Friday, July 22, 2022

How the Digital Divide & Digital Reluctance Impact Churches During the Covid-19 Pandemic

by Emmy Riordan and Heidi A Campbell

The following guest post was submitted by the Network of New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, one of our collaborating organizations. Interested in submitting your research to be featured? Learn more and contact us!

Church leaders encountered many new challenges during the pandemic. This included discovering their congregations were directly impacted by the digital divide. The Tech in Churches During Covid-19 project, in its third tech trend paper,The Digital Divide, Digital Reluctance and Its Impact on Pandemic Churches,” investigates how church leaders confronted and sought to transition their congregations online while faced with slow or unstable internet connections and old media equipment to navigate this move. This study found churches not only faced challenges in digital access, but in what the project describes as the “digital reluctance” of religious leaders.

The digital divide is a concept used to describe gaps certain individuals and groups experience in terms of their access, knowledge and training related to digital technologies, such as the internet. This is often described as the gulf between those who have technology access and those who do not. Researchers found there were 3 obstacles that defined the digital divide within churches who participated in this project. These include: 1) Churches with limited internet accessibility; 2) A generational digital divide within churches; and 3) Digital reluctance from church leaders.

Many churches experienced the digital divide during the pandemic for the first time, as their previous lack of engagement with the internet had shielded them from it. In 2020, they encountered firsthand how gaps in access to digital technologies can impact people and communities, cutting them off from information and social connection. Many especially smaller and rural churches discovered that being part of a community with limited access to the internet, digital tools and/or media training greatly affected their adaptability to change that was required to implement technology-driven solutions. However, one unexpected factor that also contributed to congregational digital divides was described as “digital reluctance”. We define digital reluctance as a deliberate hesitancy to embrace technology use, not because of traditional digital divide factors such as lacks in technology infrastructure or resources, but due to an unwillingness to embrace technology and change. This digital hesitancy was expressed both by senior members of congregations, as well as by pastors or church leaders.

This draws attention to the fact that many churches’ ability to adopt technology and respond to changes were hampered by traditional and new factors of a digital divide they did not realize existed within their communities. What we have learned is that many churches are still being impacted by these different factors of the digital divide in terms of digital accessibility, technological adaptability, and resistance toward digital media. Digital reluctance especially created stumbling blocks for those who had the resources and opportunity to move their services online.

One individual described their church leadership as “very anti-tech” and that they “never had an interest in going online.” This led to many technological problems because there was a lack of motivation for some churches to learn and communicate with other members in order to keep the church running. These attitudes had both a short and potentially long-term effect on churches, as it made them less versatile, willing to experiment or innovate during the pandemic. We saw that this also created tensions for members willing to embrace digital media.

This paper is the third in a series of Tech Trend Papers that explore how churches engaged with technology during the COVID-19 pandemic that emerged from the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 research project. The research was funded by the Lilly Endowment and is put together by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies. The project analyzes data that was provided by the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, Indiana through their Connect Through Tech grant program which provided funding for 2,700 congregations in Indiana to purchase technology equipment.