Is the Pandemic Sparking an Online Religious Revival?
More Evangelical Christians are Putting Their Faith in Technology
One of the very first things the Internet accomplished was allowing people to bypass traditional gatekeepers. For religious Americans, the rise of the Internet meant unfettered and unfiltered access to information about their own faith. A 2001 Pew Research Center report found that one of the most common online activities for “Religious Surfers” (religious people who spent time online) was simply gathering information about their own religious tradition or denomination.
But for some churches, the Internet quickly became a source of headaches. Church leaders could no longer control their own narratives and history, including the uncomfortable parts. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, this newly-acquired information led to difficult questions. Many asked why Black men were excluded from the priesthood until the late 1970s, while others questioned Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy.
For the atheists, humanists, and religious skeptics, early online forums served as important social outlets to share their experiences and to commiserate. Vibrant communities for the nonreligious sprung up on sites like Reddit, which includes an atheist forum with 2.7 million members. Surveys have consistently found that frequent Internet users are generally younger and far less religious than the public at large. This might be why past research has shown that higher internet usage is associated with lower levels of religious commitment.
But times are changing. The pandemic supercharged interest in online worship. Eight in ten Christians report that their church offered some form of virtual services when in-person activities were shut down. A variety of religious apps have sprung up over the last few years. Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app, has surpassed 1.5 million downloads since its release in late 2018. In November 2021, the Bible app YouVersion reached 500 million downloads, becoming the first faith-based app to hit this milestone.
Megachurches appear most bullish on the possibilities afforded by technology. Corrina Laughlin, author of Redeem All: How Digital Life Is Changing Evangelical Culture, says evangelical churches have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to the adoption of new technology.
“Innovation and technological experimentation is easier for evangelical Christians because their theology puts such an emphasis on religious outreach and is less invested in tradition,” Laughlin says. “There’s a comfort with adopting corporate models, which are viewed as successful. Scalability is the goal, and technology is the most cost-effective way to get there.”
In fact, online evangelical ministries have been up and running years before anyone ever heard about social distancing. Life.Church, an online ministry based in Oklahoma, has been operating since 1996. It’s an expansive platform that offers a wide array of features, including an option to commit yourself to Jesus with a single push of a button.
But not everyone is excited about the potential of virtual worship. Smaller churches often lack the resources necessary to invest in digital infrastructure, and older members are often ambivalent.
Colin Hansen, editor-in-chief of The Gospel Coalition, recognizes the upside of virtual services. In a recent New York Times opinion essay, he writes: “Even the biggest church buildings could never accommodate a fraction of the potential audience for livestreamed services. Early in the pandemic, pastors touted online viewer numbers that dwarfed even their best-attended Christmas and Easter services.” But despite these apparent successes, he worries about what is lost when worship moves online.
“Christians need to hear the babies crying in church. They need to see the reddened eyes of a friend across the aisle. They need to chat with the recovering drug addict who shows up early but still sits in the back row. They need to taste the bread and wine. They need to feel the choir crescendo toward the assurance of hope in what our senses can’t yet perceive. My daughter needs to know the church members, even if it means wearing masks and setting up lawn chairs in a parking deck.”
The allure of technology is that it makes things easier and more convenient. But this may prove counterproductive when it comes to creating community. The success of many congregations is due to the fact that what they ask of members is decidedly inconvenient. Recently, I wrote about the unparalleled level of social solidarity and civic engagement found among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). In talking with LDS members, I frequently heard that at times, the social obligations can feel overwhelming. But ultimately, they are what makes for a strong religious community.
For now, it seems like there is no going back. In a time of declining religious attendance, the upside of virtual worship is hard to deny. Online ministry may also encourage greater diversity because virtual services are often more accessible. What’s more, at a time when more Americans are growing up in nominally religious or secular homes, virtual religion may offer a critical entry point for those who are skeptical of organized religion. It’s unclear whether these efforts will ultimately keep people engaged, but for now, exposure may be enough. What’s clear is that places like Life.Church are not short of ambition. Their motto: “Go Online. Reach the World.”