Digitalization of Church Amidst Covid-19
Digitalization of Church Amidst Covid-19 An interview with TAMU Religious Studies Professor Dr. Heidi Campbell (Department of Communication) by Aaron Staab College Station, Texas, December 16 When Covid-19 swept across the country, I myself questioned how churches would be able to continue to have their congregations gather as a community. As […]
Digitalization of Church Amidst Covid-19
An interview with
TAMU Religious Studies Professor Dr. Heidi Campbell (Department of Communication)
by Aaron Staab
College Station, Texas, December 16
When Covid-19 swept across the country, I myself questioned how churches would be able to continue to have their congregations gather as a community. As a student in the Religious Studies program at Texas A&M University, I became interested in the question of how churches were going to survive, as the United States went into lockdown leaving everybody to reside in their homes. I wondered how different aspects of our religious and spiritual nature would change in regard to ritual, sacred spaces and how people would still connect with those with similar beliefs. With these questions in mind, I soon came across a project led by Dr. Heidi Campbell, a professor in the communications department here at Texas A&M. Come to find out, Dr. Campbell and her team were doing research on these exact questions and how technology could be the answer to solving the problem at hand.
Many churches have had to digitize their ways of worship. The ongoing project, “Tech in Churches During COVID-19,” led by Dr. Heidi Campbell, intends to better understand these changes. As a University Studies major with a Religious Thought, Practices, and Cultures concentration I wanted to learn more about this project. I spoke with Dr. Campbell about her project on December 16.
In the first report published, titled “When Pastors Put on the ‘Tech Hat’: How Churches Digitized during COVID-19,” Dr. Heidi Campbell, a professor of Communication at Texas A&M University, introduces a study of 478 church leaders from the state of Indiana that have changed the way they use and make decisions about technology. The study shows that before the pandemic began, many church leaders had not utilized digital methods of connecting with their congregations. “Up until 18 months ago, there were a lot of churches who were still resistant to digital technology,” said Campbell. “Some didn’t even have social media and many churches didn’t even have a microphone or recording equipment, so they didn’t see the reason to spend money or time using digital media in any way.”
As the lock downs in the United States took effect in 2020, Campbell said that many churches realized that if they had to shut down, the only option they had was to use media to keep their services going. “They quickly learned that it is important for them to understand digital media,” said Campbell. It was a real challenge for the church leaders to figure out what would best serve their congregation in regard to if they should use “Facebook live, Zoom, or even understanding the difference between webcasting and livestreaming.”
“There were some pastors in our sample who didn’t even have a cell phone when the pandemic started, so they had to borrow one of the elder’s cellphones or find that old video camera that someone had left in the Sunday school offices, and try to figure out how to use it and get the video online, so there was a lot of creativity with the challenges in that,” said Campbell.
As noted in the first report, it became clear that many churches did not have the capability to implement a digital form of worship within their congregation. The Center for Congregations, in Indiana, played a big role in helping churches with funding, and acquiring cameras and other equipment to help church leaders get their services on to the internet.
“During spring 2020, they offered grants to 2,700 churches of about 5,000 dollars or less to allow them to buy a camera or get a zoom license,” said Campbell. “They also had a series of tech talks between 2020 and 2021, where different church leaders could come and get help with the tech problems that they were having.”
While the Center for Congregations provided a lot for churches in Indiana, Campbell said that another reason the transition to a digital church became smoother, was because church leaders from different congregations began to connect and collaborate.
“There were some great examples of collaboration,” said Campbell. I know a lot of churches that had been doing digital streaming or had a production studio in their church, who would let pastors come into their church and record their sermon so they could put it out.” The study showed that church leaders who tended to work together within their congregation or with other churches, inevitably led to more success as a church during lockdowns and throughout the pandemic.
When church leaders made the digital switch, the report noted that it also took away the sense of community that the congregations could share in person at their places of worship. These leaders realized “that if they learned a little bit about digital media, they could actually replicate some of those community and social interactions that made it more of a shared experience rather than just a broadcast and one way experience,” said Campbell.
“Technology does allow a new kind of gathering, it’s not face to face, but it can still be interactive,” added Campbell. Within the study, it is recognized that many congregations were surprised by the increase in members who were beginning to watch church services online.
“It was bringing back people to the church that were still religious or spiritual, but were maybe disconnected or went away from the church,” said Campbell. “There were also examples of new people coming because it is easier to log on to a service online and just check it out rather than walking into an actual building. “It is less threatening, and you can have more anonymity,” added Campbell.
Even though the initiative to add this digital component to church services came to be during the lock downs and the rest of the pandemic, the study shows trends that the digitalization of church will continue to be a useful tool for many in the country, even when we are not in a state of emergency. “We found in our study that one third of the people said that online church was a thing they are just doing now, but the other two thirds said that they plan to continue some form of online service option or hybrid option and their different activities because they see the value of it,” said Campbell. “People will always want to engage with the community face to face, but what this does is allows people who can’t or choose not to, another option,” said Campbell. “I think it will have a positive impact in keeping people connected, for some people that will become a substitute, but for most people, it will still be a supplement.”
If the pandemic had not occurred, Dr. Campbell believes that the implementation of digital media into the church would have most likely occurred at some point in the near future. “The pandemic forced a conversation that needed to happen at some point, so in some ways it was a good thing, even though it was a challenging and stressful thing for many churches and pastors,” said Dr. Campbell.
After receiving the opportunity to interview Dr. Campbell, it became clear to me that technology had changed the way that individuals perceive what community means, in terms of how those within a church can interact, even without physically being with each other. Even though it was a struggle for many of the churches within Dr. Campbell’s research sample to grasp new technology, those that made the adjustment quickly realized the different ways to still have a sense of being with each other as a congregation. This is what was most interesting to me. My original assumption was that individuals within congregations would begin to independently practice their faith from their homes, completely dismantling the idea of going to a church, but through Dr. Campbell’s research, I quickly realized that many congregations were in fact strengthening their community by evolving in the way they practice their faith and coming together even stronger. I was hesitant to think that technology has a place in the world of religion and spirituality. Now I see that it is simply another opportunity to bring people closer together and can allow for an easier spread of teaching and community. I am excited to see the next stages of Dr. Campbell’s research, and how else religion in this country will evolve with the increasing speed of change that is occurring across the world.
More information about Dr. Campbell and her project can be found at techinchurces.org and on her website “Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Series” https://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/users/heidi-campbell
Interviewee: Dr. Heidi Campbell