People in the pews: Who’s missing, who’s hiding, who’s comfortable on the couch?
It dawned on the Rev. Sarah Taylor Peck in fall 2019 that she’d shared a pastoral moment with every household in her Disciples of Christ congregation. As the senior minister at North Canton Community Christian Church for nearly six years, she had officiated at their weddings, taught their children and helped bury their loved ones.
Nearly 200 worshippers showed up weekly for the Sunday morning service, and she had forged deep, meaningful relationships with each one of them. Taylor Peck felt genuinely honored to be part of the community they’d built together.
Then the pandemic struck, closing the Ohio church’s doors and forcing their fellowship into the ether. The congregation reopened for good during Lent 2021, but not everyone has returned for in-person worship. Coming to church each Sunday takes discipline, Taylor Peck said, and like a muscle that goes unused, it atrophies over time.
“I’m still in a season of lament about the way the pandemic contracted congregations and congregational ministry,” she said shortly before Christmas. “It really broke the tether we had to our members.”
All is not lost for North Canton Community CC. While Sunday in-person attendance is down about 30% since before the pandemic, nearly two dozen new people joined the church in September, the largest single class of new members since Taylor Peck arrived in January 2014, the pastor said. She is profoundly grateful for their enthusiasm and this opportunity to rebuild the church’s community “bit by bit, moment by moment, sacrament by sacrament.”
But she also misses the families who have yet to return and isn’t entirely sure what, if anything, she can do to convince them to come back. One day, Taylor Peck dropped by the home of a longtime church member who hadn’t returned to in-person worship. Bearing flowers from the altar, she told the 82-year-old that she missed him, that his church needed him and that she hoped he’d come back. His response: he simply wasn’t getting dressed in the mornings anymore.
There are plenty of others just like him, Taylor Peck said. They didn’t leave in a huff; they simply altered their routines during the pandemic, and in-person church attendance isn’t the priority it once was.
“They didn’t get mad at our policies and stomp away. They’re just not coming,” Taylor Peck said. “I almost prefer a fight. There’s emotion and commitment in a fight. But this is just apathy. It’s less vigor for church.
“We can’t tempt them or bait them or inspire them to come. We have to wait patiently. So we begin again.”
How have the expectations that pastors and congregations have for each other changed over the last three years?
Nearly three years after COVID-19 upended life as we know it, faith leaders like Taylor Peck are pondering how best to mourn and honor what was lost while reengaging communities that have irrevocably changed. How do you recalibrate for absences associated with deaths that couldn’t be properly grieved? How do you account for those who vanished for political reasons? And how do you build meaningful connections with virtual worshippers who might never enter the building?
“The ministry of church isn’t just about Scripture and gospel. It’s reminding people how to do life together, how to show up together,” said Taylor Peck. “I would hate for that to be lost.”
North Canton practices communion weekly. What influence do your congregation’s worship practices have on expectations for in-person attendance?
Not just COVID concerns
At Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the pews aren’t as crowded as they once were, said the Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr., who serves as the assistant to the pastor, his father. He attributes some of those absences to lingering fear over the coronavirus, a very real concern for older parishioners, including his 75-year-old father, the church’s founder, who spent two months battling the virus.
While statistics indicate that the chances of catching the virus and dying from it have decreased considerably since the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, “fear versus faith is still a very tense conversation” within the church, and most of the congregation’s older members remain masked and socially distanced when they attend worship, Gilbert said. Those are the stalwarts who find a way to come together despite their concerns.
It’s the younger folks who remain missing on Sundays, Gilbert said, and he’s not convinced that COVID concerns are driving that absence. He sees crowds of young people, masked and unmasked, at grocery stores, the mall and birthday parties. Between the pandemic and ongoing political strife, he said, he worries that people are leaning more toward culture and less toward the Holy Spirit.
“None of those places is lacking attendance. They all seem to be at capacity,” he said. “But when it comes to church, we have to ask ourselves, is it about commitment or is it about the virus? The world is in competition with God.”
Indeed, a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute and NORC at the University of Chicago found a drop-off in church attendance among younger churchgoers, as well as those already less connected with a faith community and those who identify as liberal.
Holy Trinity has persuaded some young people to return by giving them tasks that appeal to their skill sets, Gilbert said. Younger members helped the church choose an online giving platform, something the congregation hadn’t offered pre-pandemic. They’re running the church’s social media channels and handling the tech needed for livestreaming services. And a group of them created a praise team that sings every Sunday, partly because they’re not as anxious as some of the seniors about catching a respiratory illness, Gilbert said.
The church has also expanded its outreach, recently approaching a local homeless shelter about starting a church for its residents.
“We know folks are afraid to come out. They’re just not ready to come back to church,” he said. “So we’re trying to go to them and make Jesus as accessible to folks as possible.”
Gilbert said the empty pews weigh on him and he wonders what God is asking of him, whether there’s something else he should be doing to engage his community.
“If folks don’t come back, it’s hard for us not to see ourselves as a failure. That’s the stress of being relevant,” Gilbert said. “But God doesn’t call us to be relevant. He just asks us to be faithful.”
What worries you about the shift in patterns of attendance? How can you distinguish your own grief from your analysis of the situation?
The Rev. Dr. Rolando Aguirre started as an associate pastor at Dallas’ Park Cities Baptist Church the first weekend in March 2020. His work, focused on teaching and Spanish language ministries, began just as the world was beginning to shut down. The ensuing months were marked by resetting, relaunching and, ultimately, reopening.
Aguirre said the majority of the people he expected to serve have not yet returned to church, and he suspects many have relocated. But new people are coming, and Park Cities is responding to possibilities that the pandemic surfaced. Lay leaders have engaged more actively in reaching out to members.
“The fellowship of deacons were more active in saying, ‘Let’s help call the people. Let’s encourage them to come back. Let’s visit them.’ So last year was a lot of the leadership base [responding] to engage with the congregants,” Aguirre said.
They are also addressing needs that emerged – offering monthly Spanish-language services at additional sites, and responding to a desire for more youth programming and a need for mental health support.
A congregational survey along with group and individuals interviews helped “to really recapture, recalibrate our vision,” he said.
Sampling online services
At Pelion United Methodist Church in South Carolina, Sunday attendance is down a bit from before the pandemic. The Rev. Ed Stallworth attributes some of the loss in his congregation to Christianity being politicized.
“That’s become a bigger disease than the pandemic,” said Stallworth, who became the pastor at Pelion UMC and nearby Sharon Crossroads United Methodist Church in July 2021. Prior to that, he’d served at a progressive church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and his arrival in conservative Pelion, about 20 miles outside the state capital of Columbia, made more than a few worshippers nervous, he said.
One of the first questions he was asked was whether he’d “force” worshippers to wear masks. He responded that he couldn’t force anyone to do anything but that he and his family would mask up to keep everyone safe. And he’s openly encouraged members to get vaccinated.
Some ultimately left over political differences, Stallworth said. But he’s encouraged those who remain to embrace the church’s growing diversity and learn to worship alongside people who don’t necessarily share the same opinions.
“I said, ‘We may disagree, but just know that I’m going to love you through everything,’” Stallworth said. “And they took hold of that. I think that’s how we got through this pandemic and how we’re going to move forward together.”
Both churches developed a virtual worship option, said Stallworth. While serving his church in Spartanburg, Stallworth broadcast a 30-minute service on Facebook, using his cellphone and laptop, with accompaniment from the church’s organist. Some days, he misses the solitude of that effort, so he understands why some of Pelion’s members still prefer to worship from home.
Most of the worshippers now attending in person are new, having sampled the church’s services online before ever coming into the building, he said. And the majority of them were previously unchurched, he said. Many of the newer members are young people with children who were introduced to Pelion UMC through its outreach programs, like Trunk or Treat or its school backpack program.
“They just want to be part of a community that’s bigger than them. I think they just want a sense of, ‘We’re going to be OK,’” he said. “Contrary to what a lot of people are saying, I believe better days are ahead for the church. It might look different, … but particularly for progressive congregations, from these ashes something beautiful is going to emerge.”
How is the work of supporting the ministries of the church changing? What are the skills and experience needed to offer ministry today?
The Rev. Justin Coleman, the senior pastor at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, also maintains a sense of optimism about the church’s future. Pre-pandemic, the church invested in a new sound system and video cameras, primarily to reach the homebound and the nearby academic community, many of whom left town during the summers but wanted to remain connected. That investment proved crucial during COVID-19 when the church moved entirely to virtual worship.
Members of the congregation who disagreed with that decision ultimately trickled away in favor of churches that either resisted shutting their doors or reopened sooner for in-person services, Coleman said. But the church has since welcomed a host of new members, many of them young families, who initially connected with the congregation online and now attend in person.
Plenty of University UMC’s members still prefer what Coleman calls “couch worship,” and he said they’ve “stopped being apologetic about it.” But he doesn’t view virtual participation as a negative.
Prior to the pandemic, some members would come to church once or twice a month but wouldn’t necessarily go online to watch a service. After the pandemic normalized remote worship, many of those folks became regular online worshippers who also tuned into Coleman’s podcasts.
“For them, they’ve increased the amount of time they’re connecting with worship or a worship-related activity,” Coleman said. “The question we’ve begun to ask now is, ‘Should we not just treat this like a proper digital campus?’ These people are worshipping at home. How do we interact with them to help them feel connected and share opportunities to serve?”
The church has considered designating a staff member as a “digital usher” during the livestreamed service and establishing a small group that meets online. Coleman acknowledged that clergy are “chock-full of nostalgia and sentimentality,” which can make it challenging to embrace the kind of radical change churches are facing post-pandemic. But churches need to stay nimble, he said, noting that the Pentecost moment is about cultural adaptability.
“That’s God saying this gospel is going to move into the culture in many ways, and what’s implicit is this is going to look different as it moves into all those places,” he said. “I would love to have multiple services filled with people who want to be there in person. On the other hand, people are connecting with us in new ways. How can we capitalize on this and reach more people in more places with the gospel because of this opportunity with technology?”
What is the ratio of in-person to virtual attendance in your congregation? What questions about the vitality of the virtual congregation are being raised for you?
New front doors and back pews
The Rev. Dr. D. Dixon Kinser, the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, calls the congregation’s livestreamed worship service — created in response to the pandemic — “the new front door of our church,” noting that most of its new members first participated online.
Before the pandemic, Kinser worried that online worship would be too “performative,” but he’s since come to appreciate the accessibility livestreaming offers. He said worshippers have enjoyed being able to attend services even when they’re out of town, and one member was recently able to participate in a service while hospitalized.
Though in-person attendance is down, giving has increased, he said, and some donors have maintained their membership despite moving to other states. The primary concern he has for remote worshippers is his ability to provide pastoral care for them, something he said suffered during the pandemic.
“You realize how much pastoral care happens at the church door or in passing,” Kinser said. “When you’re not seeing anybody, then not seeing anybody doesn’t tell you anything.”
St. Paul’s has online worshippers from as far away as Florida and Michigan; if they needed a hospital visit or a funeral service conducted, he’d be hard-pressed to serve them. He said denominational networks may become essential for that moving forward, such as when an Episcopal priest in New York asked him recently to deliver communion to a parishioner who had gotten sick while traveling and ended up in a Winston-Salem hospital.
How is your congregation providing care for those attending virtually?
The Rev. Dr. Katie Hays, the lead evangelist at Galileo Church in Fort Worth, Texas, said she has some of those same concerns. Does the church’s budget need a line item so a pastor can fly out of town to conduct a funeral for a member who worshipped online? Should the church prepare ready-made care packages to send to faraway members who are sick or grieving? And what about baptisms?
Hays said she doesn’t yet have answers to those questions but firmly believes that remote worship is the church’s new frontier. She also admits that she was the last holdout at Galileo when it came to offering online worship. She’d seen so many churches do it badly and felt that people already had more than enough screen time, ultimately agreeing to the concept in 2019 largely because she wanted the far-flung LGBTQ community to have ready access to an affirming congregation.
What Galileo quickly discovered was that the platform also appealed to neurodiverse worshippers who might not feel comfortable in crowds, as well as to those with mobility impairments. During the pandemic, the church hired a second pastor devoted to helping virtual worshippers develop a robust online community. Hays refers to the church’s Inside Out online worship experience as the “back pew” of Galileo, the place where those hesitant to come inside can get a taste of the church’s ethos before ever crossing its threshold.
Who can participate in your congregation at a deeper level because of virtual opportunities?
“I feel like I’m 500 years old, like I’m the priest who opposed the printing press. But this new technology came along, destabilizing power from the center,” Hays said.
And even those who are comfortable with in-person worship have appreciated having the option of participating online, she said. A mother with several children recently told Hays she used to have two choices on Sundays: get everyone fed, dressed and over to the church on time for the evening service, or don’t. She now has multiple options: they can come in person or watch together on the couch with a homemade altar for communion, or she can tune in on her own while preparing her family’s Sunday dinner.
As much as she resisted the change, Hays said, her church’s goal has always been to scoop up spiritual refugees who don’t necessarily do traditional church. The changes at Galileo, accelerated in part by the pandemic, have forced her to confront her technological limitations, along with her notions of what worship is supposed to look like. Now, after welcoming in-person worshippers, she looks directly at the camera and thanks her online congregation for inviting her into their homes, something she calls “a tremendous act of trust.”
“It works with your sense of who’s the host and who’s the guest,” she said. “I think so much about how we have to trust people to make their own decisions about how, when and where they’ll participate. It calls on us in the professional clergy to release control of that, and I pray each day to have the grace to trust people.”
She noted that they have a saying at Galileo: You are a grown-ass adult imbued with the spirit of the living Christ.
“Either we believe that or we don’t,” Hays said. “This is really calling our bluff.”
Questions to consider
- How have the expectations that pastors and congregations have for each other changed over the last three years?
- North Canton practices communion weekly. What influence do your congregation’s worship practices have on expectations for in-person attendance?
- What worries you about the shift in patterns of attendance? How can you distinguish your own grief from your analysis of the situation?
- How is the work of supporting the ministries of the church changing? What are the skills and experience needed to offer ministry today?
- What is the ratio of in-person to virtual attendance in your congregation? What questions about the vitality of the virtual congregation are being raised for you?
- How is your congregation providing care for those attending virtually?
- Who can participate in your congregation at a deeper level because of virtual opportunities?
Some modes of innovation focus more on helping existing institutions survive changes in the world rather than changing the world into a more equitable place.
Such innovation, argues Kimberly R. Daniel, isn’t Christian innovation.
“Christian innovation is a type of innovation that advances life,” Daniel says. “It results in healing of the world.”
Daniel and her co-author, Stephen Lewis, have written a resource titled “A Way out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation” with this in mind.
In the book, they offer steps, lessons and examples from the many Christian social entrepreneurs they have met and trained over the past five years to show a mode of Christian innovation that does bring change.
Lewis is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, and Daniel is the senior director of communications at FTE and co-founder of an Atlanta-based startup accelerator.
Daniel spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the resource and how readers can use it to identify what next steps might be for their ideas for Christian innovation. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: How did this book come about, and what inspired you to publish it?
Kimberly R. Daniel: Back in 2017, we began to host some small gatherings, which were really sparked by some questions that Stephen and I had. Questions like, “What do Christians from diverse communities think about Christian innovation?” or, “How have they been innovating?” or even, “What innovation have we and our ancestors experienced in our communities before this term was even coined?”
So at FTE, the Forum for Theological Exploration, where both of us are leaders, we hosted these small gatherings of entrepreneurs and asked them those questions — entrepreneurs, pastors, community leaders who were and still are designing and imagining new ways to help their particular communities, versed in their specific contexts.
By launching this five-city listening tour and launching a startup accelerator for early-stage, underrepresented entrepreneurs in 2017, we connected with more than 200 folks — innovators and leaders working at the intersections of faith, church community and business. In this, we learned that not all innovation done by Christians can legitimately claim to be Christian innovation.
Stephen and I both come from the Black community, which has lived on the underside of imperial progress and is well acquainted with frugal innovation, which we commonly call “making a way out of no way” — hence the title of the book.
So from these questions that we had to the small gatherings that we had to the accelerator program and our own lived experiences, we were inspired to write “A Way out of No Way,” because we don’t need any more innovation that gives economic opportunities that benefit just an elite minority.
We want this book to be pretty much a blueprint and a guide to practicing the type of innovation that addresses individual and systemic inequalities that fit the plight of everyday people, not the elite few.
F&L: In your view, what disqualifies something from actually being Christian innovation?
KRD: There are innovative and entrepreneurial endeavors that have nothing to do with the lived experience and the plight of people who are disenfranchised, who are socially vulnerable, who have minimal resources. These types of innovation just didn’t meet what we see as coming from being rooted in Jesus’ teachings and sticking to “the least of these.”
There are a lot of people who are seen as Christian innovators, but a lot of times, they primarily exist to either help their institutions navigate the cultural shifts or to change their institutions to be relevant and responsive to changes in society. So in these cases, innovation is a practice for Christians for the primary benefit of the institutions, their traditions and their programing.
While there is definitely importance in this type of innovation, given all the challenges that people and religious institutions have faced, especially over the past several years, this is insufficient to be understood as Christian innovation.
I think it’s a misconception that if Christian leaders effectively navigate their institutions through these difficult challenges and keep their institutions and people intact or they successfully transfer the institutions, that they’re deemed innovative. Yes, they may be deemed innovative, but when we’re talking about Christian innovation in particular, in our book we advocate for what’s rooted in Jesus’ teachings about God’s preferential starting place — to benefit the disenfranchised, socially vulnerable, underresourced and undervalued.
F&L: What are some models you’ve found that are truly Christian innovation?
KRD: If we’re talking about people who are doing innovation rooted in addressing these particular communities, that might be someone like Kit Evans-Ford, who went through the accelerator program in 2017 that Stephen and I co-founded.
She developed and launched and has a thriving business that she calls her ministry that is rooted in addressing women who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Her business ties into her own story and into her ancestors’ stories and is helping create a healing community for these women who have often been overlooked and who have just been trying to survive.
She is giving them a place and a space to thrive, giving them an opportunity to create some economic value by employing these women, giving them free services to help them heal as they move through their journeys. So whether that’s spiritual reflection or therapy or a chiropractor or coming together and having some studies with one another, she is providing this community center, and she’s providing a place to employ these women.
That’s one example. There are six steps in the book about how to do Christian innovation, and she’s tied to the last step, which we name “Do it,” when you’re actually implementing your solution. That’s the very last step. She has gone through all the steps, and she is doing the work for the benefit of a particular community.
Or another example might be LivFul, which was co-founded by Hogan Bassey, who is a Nigerian-born man who was experimenting with a solution to a problem that his particular community faced, which was malaria.
He had been infected with malaria four or more times by the time he was 10 years old, and so he started testing out an insect repellent that soon became the seed for LivFul, which initially offered this award-winning insect repellent to heal his community and also provide them with an opportunity to have access to it, because repellents were [not readily accessible] to them at the time.
He provided easy access to this insect repellent so that he could save lives and hopefully help people flourish. LivFul offers a lot more now, but that’s just a little highlight.
F&L: What do you hope readers would learn from the book?
KRD: We hope that through this book people are able to have concrete steps they can take and practices they can engage in to help them identify their next most faithful step in exploring innovation.
We want them to understand what Christian innovation truly is, and what we are advocating for, which again, like I’ve already said, is rooted in Jesus’ teachings, addressing those who are disenfranchised, undervalued, vulnerable in our families, in our communities and in our society.
That is very important, and we hope that the book serves as a blueprint for innovators, for people who may be innovators, people who are leaders, educators, and for communities, to create a more just world by developing solutions to stubborn social problems.
This book is really for people who are innovators — innovators who are within the church context or other forms of faith communities, people who are drawn toward social entrepreneurship and driven by their faith to make a positive impact on communities.
This book is for educators who are teaching the innovators who will come into our communities. This book is for communities in and of itself. We want people to be clear about the ways that they can faithfully do innovation that meets the needs and provides healing and opportunities for flourishing and empowers everyday people.
F&L: How should a reader use the six steps that you outline in the book to identify Christian innovation?
KRD: In every chapter, it begins with an overview of that particular step. I think someone who is already working on some type of innovative ministry or has an entrepreneurial venture that they’re trying to develop would get clear about whether that’s the step they’re at and the one they should focus on.
I think what is a benefit to this particular book is that in each step, you can go to the end with these interactive exercises that will give you some concrete and tangible practices and questions that you can consider that will help you refine what it is that you’re doing to make sure that you’re actually meeting the needs of people within your community. I would say to start there.
But in looking at the steps just broadly, it’s pretty clear that when you “Get curious,” you’re really starting with a question. You’re wondering why things are the way they are in order to develop a solution, whether it’s a ministry or a business venture. You’re getting curious about the problem, the need, the desire that you see within a particular community.
Then you’re moving from that and you “Make meaning” of what is coming up — what came up in your curiosity and what that might mean for these insights. Then you need to “Be open” to what emerges from God, what emerges from your community in order to further build out your ministry.
Then you just need to try it, experiment with it, develop something. Even if it’s not perfect, “Try this” to see if it even works, and then show that you can “Prove it” works, from hearing from the community. Ask and see if it’s actually making an impact in the way that you hope it does.
Once you prove it, just “Do it.” Looking at the highlights of each step, I think, will give people a sense of where they might need to focus, and then leveraging the interactive exercises that we have at the very end following Stephen’s theological reflections can be very helpful.
Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.
“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.
At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.
What does a candy bar have to do with courage?
At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.
We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.
It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.
People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.
How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?
There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.
I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”
Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.
I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.
“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’
“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’
“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.
“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.
“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”
Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.
Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.
Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”
The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.
Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.
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.