Becoming a Virtual Faith Community: Applying Past Data to New Ideas
By Scott Thumma, PhD, Director, Hartford Institute for Religion Research and Co-Chair, Faith Communities Today
The next installment of our current newsletter series is unfortunately under quarantine. Honestly, at this moment in our world’s battle with COVID-19 it didn’t seem right to add to readers’ anxiety by discussing the cultural and social challenges facing congregational life. The immediate challenges are all too real at the moment.
We hope that our readership is well and practicing social distancing and the intense hygiene regiment that has come to define our present reality. We also pray that your congregations and various ministries are finding creative ways to do the work of religious communities in this time of anxiety, when many are crying out for spiritual comfort and a sense of hopefulness.
In place of the next part in our series, we wanted to offer a few thoughts on the congregational use of technology, along with some ideas for virtual ways of being a faith community in this moment.
If trendlines haven’t changed since our 2010 and 2015 surveys of roughly 15,000 total congregations of all faith traditions, the majority of congregations, especially those with fewer than 100 worship attendees, are facing a steep uphill battle in the effort to digitally deliver their services and the other functions of a faith community.
It isn’t that a majority of these faith communities don’t have the technology, since we saw a rise in all forms of tech use from 2010 to 2015 and likely to the present (we are in the midst of our 2020 survey right now). However, many congregations didn’t regularly or robustly use the technology in the past, especially if they were small. But, we saw underutilized technology even in many of the larger ones as well. Relatively few faith communities made significant use of the tech that they had except for basic tools like email, websites, wifi in the building, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook and texting. Those congregations who gave little emphasis to their existing technology didn’t fare any better on many measures than those whose communities who didn’t have the tech tools at all. Only those who said they used tech quite a bit or a lot reaped significant benefit in terms of positive congregational dynamics (for example not having online giving resulted in $0 extra dollars per capita, whereas having online collection methods increased per capita giving by $114, and emphasizing electronic giving quite a bit or a lot raised it by $300 per person).
Generally, many communities defaulted to face-to-face approaches as they had always done ministry in the past. But, it is no longer the past. Now that approach is impossible…or at least socially unacceptable, carries a viral risk for the country, and seriously threatens a third to half of their congregation that is likely over the age of 65.
This need for a technological switch in the midst of a crisis brings with it several problems. First, there is little infrastructure or experience, not to mention a tech team, to draw upon to effect this switch in a smooth and professional manner. Second, the membership hasn’t been coached, trained, schooled, or become accustomed to using these technologies – especially within a religious worship context. Third, learning new technological ways of doing things in the midst of a crisis is probably not the best strategy.
So where does that leave many congregations and religious leaders at this unprecedented moment?
We would argue that you should assess your tech strengths, the skills of your members and the platforms that they are comfortable with. Then plan your ministry approach with these limits and potentials in mind. If your congregational members can do phone, email and Facebook well, then craft an approach to being a faith community in this moment around these platforms.
Perhaps use Facebook live for the sermon, and use email and Facebook posts for information, spiritual support and community building. The religious leader might offer a daily or weekly email or text message with scripture, prayer requests, and words of comfort. The religious education team could connect with families and especially the children to send activity packets, congregational news at their level, and perhaps even cute pet video links! Divide up the membership between your leadership team, deacons, or elders and have them use the phone to check in with folks (particularly those at greatest risk), offer prayers and screen for pastoral care contacts from the clergy.
Whatever you choose to do should be appropriate for the technological level of your congregational members. It is not the time to add to their stress by having to learn new technology. And, if you do intend to live-stream or go live on Facebook, consider alternative ways to conceive of the worship service than in your face-to-face manner. Just like teaching an online course is not the same as a classroom course, so too your beautifully crafted physical service will not translate literally into a digital space without significant expertise. How can all the functions of a faith community and worship service best be delivered in this digital medium?
Remember, people come to the weekly gathered service for many reasons and functions. Provide distinct and separate ways to address these needs virtually. Some come for community (so set up Zoom small groups), others for quiet prayer time (send out meditations or a phone prayer chain), some might revel in the music (email audio files or links to YouTube performances), and some are stimulated by the leader’s message (send the text or a video, or even try live-streaming it).
However, the most important function of a congregation at the present time can be delivered with any technology available and that is the ministry of presence. In a time of high anxiety and uncertainty, religious leadership must use any means available and appropriate to their people to offer words of comfort, pastoral counseling, scriptural support and spiritual hope. Any technology used is only a tool; such effort, however, is the ministerial vocation.
Congregations who are significantly more likely to be serious technology users are:
- Larger, and conversely, if a congregation has fewer than 100 attendees, it is much less likely to use technology robustly.
- Likely to have higher budgets.
- Located anywhere but in rural areas and small towns.
- Using contemporary worship.
- More likely to use projection screens in worship.
- More recently founded congregations with younger members. There is some positive correlation to having more 18-34 year olds, but increased robust technological use is more strongly related to having a sizable percentage of the 35-49 age group.
- Most likely to have a strong negative relationship to tech use if they have a high percentage of 50-64 year olds, and even more so if a significant portion exceeds 65 years.