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Shut-ins No Longer Shut Out: Report Reveals How Churches Reached New Souls During Pandemic

02-02-2022

It's been nearly two years since churches across the country had to stop meeting in person and start offering worship services online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some churches struggled with the transition, others thrived and were not only able to expand their outreach to their members, but also gained new viewers around the world. 

A new report that focuses on churches and technology during the pandemic, points out even smaller houses of worship saw success with streaming their services online. 

Data for the report titled  "When Pastors Put on the 'Tech Hat," was collected throughout 2020 and 2021. The research team was led by Heidi Campbell, professor of communication at Texas A&M University.

Researchers observed that "With the shift online, churches were shocked to discover the ways that an online service can become a wide-reaching net to whoever is interested in tuning in or watching. One pastor described this widening reach and shift as 'shut-ins being no longer shut out.'" 

Another pastor was surprised to learn people from different states were tuning in to watch worship services. Former members who had moved away from their church were able to watch from any location, and people who sporadically attended church were now regularly participating.  

"Pastors realized what the power of the internet was in the COVID-19 pandemic with a few simple technological pieces such as a camera and a microphone," the report said.

In fact, one Catholic priest said he felt "real gratitude" for the online resources. People who used to physically attend church could still maintain a connection with others via the internet and feel safe while COVID persisted.

However, a New York Times author suggested in a recent column that online services are a "diminishment" and that pastors should eliminate them.  

"Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people," wrote Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican Church in North America priest and award-winning author. 

"We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind, and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness," she said. 

"I think people worshipping online is a diminishment if they could be in person," Warren told the Religion News Service.

The Tech in Churches report also examined the downsides to streaming church services.

Some pastors and volunteers were exhausted by the demands placed on them during the pandemic, including the "duties, tasks, and frustrations" associated with the online procedures.

Nonetheless, many Americans have become accustomed to the new digital way of worshipping.

Executive Pastor Alan Meads with Fountain of Life Church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina told CBN News in July, "People have gotten used to watching it on TV and live streaming. I think the day and time we're in - the phone is what they do. It's made it really easy to watch church service on the phone."

Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford International University, said "We live in a different world now" and church leaders must continue to change with the times.

"There are still an immense number of challenges for clergy going forward," said Thumma, the director of the university's Institute for Religion Research. "They can't immediately snap back to situations and practices they thought worked. I keep telling clergy that they are going to have to remain open to change. There just isn't any chance they can go back to the old ways."

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