The Digital Divide Is Giving American Churches Hell
February 10, 2021
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For Clay Scroggins, preaching on Zoom was never part of the plan. As lead pastor at Buckhead Church in Atlanta, he was accustomed to services in a 3,000-seat auditorium, with live music and a jumbotron for people in the back. But God’s plan is often mysterious, so when the city of Atlanta forced him to shut the church’s doors last spring, Scroggins faithfully moved his ministry online. “Ultimately, we were really informed by Jesus’ calling for us to love our neighbors,” he says, “and the most loving thing we could do was to continue to meet virtually.”

And continue to meet virtually they have. Sunday sermons are broadcast live and posted to the church’s YouTube channel for congregants to watch anytime. Bible study and small group meetings have moved to Zoom. Buckhead has even managed to replicate spontaneous church lobby “bump-ins” with video chat breakout rooms for some events. Donations, which provide all of the church’s operating income, remain the same, they just come via a digital collection plate. At Buckhead Church, virtual worship is going so well that some parts of it might be here for good. But not every congregation has been so blessed.

For places of worship, Covid-19 has upended traditions and emptied sacred spaces. About 45 percent of Americans attend religious services regularly, most of them in Christian churches, like Buckhead Church. Or they did, until last spring. Then shutdowns and stay-at-home orders sent congregations scrambling to move their services online, similar to schools and workplaces. Some, like Buckhead, found themselves well prepared, with the resources and technical savvy to keep attendance and alms steady throughout the year. Other churches found themselves in trouble, struggling to reach worshippers virtually while facing budget cuts, layoffs, and the threat of bankruptcy or even permanent closure. Nearly one year into the pandemic, its effects on religious life, like other aspects of American society, appears unevenly distributed, with large, successful churches continuing to do well and struggling churches falling further behind.

“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, a theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, which has surveyed religious groups in the US since 1998. Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes. Those realities have factored into church outcomes too. A survey from LifeWay Research, which focuses on Christian ministries, found that white pastors were the most likely to report offerings that were higher than expected in the past year. Black pastors, by contrast, were most likely to report that the pandemic economy was impacting their churches “very negatively.” Churches often run on tight margins, and those impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut down on outreach, suspend Sunday School or small group programs, or lay off staff members. Black pastors were more likely to say they cut staff pay or deleted a church position.

Chaves says that churches that have been slow to adopt technology usually have fewer resources, so they’re more reluctant to spend on things like a livestreaming setup. But the resistance can also be cultural. “Sometimes there’s a tension with institutions that are based on tradition,” says Walle Mafolasire, founder and CEO at Givelify, a digital tithing startup. “It’s like, what do you mean, ‘tap, tap, give,’ when it’s right there in the Bible that you should bring your gifts to the altar?” The pandemic, he adds, has changed the equation: “Well, right now, I’m on Zoom. Zoom is my altar.”

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