Monday, February 27, 2023

New Report Reflects on How Churches’ Views of Technology Shifted Over the First Two Years of the Pandemic

by Jennifer Daly and Heidi A Campbell

The following guest post was submitted by the Network for 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!

A rapidly evolving global pandemic forced church leadership teams to serve technology to their churches with limited resources, especially impacting small towns and rural churches utilizing technology for the first time. The second report of the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 Project explores how churches’ initial perceptions about technology evolved as they embraced and adapted to doing church online. Mission to Serve Tech: Churches ‘Lock Down’ Tech During the Global Pandemic provides a snapshot of churches’ relationship to technology and the ways it shifted from more pragmatic to creative engagement between 2020 and 2021. The report explores how 2,700 churches across Indiana were offered the new opportunity and challenge of transforming their worship services through technology, with the support of the Connect Through Tech (CTT) grant, administered by the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis. This assistance and engagement with digital media led to significant shifts in thinking about implementing online worship and its implications for churches.

The “Mission to Serve Tech” report uses data from the CTT program and a content analysis approach to address fifteen research questions regarding pastors, congregations, and churches’ attitudes toward the role of technology in the church and its influence on their congregation during the first two years of the pandemic. The first part of the report includes questions from the grant application where the researchers hoped to discover what technological challenges or opportunities the congregations were facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and what specific aid they needed at that time. The second part of the report considers how churches that transitioned to online worship services because of the funding received continue to use tech as central to their mission a year into the pandemic.

The report found that many churches demonstrated a mission to adopt technology in their churches where there was little or no preexisting technology in their communities. Around 31% of the applicants viewed the mission of the church to provide service and 26% to provide worship to members. Many leaders noticed their programs were reaching non-attendees, shut-ins, nursing home residents, and more through online worship and virtual church programs. These churches had been struggling with budgetary resources, equipment, and even training. Thanks to the CTT grant, they continued their mission of serving members by providing live-streamed worship services every Sunday and having people engage dynamically in ministry. CTT funding allowed many churches to experience the heart of their mission in a way that they would not have been able to do without it.

The research found a staggering number of churches lacked access to the internet, digital tools, and media training, especially in rural communities, which affected their ability to adopt technological solutions during the pandemic. Of the applicants, 85% used the funding from the CTT grant to purchase professional equipment for the live-streaming of services. One church explained that when the pandemic first hit, they had never live-streamed, so they were using their iPhone on a cheap tripod and started with just a phone microphone and camera to stream to Facebook Live. With the grant, churches could share meaningful stories and connections while navigating the challenges of COVID-19.

Churches’ views of technology were influenced by several important factors, including their level of digital accessibility, technological adaptability, and a willingness to shift toward digital media for church services. About 38% of the church leaders viewed technology as an empowering and positive “tool for COVID-19”, to either continue services during the pandemic or reach new people. Experimentation in 2020 allowed churches to see firsthand how gaps in access to digital technologies can isolate people from information and social interaction. An Evangelical Covenant Church hosted online worship services for their congregation during the peak of COVID-19 and noted that being able to meet online allowed their church to stay connected to one another and offer hope during a season where many members of the community felt isolated and disconnected from one another. After the pandemic, church members became aware that connection is essential. This report is the second of three planned reports of the Tech in Churches During Covid-19 project, which explores how churches engaged with technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tech in Churches project is funded by the Lilly Endowment and is put together by the Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Culture Studies.