author, Ezra Earl Jones, are clear about the problem: “A large number of Old First Churches are rapidly approaching a crisis point.” We were surprised to see this — 50 years ago, these churches were in crisis?
This runs against the grain of a common narrative, which sees a generation ago as the era of glory and success. Many of the artifacts displayed in First Churches reinforce such a perception; they hold up the past by honoring an influential pastor or lay leader, a very large Sunday School class or youth group, and evidence of their former position of prominence in the community.
We can only imagine that the book sold so much because it identifies the paralyzing tension that many First Churches find themselves facing — then and now. They must honor and maintain the church of the past for longtime members while also creating a new church with new people to continue the gospel message of Jesus.
So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention. The authors of “What’s Ahead for Old First Church” engaged in this kind of exercise, and our own congregations merit the same intentional process.
First Churches often have long histories and complex narratives. At the same time, they might have a propensity to oversimplify what is going on — whether within their buildings, among their people or in their surroundings.
A more nuanced observation helps us understand the multilayered context in which these churches are located. Cities are contested spaces; denominations are themselves a changing landscape; workforces are departing from commercial centers and in different ways returning to them; and the nature of work, gathering and spirituality are being revised by digital access and experience.
Observation leads to interpretation. A deep practice of interpretation involves multiple conversation partners — often drawn from fields as diverse as urban planning, economic development and community organizing.
Ken often asks leaders of these churches, “Whom are you learning from?” A church in Miami can learn from a church in San Antonio, and the same church in Miami can facilitate learning with a church in Los Angeles.
After that groundwork, intervention is crucial. The absence of an intervention can be a kind of work avoidance or even a failure of nerve.
First UMC in Miami is one example of a church that was willing to live through a necessary change. Audrey led a multiyear reinvention of the church and has lived the book’s question.
What resulted flowed from the iterative process of observation (what was going on within and around First UMC Miami), interpretation (what was needed in the next generations among the dynamic mission field surrounding the church), and intervention (the destruction of what had been, the migration of worship to a new setting for over three years, and the design and creation of a new structure with expanded purposes and partnerships).
First UMC Miami wrestled with the question, “What’s ahead?” and came up with an answer. Other First Churches need to do the same for themselves. The answer to the question is unique to each geographical context, each collection of leaders and each congregational history.
What’s ahead for Old First Church? Our conversations with lay and clergy leaders convince us that this remains a crucial question. Yet we believe in those institutions. They can thrive — if they have the courage to embrace and honor the past while building a pathway toward the future that God dreams about for vital churches in living communities.
So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention.
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.
When faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, congregations of all sizes overwhelmingly embraced virtual services to ensure that they stayed connected with their members and communities. Recent research suggests that this shift to technology is here to stay.
It was only a few years ago that online church and the adoption of digital technology ranked last among pastors’ concerns, as evidenced in Barna’s State of the Church 2020 research.
The yearlong project, which launched Feb. 3, 2020, with the release of a report on pastors’ concerns, revealed that “challenges to the traditional church model (e.g., house churches, online churches)” ranked next-to-last, at 21st, for respondents, while “keeping up with the latest digital and technological trends” ranked last, at 22nd.
Of the 547 pastors surveyed, only 11% and 7%, respectively, rated those issues as “concerns facing the Christian church in the U.S. today.”
“The pandemic forced a seismic paradigm shift for most pastors,” said Nona Jones, who is chief content and partnerships officer for the online Bible platform YouVersion and also co-leads the Open Door Ministries church in Gainesville, Florida.
Jones is among numerous congregational leaders and researchers who are convinced that the hybrid offering of church services will be a lasting model.
“I believe the digital church is definitely here to stay,” Jones said. “Churches continue to livestream at unprecedented levels, and they are using digital connection platforms like never before.”
Early findings from a more recent Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) survey support that trend, according to Scott Thumma, the principal investigator for the project, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, and the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Interested in more research relevant to Christian leaders?
“When asked if they will continue to do hybrid worship five years from now, we’re still seeing a pretty consistent number of churches — about 80% — who say they will,” Thumma said. “Based on about 2,000 responses we have received so far, nearly everyone who is doing hybrid worship plans to continue to do hybrid worship.”
Developing a strategy for church growth through online engagement
In the face of declining church membership, online engagement may provide a path for churches to continue their impact — and growth.
According to initial EPIC study findings, churches experienced a 12% decline in attendance during the two-year period from 2019 to 2021. In comparison, U.S. congregations had experienced a five-year median attendance decline of 7% pre-pandemic, according to the 2020 Faith Communities Today survey.
However, the 2019-2021 decline was not experienced across the board. Just over a third of churches did report a decline of 25% or more in attendance. But looking more closely, 15% reported stable attendance, and 28% of congregations actually experienced growth.
The mode of worship delivery made a significant difference. Churches that met only in person saw a decline of 15.7%; those that met only online, 7.3%. But congregations offering hybrid services showed overall growth of 4.5%.
“It’s pretty clear that the pandemic has shifted human behavior and social organizations,” Thumma said. “We see it in restaurants, movie theaters, … in every aspect of our lives. So it’s not surprising that churches feel that as well.”
According to John D. Witvliet, the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, which regularly hosts conferences for hundreds of congregational leaders, many pastors are increasingly conveying that they are seeking ways to use technology to cultivate deeper relationships, participation and overall engagement.
“It’s one thing for a congregation to livestream a service or event to a largely passive audience,” he said. “But it’s another to have a congregation actively seek to engage people through a Zoom chat, an email exchange or a phone call after they’ve just watched a service. We have definitely noticed churches are engaged in all kinds of experiments on how to enhance and deepen engagement.”
Witvliet said that many of the pastors he interacted with during recent conferences were hopeful about the positive impact they could make on people’s lives through a hybrid church experience.
When considering a plan to build a stronger online church experience, Jones said, it is important to move forward strategically and prayerfully.
“An online church should be approached with as much planning and consideration as you would approach launching a new physical church,” she said. “I often joke that you wouldn’t launch a physical campus out of the blue one day — see a ‘For Sale’ sign and buy the building and have a church service that night.
“You would prayerfully think about where you want to open the location, then once that is decided, you would probably start embedding yourself in that area of town — getting to know the neighborhood and business community,” she said. “You would then raise or allocate funds to get a solid staff in place to serve the new congregation and have that team begin inviting people to your launch service.”
The same intentional approach should be taken for a digital ministry, Jones said.
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.