What was the digital impact of the pandemic on religious communities?

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A new research project, Religious Communities in the Virtual Age (Recovira), was launched in November to investigate how religious communities across Europe have embraced the digital world in response to Covid-19 and what long-term impact this might have on religious life. 

The study will last two years and run across the major faiths and seven countries - Denmark, Finland, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, and the UK.

Leading the study is Dr Joshua Edelman, of Manchester Metropolitan University. He speaks to Christian Today about some of the ways that the pandemic impacted religious communities digitally and why the study is important.

CT: What piqued your interest in this research project?

JE: My own religious experience was hugely disrupted during the pandemic. My wife is a member of the clergy, and I could see how much she had to work to maintain a sense of worship and community, as well as to serve the members pastorally in an extraordinarily difficult time.

Lockdown was exceptionally isolating and very hard on all of us, and so many of us turned to religious life as a source of comfort, stability, continuity, meaning and community. It's part of why people have always turned to religion, but everything was a bit more heightened during the pandemic. And that meant that clergy and community leaders suddenly needed to develop very new skills that they weren't necessarily trained in or comfortable with, in order to keep serving their communities.

These are the sorts of skills that theatremakers often need to have. This is the field I work in, as the head of the Manchester School of Theatre at Manchester Metropolitan University. In the theatre world, there is this idea that the show must go on and we saw the same kind of mindset emerge with clergy and community leaders during the pandemic.

In the theatre, you have a set of resources and an outcome you need to achieve, and your job is to figure out how to do that. It takes creativity, care, listening, openness and experimentation. I think clergy were asked to do the same thing during the pandemic in a way that was very new to them and in a way that stretched their comfort zones but also stretched the possibilities of what worship can be. In the early moments of the crisis, we were trying everything and now, we're trying to figure out what actually works.

CT: Do you think it has led to some permanent changes?

JE: I would be very cautious about using the word permanent, but yes, we are seeing some changes that I think will be around for the long term. We all learned something during the pandemic. We all learned what Zoom was and what you could do from home and that has had a profound effect on so many parts of our life, including our religious lives.

Going back to my own professional background, while theatre is still recognizable, I can clearly see how Zoom has changed the work it makes, how it does it, and how people relate to it. And so I don't see any reason why it would be different for religious life.

Often, religious institutions have been thought of as conservative, not politically but in terms of a reluctance to adopt new techniques, liturgies, and technology. It has typically been a place of tradition and continuity. On the other hand, down through history, religious practices and religious life have changed all the time. I don't see why they wouldn't again now. This could be a moment where people in 10, 20 years' time look back and say that they can see this was the moment when something profoundly changed about the place of religion in the world, especially the Western world.

If that's the case, then it's important to document that and understand how it's happening in the moment. Our embrace of technology has changed our approach to religious life and added a lot of possibilities. We can build something extraordinary and holy and profoundly important to people - but we can also screw it up! There is both possibility and danger here. One of the jobs of academics is to be able to step back and examine the bigger story going on and make cautious, educated predictions about what will happen in the future so that people know what they need to be prepared for.

CT: Do you think the pandemic changed how we view sacred space?

JE: I think some of the biggest changes we've seen have been around space, time and community. Almost all religious traditions have some notion of a sacred space, of going to the church, to the temple, to the synagogue, to the mosque. There are certain things you can do anywhere, but somehow that space is special and set apart - the original idea of holy is being set apart.

And that means you pay attention differently in that space. It's the same reason we go to theatres for theatre. If nothing else, it focuses your attention. Often, the whole building is architecturally designed to focus your attention on the stage, everything from lighting to the layout of the chairs. And the fact you go to this space for this purpose means that when you are there, you aren't doing other things.

The fact that cathedrals are often the biggest and most beautiful building in town is not a coincidence. And within religions, there is this idea of not only sacred space, but sacred objects – ritual tools and anything that you touch or eat or smell as part of worship. What happens when worship is no longer in that space and you worship in any old space? What happens when the people leading the worship don't know what space the people watching are in and you're doing it on the same device as you watch Netflix and have work meetings?

We saw instances of some people trying to make a kind of sacred corner within their home during the pandemic, a space that was set apart for worship very often with the computer in the centre of it, but that was relatively uncommon. Most people who experienced worship digitally were doing so within the context of a normal space and either alone or with just their own household. What does it mean to worship, what does it feel like to worship, and what does it do to worship when you are alone or just with your family or watching on a television or computer?

CT: You mentioned time. How do you think that was altered through the pandemic?

JE: Both the calendar changed and time changed. We saw a lot more daily activities than weekly activities. A lot of religious communities started up regular daily worship; these were often quite short and relatively casual. A lot of people saw these small acts of worship as an important part of their day and they would do it while they were cooking or getting dressed or eating their breakfast. We also saw a lot of activities that were on demand. The official start time for a service may have said 9am but if you were running late, you could just start watching later. Interestingly, we did a survey asking people if their experience was different watching the event live or watching a live recording later and we found no difference. Both felt authentically live to the viewers.

CT: How has the pandemic impacted our understanding of community?

JE: This is an important issue, especially for minority faiths or religious seekers. Traditionally religious communities have been based around the parish. People went to their local community and stayed within a geographical catchment area. They certainly didn't go to another country to worship. Online, it doesn't matter so much where you are. We are seeing more and more cases where there is a full member of a religious community who lives hundreds or thousands of miles away from their physical location. What does that mean for the nature of our religious community?

Prior to the pandemic, online worship was seen as supporting the in-person worship. And before the pandemic, it was vanishingly rare to find people who meaningfully joined churches, mosques, synagogues, temples in countries other than where they live. Now it's happening more and more, and it's scaring a lot of clergy because there's a lot of worry about competition, that someone else would gain their audience by putting on a better show.

But what we've found from our research so far is that this is not something to worry about. People seemed to have a better experience during the pandemic with smaller communities than larger ones. The show didn't matter. These very small communities with fewer than 20 people attending a weekly service tended to do much better than the bigger ones and my guess would be that it's about the sense of community that you can achieve. With 20 people on a Zoom call, you feel like you're all together, whereas if you have 100 people on a Zoom call, it starts to feel like you're watching television.

So, small is good but the challenge for clergy is that community may not be geographically defined in the same way, and they are going to have to think about the consequences of that. Can you have a member of your community that doesn't live near you at all? Some people might say no.

CT: Do you think that watching services on a screen, and not being able to participate in them in the same way as we did prior to the pandemic, made worship more like a show and a form of entertainment?

JE: I think that was a huge problem during the pandemic. I know from our surveys, interviews and focus groups that a lot of clergy were really worried about it becoming a show and a form of entertainment and everyone we spoke with was very clear that they did not want that, that this is not what worship is supposed to be. But I don't think that has happened.

There are some traditions, like megachurches, that put a premium on the quality of the music and spectacle as part of the service. I wouldn't necessarily use the word entertainment but there is an element of show there. But what we found is that the show was less important than the community, and the sense of doing something meaningful together was more important than the spectacle for most people. Again, that's why I think smaller communities did better.

CT: Do you think digital worship became a bit more self-centred or individualistic?

JE: As a theatre person, I would say that technology changes what you can do. For example, when you are on your mobile phone it's very hard to have a lot of people looking at the same thing together. A phone is a personal technology, but just because it's your personal feed that doesn't necessarily make you selfish. It's more that we need to think about how we can use it. I know of a pastor in Germany who is using Instagram to continue the medieval tradition of triptych art in a new way. Because Instagram often shows three images at a time, he is thinking about a contemporary triptych that speaks into that visual Christian tradition. Of course, how that's experienced is going to be different from a physical triptych altarpiece that hundreds of people are viewing at the same time and these are the sorts of differences in experience that we need to think about.

CT: What way do you think this study might benefit religious communities in terms of how they go forward in this post-pandemic world?

JE: I really hope it will give them more than tips and tricks for how to deal with the digital world. My experience is that churches and other religious communities care passionately about serving the needs of their members. That is their reason for being and they do extraordinary work in this area. I also think that those communities notice that what people need now is changing. It's important to say that the project is not just about digital religion but religion in the digital age, and part of the challenge is not that religion is becoming more digital but that all of us are.

The Church has always developed ways to serve its members in different societies and in different times. That's part of its strength and there's a certain amount of flexibility there. I hope the project will give church leaders insights into what their members need both now and into the future, suggestions for how to serve those needs and inspiring examples of people who have done so in extraordinary ways. And I hope it will also give them some comfort that the need for religious community is not going away. It might be changing but I have not seen any evidence that it's going away.