Even before the coronavirus crisis, this question haunted pastors: What in God's name are we supposed to do with the internet?
American clergy aren't the only ones wrestling with this puzzle. Consider this advice -- from Moscow -- about online personality cults.
"A priest, sometimes very young, begins to think that he is an experienced pastor -- so many subscribers! -- able to answer the many questions that come to him in virtual reality," noted Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, at a recent diocesan conference. "Such clerics often lose the ability to accept any criticism, and not only on the internet, or respond to objections with endless arguments."
Pastors eventually have to ask, he added, if their online work is leading people through parish doors and into face-to-face faith communities.
"That is the question of the hour, for sure," said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research for the Barna Group. Recent surveys have convinced Barna researchers that "the future church will be a blend of digital and in-person work," said Kimberlin, but that it's "up to us to decide what that will look like. ... But isn't that true of our society as a whole? There are digital solutions for so many issues in our lives right now. ... But we can also see people yearning for more than that -- for experiences of contact with others in a community."
In a recent survey, 81% of churchgoing adults affirmed that "experiencing God alongside others" was very important to them, she said. At the same time, a majority of those surveyed said they hoped their congregations would continue some forms of online ministry in the future.
Similar paradoxes emerge when researchers studied evangelistic efforts to reach people who are "unchurched" or completely disconnected from religious institutions.
Half of all unchurched adults (52%), along with 73% of non-Christians, said they are not interested in invitations to church activities. However, a new Barna survey -- cooperating with Alpha USA, a nondenominational outreach group -- found that 41% of non-Christians said they were open to "spiritual conversations about Christianity" if the setting felt friendly.
Online forums and streamed events -- experienced at home, with viewers in control -- may offer some newcomers the flexibility and safety that they want.
An Alpha commentary on Barna's "Five Changing Contexts for Digital Evangelism" report noted that, during the covid-19 crisis, the internet -- even with its weaknesses -- has provided some of the only environments in which it's possible to reach isolated Americans.
"Cafes, pubs and common rooms in cities around the world offer 'third places' that have been increasingly, intentionally curated for people to share unhurried moments and conversations," it noted. However, in the "isolation created by a global pandemic, a generation craving third-place 'havens' is being pushed online to find them. As we have found ourselves momentarily restricted from our familiar public spaces, the internet has filled the gap."
There is no question that loneliness has become a critical concern.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety, loneliness and thoughts about suicide rose sharply during 2020, with roughly four times as many Americans reporting symptoms of depression in June 2020 than during a similar 2019 time frame. Barna research in May found that half of Americans say they have experienced loneliness at least once a week during the covid-19 crisis.
Most religious leaders have done everything they can to offer safe, socially distanced services for as many worshippers as possible, Kimberlin said. Pastors have also stepped "outside their comfort zones" -- buying tripods for smartphones, for example -- in order to stream services, classes and small-group fellowship gatherings for their members.
The question now, she added, is whether seminaries and denominational leaders are going to accept that some of these changes are here to stay. This will require finding clergy and laypeople who are talented at using digital platforms -- to reach members and outsiders -- in ways that are effective and appropriate in their religious traditions.
While Barna doesn't make recommendations on those kinds of issues, Kimberlin did suggest that clergy should "look for young people in their congregations who can help with that. ... They have gifts. They are far more likely to stay connected if you let them contribute to your social-media ministries."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.