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.
Congregational leaders seeking solid direction on how to adapt in a post-pandemic environment may need to be flexible — at least for the near future, according to the latest findings of a five-year research study.
Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC), a five-year research project funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., was launched in 2020 to research the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for religious life across the United States.
The fourth in a series of EPIC research reports, which is scheduled to be released in August 2023, reveals that church attendance continues to recover after the height of pandemic lockdowns, said Scott Thumma, the principal researcher for the EPIC study and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which led the study.
However, that assessment depends on how attendance numbers are counted, Thumma said.
“In-person worship attendance is still below pre-pandemic levels, but when you include virtual attendance, that moves the number above 2019 levels,” he said. “For the overall sample, on average, church worship is still 8% less than it was pre-pandemic.”
Before the pandemic, the median church worship attendance was 65 people. Currently, the median is 60 people in person. When taking into account virtual attendance as well, it rises to 75, the study revealed. Still, according to a recent survey from Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans participating virtually in services is in decline.
“Most congregations are not back to what they were pre-pandemic,” Thumma said. “Many have lost some of their core people, as well as some of the marginal people. Also, church leaders are reporting that some of their solid members who always attended in person are now attending virtually.
“It’s a real mixed bag. Every time we do a survey, the landscape looks a little different,” he added. “We haven’t yet reached a point where we can say, ‘OK, now we’re at a consistent, steady point.’”
Congregations experiencing different realities
Early findings from the latest EPIC research also revealed that churches are recovering at different levels. For more than 50% of the 5,300 churches surveyed, worship attendance — both in-person and virtual — has declined considerably, Thumma said.
Yet 34% of churches surveyed reported attendance above 2019 levels. The report also revealed that 16% of church attendees are new to the congregations since 2020. This follows the pre-pandemic norm of an average increase of 5% per year from new attendees.
According to Thumma, churches that have experienced growth in recent years have done so through different paths. The churches that have grown have often emphasized virtual worship.
However, churches that focus on growing through virtual worship will find that engagement will lag behind churches that focus on growing through in-person attendance.
Churchgoers who participate primarily online, especially new attendees, are not as deeply connected and committed to the mission of the congregation. As a result, churches with a larger number of people participating online will typically experience lower average rates of giving, Thumma said.
On the other hand, congregations with healthy numbers of people attending services and programs in person are more likely to experience robust giving and robust volunteering. “They may not be growing as fast as other churches that focus on virtual worship, [but] they will have much more committed people,” Thumma said.
One of the main patterns apparently emerging from the pandemic is the prevalence of hybrid worship. Nearly 75% of the 5,300 congregations surveyed reported that they are offering both online and in-person worship options.
According to the first EPIC research report, published in 2021, congregations that opened more quickly in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns — or did not shut down at all — appeared to be recovering more quickly than congregations that remained solely online for extended periods.
However, that pattern became more difficult to track because numerous churches opened and closed at different times, Thumma said. Overall, the latest phase of the EPIC research study indicates that more change could be on the horizon.
Thumma, who has traveled extensively as part of the research project, said that many congregational leaders find the evolving church experience difficult to navigate.
“Each time we do a survey, the dynamics look very different. Until things settle, it seems that the best we can do is assume that what we’re looking at right now may not be how things end up,” he said. “It’s important to keep trying new and different things and not get wed to any one particular direction.”
Interested in more research relevant to Christian leaders?
In 2005, more than 15 years before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an international public health emergency, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, already had started exploring how technology could support its growing ministry.
Church leaders invested in innovation during the megachurch’s initial experiences with online ministry, said Jay Kranda, who took on the role of full-time online community pastor in 2012. That online strategy helped fuel the growth of Saddleback Church and can provide a blueprint for many congregations that seek to incorporate technology into their long-term plans for growth.
When Saddleback Church first started streaming worship, it only allowed church members with a password to attend the live services. Eventually the password requirement was eliminated. By the time Kranda became a volunteer online pastor in 2010, the church was hosting 10 live services every week at noon and 7 p.m. By 2012, the church was hosting 83 services, streaming recordings every two hours, seven days a week.
As the online community grew, Saddleback encouraged people worldwide to connect with in-person communities by hosting groups to watch streaming services in their homes. Krandra describes these groups, called “extensions,” as core elements of Saddleback Church. They provide opportunities for developing house churches which, in turn, may become church campuses.
In 2014, Saddleback added on-demand services as an option. Now the church is streaming a service every second each week with people engaged in online small groups, in-person small groups and extensions.
During the church’s early stages of live streaming services, leaders noticed communal elements coming into play, Kranda said.
“That’s when we started to think, ‘Hey, this isn’t just a content strategy. This is a social strategy,” he said.
Kranda encourages church leaders to consider digital outreach as an opportunity to engage members and visitors beyond church services — whether they are attending them in person or online.
“Digital allows you to engage people … beyond that hour or two hours a week that they gather at your church,” he said. “Digital allows you to decentralize your Great Commission.”
The ultimate goal for church services should go beyond an exceptional sermon or teaching, Kranda said.
“The objective is not to get people in a room to help you to do things,” he said. “The objective is to produce an outcome in their lives. Can digital do that better? Or can it be a companion experience that can amplify what you’re doing in the room?”
For example, Saddleback Church leaders were focused at one time on encouraging parents to attend an in-person event on Saturdays, he said. The initiative failed to draw the numbers church leaders expected.
As a result, they developed a website with resources that members with children could use in small groups instead of expecting them to add yet another event to their busy schedules. The online resource proved to be highly successful, Kranda said.
From that, Saddleback’s leaders further invested in strategies to support the growth of those engaging in their online services.
Kranda said that, like other Saddleback ministries, the online community church is focused on supporting the church’s mission — digitally.
“We have a purpose-driven strategy and we have waded into trying to figure out how to do that in an online or decentralized way,” he said. “My filter is my pastor and our elders … and what they’re saying we’re doing. It’s about focusing on how to do that within our [digital] context.”
Throughout Saddleback’s online community church experience, Kranda said that he regularly identifies opportunities to drive next steps for the people attending online services.
For example, if a person is located near one of the church’s 17 campuses, Kranda said he would encourage them to connect with the congregation at that physical location. If not, he said, he would encourage them to take a discipleship class offered monthly on the Zoom platform and to participate in an online group.
Other next steps may include engaging in a meetup in the person’s area, starting with a small in-person group, then partnering with other small groups, and ultimately starting a church extension, Kranda said.
“We think God is working in digital spaces, but we definitely want people to move towards face-to-face engagement,” he said. “We want everyone who is part of our online community to eventually become part of a physical group.”
Currently Saddleback Church has 800 groups and 40 extensions, Kranda said.
Kranda said that both small and large churches can leverage volunteers to get the process started.
“I’m a big believer in God using ordinary people to lead and make an impact,” he said.
He advised congregational leaders to cast a vision for what they want to see happen digitally, and then provide a way for volunteers to step up and help.
“The digital space can be confusing. It’s constantly changing,” he said. “It can be a moving target. I think pastors often worry about having it all figured out. You don’t need to be the expert. Give space for people in your community to serve while you coach them on the vision.”
For more than a decade, master of divinity degree programs have faced downward trends in residential enrollment. Spurred by the pandemic, many institutions have responded by offering more hybrid (blended residential and remote) and fully online programs.
It might be supposed that distance theological education is primarily an alternative form of education, a technological innovation, even a concession of sorts. But a review of the New Testament, and specifically Paul’s letters, reminds us that distance theological education has been around since the beginning.
In fact, Paul’s letters offer a dynamic view of distance, embodiment and the collaborative formation of the Christian, providing church and academic leaders today a biblical and theological framework for welcoming hybrid and online learning.
Theological distance learning is not new
The apostle Paul formed early Christian communities all over the Mediterranean even though he was unable to be with them in person much of the time.
More than a substitute for his physical presence or a concession to circumstance, Paul’s letters were an intentional feature of his teaching, allowing him to be “absent in the body yet present in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3). While it is true that Paul sometimes wrote letters because of difficult circumstances (several were written during his own “lockdown” period), he also strongly believed in forming Christians from afar.
Indeed, the fact that a significant percentage of our New Testament canon is made up of Paul’s outgoing mail tells us that theological formation can and does occur at a distance.
Now, Paul’s relationship with the churches he helped form and educate in the faith was, like the state of higher theological education, complex. The apostle visited churches when he thought his physical presence would be helpful for formation.
But by that same logic, teaching remotely allowed Paul to rely on an intricate network of collaborators, including those named as co-authors of his letters, like Timothy and Sosthenes, as well as contacts in the churches’ local communities, like those named in the postscript of Romans.
Additionally, Paul’s absence in the body empowered young churches to raise up their own leaders rather than rely on a limited circle of apostles. For these reasons, some like theologian Russell Haitch have called Paul the “prototypical distance educator.”
Teaching the “body of Christ”
Whether in person or by correspondence, Paul’s commitment to forming Christians and leaders found expression in the image he introduced to the world — the “body of Christ.”
Imagining people as parts of a body, he declares that a body’s feet need its hands just as its ears need its eyes. Members are to treat one another as “indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22), that all may belong in Christ, in order to keep the body whole and flourishing.
In terms of theological education, however, restricting the scriptural image of the body to bodies in a physical classroom dilutes our understanding of Paul’s formative ministry.
For example, what about all the potential students not able to resign their jobs, sacrifice income in addition to paying tuition, move their families to a new city, and leave their material and spiritual networks behind? Historically, such barriers have especially hindered prospective students of color, those with fewer means, and those in midcareer called to serve churches.
Such would-be students are no less members of Christ’s body, even if the physical requirements of a fully residential M.Div. program create distance between them and their inclusion in theological education.
Hybrid and online degree programs are more obviously forms of “distance” learning, but viewed from another angle, they remove distance. That is, by allowing students to remain in their ministry contexts as practitioners, they enable students to learn in context with immediate application of their learning.
Additionally, forms of remote learning often provide greater access and affordability overall. Welcoming remote learners and the programs that support them actually expands our conception of the body of Christ, while reminding us of the limits of exclusively residential models of formation.
Embodiment and embeddedness
In Christian theological education, the default critique of distance learning is rooted in the conviction that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us and therefore did not meet us via Zoom.
Alternatives to residential learning, it is thought, can lead to separating the soul of teaching from its physical embodiment. However, hybrid and online programs do not negate the “embodied” learning of residential models; they reverse them.
Human beings come from local contexts, which rely on specific material and spiritual networks. The best distance education programs recognize the embedded nature of remote learning, drawing on the strengths of learners’ contexts. Such learning may take the form of collaboration with local practitioners, field education in a local ministry context, and the immediate application and integration of academic learning.
Thus, while some might be inclined to reject remote learning for its “disembodied” feel, there is sometimes a deeper embodiment among remote learners in their contexts. Indeed, the rise of bivocational (or even trivocational) ministry leadership suggests that the situation most remote learners experience reflects emerging realities in ministry today.
Paul imagined that his “remote learners” had everything they needed to grow where they were — intermediaries to deliver and interpret Paul’s teachings, contextual collaborators to equip learners, and a local network of material and spiritual resources.
Certainly, remote learning is not without risk. More agency rests in students’ hands. Instruction does not orbit as tightly around institutional faculty members. More educational ground is ceded to practitioners in widely varying contexts.
Risk comes with the trust and choreography required among faculty, staff, practitioners and students to make learning work. Such trust and its inherent riskiness is evident throughout Paul’s letters. But Paul’s conviction remained steady — namely, that he could teach Christians from afar.
While shared physical space is important for formation, Paul reminds us that just as important are the relationships, networks and influences that compose the contexts in which Christians live and move.
As more theological institutions consider hybrid and online learning modes, new questions arise about the role of local churches and ministry contexts in the formation of theological students.
If churches in the past have been content to send their prospective leaders to faraway schools to be trained, a new era may require theological schools to rely increasingly on churches and their communities to help them equip leaders.
Learning lessons from Paul’s teaching by correspondence can help inspire churches to renew their focus on being equipping communities, allocating considerable resources and energy to the next generation of Christian leaders.
As interest (and, likely, angst) around remote learning continues to grow, we can be assured that we are neither alone nor without scriptural precedents. The original distance educator can help equip us to face the challenges of the future.