For Clay Scroggins, preaching on Zoom was never part of the plan. As the senior pastor of Buckhead Church in Atlanta, he was used to serving in a 3,000-seat auditorium, with live music and a jumbotron for people in the back. But God’s plan is often a mystery, so when the city of atlanta forced him to close church doors last spring, Scroggins has faithfully moved his ministry online. “In the end, we were truly informed by Jesus’ call to love our neighbor,” he said, “and the most loving thing we could do was continue to meet virtually.
And continue to meet virtually. Sunday sermons are broadcast live and posted to the church’s YouTube channel for worshipers to watch at any time. Bible study and small group meetings have moved to Zoom. Buckhead even managed to reproduce spontaneous “bump-ins” in the church hall with video chat rooms for certain events. The donations, which provide all of the church’s operating income, remain the same, they simply come through a digital collection plate. At Buckhead Church, the virtual worship is going so well that parts of it might be there for good. But not all congregations have been so blessed.
For places of worship, Covid-19 has upset traditions and emptied sacred spaces. About 45 percent of Americans regularly attend religious services, most in Christian churches, such as Buckhead Church. Or they did, until last spring. Then the closures and stay-at-home orders forced congregations to scramble to move their services online, like schools and work places. Some, like Buckhead, have found themselves well prepared, with the resources and technical know-how to keep attendance and handouts stable throughout the year. Other churches found themselves in dire straits, struggling to reach worshipers virtually while facing budget cuts, layoffs and the threat of bankruptcy or even permanent closure. Nearly a year after the start of the pandemic, its effects on religious life, like other aspects of American society, appear unevenly distributed, with large, prosperous churches continuing to do well and struggling churches falling behind.
“The digital divide in churches reflects the digital divide in American society more generally,” says Mark Chaves, theologian at Duke University and director of the National Congregation Study, who has been investigating religious groups in the United States since 1998 digital presence tends to be in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, low-income, and black. These demographic groups are also less likely to have broadband access, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both health and economically. These realities also took into account the results of the Church. A LifeWay Research survey, which focuses on Christian ministries, found white pastors were the most likely to report higher-than-expected offers last year. Black pastors, on the other hand, were the most likely to report that the pandemic economy was having a “very negative” impact on their churches. Churches often operate on tight margins, and these impacts can have long-term effects: LifeWay Research found that a small percentage of churches have had to cut outreach activities, suspend Sunday school or small group programs, or lay off staff. Black pastors were more likely to say they were cutting staff salaries or cutting a position in the church.
Chaves says churches that have been slow to adopt the technology typically have fewer resources, so they’re more reluctant to spend on things like a live broadcast setup. But resistance can also be cultural. “Sometimes there’s a tension with institutions based on tradition,” says Walle Mafolasire, founder and CEO of Givelify, a digital tithe startup. “It’s like, what do you mean, ‘tap, tap, give,’ when that’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. “