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Illustration of various religious symbols inside Zoom meeting screens. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

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Religious leaders are becoming content creators to keep their followers engaged

One pastor said he’s embraced a “TED Talk style” for his sermons because he knows that watching online can test people’s focus.

Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.

Search for Sunday sermons on YouTube, and you’ll get a hodgepodge of results: inspirational-style talks on struggle and resilience, viral videos featuring televangelists like Joel Osteen, and small livestreams from the homes or empty churches of Christian pastors and religious leaders. While some are highly produced digital shows with prerecorded band performances, others are a little more make-do.

Many of these videos are a response to the pandemic and social distancing measures. At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, religious communities across the US had to close their doors and switch to livestreaming, hoping that video recordings of their services and religious instruction would keep their members spiritually engaged. But six months into the pandemic, it’s become clear that keeping the faithful online requires investment, creativity, and some social media savvy. Because almost everything has become virtual, congregants are no longer limited by geography and can watch content from other religious communities — or just plain old Netflix — with a simple click.

Out of a fear that many congregants may ditch services for good — and with no end to Covid-19 in sight — many religious leaders have effectively turned into online content creators. Many of them are using social media analytics and high-end video and audio equipment to try to keep their members from closing the tab. At the same time, they’re trying to maintain the fellowship and community their in-person activities once had.

The switch to online services happened suddenly, says Ian Hyatt, the vice president of sales of a Wisconsin-based firm called Reach Right, which helps churches with web engagement. He explains that, before the pandemic, a typical church was focused on converting someone stopping by its website into an in-person visitor, but now the focus is much more on regular online engagement. His own religious leader, Hyatt recalled, recently joked to him about suddenly becoming a “content creator,” noting that he’s had to quickly learn how to produce posts for the web.

Faith leaders told Recode that part of the ongoing commitment to online streaming stems from the fact that many religious institutions anticipate needing a hybrid model of online and in-person interaction for the long haul. And like churches, many Muslim and Jewish communities have also opted to keep livestreaming religious activities, even as they return to some limited in-person, socially distanced services.

“I was joking with my cantor — the musical director of the synagogue — and it’s like your title is now ‘cantor-slash-producer,’” said Rabbi Lisa Kingston of the Peninsula Temple Beth El synagogue in San Mateo, California, adding that she’s now transitioned much of her community’s Jewish education online, too. “[It’s] that idea that we put it out there and then hope that someone resonates with it or that someone follows it or finds it meaningful.”

It’s not just about ensuring attendees, but also about maintaining regular donations, which many religious communities are used to collecting in-person. According to Pew, most religious attendees haven’t changed how much they’re giving. But those who have adjusted how much they’re giving are more likely giving less, not more.

Humera Nawaz, the vice president of the board of directors at the Muslim Community Center East Bay in Pleasanton, California, told Recode that while the community has received increased donations for the needy and for the mosque’s food bank, giving for the running of the mosque itself has seen a downturn. “We are concerned,” she said, noting that the mosque’s operating costs — like repairs, staffing, and electricity bills — have remained about the same during the pandemic. “How long will we be able to sustain without growth in our donation base for operations?”

For the Jewish High Holidays this September (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), some synagogues are asking their members to purchase tickets for attending services, a typical fundraising practice, while others are offering services to stream online for free. “If people are financially struggling, synagogues are going to be financially struggling,” Rabbi Kingston told Recode. “If people feel like they’re not being served, virtually, then they’re going to stop joining. What I’m hoping is that people will still see that they are being served virtually. But you never know.”

Many Orthodox Jewish communities have avoided virtual services — they consider using technology on holidays a violation of Jewish law — and have embraced other ways of connecting, like setting up tents for outdoor in-person prayer. Chabad, an international Orthodox Jewish outreach movement, has organized a public campaign to blow the shofar — a Jewish High Holy Day tradition of blowing a ram’s horn — outdoors, in addition to producing an online virtual course to teach people the “ABCs of shofar blowing” at home, among other pandemic adjustments.

For churches that are operating virtually, it’s not just about broadcasting content, Peter Phillips, a research fellow in digital theology at Durham University in the UK, told Recode. It’s also about building in mechanisms for audience engagement and connection. “By going onto YouTube, Facebook Live, and Zoom, the church has really gone to ‘community is the key,’ pushing away that sense of entertainment-only and maximizing the amount of connectivity with other people.”

And in some cases, the switch to online has even changed what message is actually delivered to followers. John McGowan, the lead pastor at the Washington, DC-area Restoration City Church, told Recode that, since the pandemic, he’s shortened his services to a more “TED Talk style than what I would normally,” recognizing that people watching online can’t focus in the same way.

Fabian Arias, a Lutheran pastor, prepares for Sunday mass at his home in May 2020 in New York City.
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Cook, a pastor and research fellow at the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement at the University of Southern California, that there’s some discussion around engagement numbers, which can give faith leaders new insight to which messages are sticking with parishioners. He notes that more positive, but perhaps less-to-the-text sermons, might gain better metrics.

“Are the Facebook views and the numbers of followers more important than an accurate word, an accurate biblical word?” he posed to Recode. “Many pastors have stuck to the word and their numbers and their followship — their viewers — have diminished. And there are pastors that compromised the word and the accuracy of the word for more followers.”

These faith leaders are right to be concerned about losing their followers’ attention. Pew found that 30 percent of religious attendees who were watching services on television or online were also watching content from religious institutions beyond their home congregation. That’s a challenge for smaller religious institutions working with limited resources; they’re competing with others with much more production and technological expertise that are showing up on viewers’ YouTube and Facebook side-bars.

“For the first couple weeks, we were recording my sermon in the basement of our townhouse,” says McGowan. “What I’ve found in talking to pastors [is] if you’re the pastor of a church of 200, you were afraid of [your followers clicking away]. But if you’re a pastor of a church of 10,000, you’re also afraid of it because there’s always somebody that’s doing it better, right?”

And he notes that the engagement numbers for a religious service can be a strange metric to process. “The weirdest part is you cannot just tell the total number of plays — you can tell how long they engage with the content,” McGowan told Recode. “You can tell how many people make it the whole way through the talk and how many people bail after the first five minutes.”

Mike Moser, the lead pastor of Connection Christian Church in Columbus, Nebraska, told Recode that even as his church has turned to about once-a-month drive-in outdoor services, they still invested in more software and equipment to improve the community’s video feed. And others are bringing on new staff to aid the online transition. A search for jobs on the church-employment site Church Staffing yields employments postings for content creators, online community pastor[s], and online production director[s].

Some religious leaders have started investing in high-quality equipment. Brian Coleman, the rector at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, a small city in southern Michigan, said his church spent about 10 percent of its $300,000 annual budget on new audio-visual equipment after it became clear that Zoom calls over a laptop camera wouldn’t be good enough. The church also has to consider the digital divide: About a quarter of its approximately 250 active parishioners don’t have good enough internet to stream video, so St. Thomas also turned to the local public access television channel to air its services.

Some communities have seen their online content surge. At the Sixth and I Synagogue in DC, communications associate Michelle Eider told Recode its online events — which have included talks with author and husband of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg Chasten Buttigieg, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings — have now gained viewers in every single US state during the pandemic. For the High Holidays, they have more than 3,600 people expected to attend virtual services.

Even if the changes brought on by the pandemic have obvious downsides compared to IRL religious gatherings, these changes have upsides, too. Several faith leaders told Recode that new people are showing up. Some of them are attending from far away and contributing to a new kind of online community. Kevin Eckstrom, who leads communications for the Washington National Cathedral, told Recode that while the historic building only has a capacity for 3,000 people, the church is now drawing between 8,000 and 15,000 viewers for its online Sunday services.

“We have a couple that wakes up Monday morning, New Zealand time at 6 am, to watch our livestream. We have a strong contingent curiously from Barbados, in Jamaica, and the Caribbean, who shows up every Sunday. We have a regular who comes in from Latvia every week.” Eckstrom said that the otherwise strangers who gather to watch the service have formed a new virtual community in the YouTube comments section. Talking during a service might not be so acceptable in-person, but it’s just fine to do online.

Nawaz, of MCC East Bay, noted that most of her community’s sermons — prayers themselves are not done virtually — were already being aired on YouTube and Facebook before the pandemic, and had already gained an overseas audience. While the community has about 500 to 600 active members, a good chunk of the videos MCC produces gets more views than that number.

These online tools are bridging some of the gaps the pandemic created for religious communities. But there are still gaps. “Mosques or churches or synagogues are so community-oriented,” Nawaz told Recode, emphasizing that her mosque’s many in-person activities were key to families building bonds with each other.

Moser, of Nebraska’s Connection Christian Church, told Recode that he expects people will click on other things — that they’ll multitask — during sermons. Still, he argues online services can serve as what he calls the “foyer” to religion.

Philips refers to a similar idea, “the sofa behind the back pew,” or the husband who might normally skip going to church with his wife but might feel more comfortable sitting next to her while she watches from her laptop. And he adds that more people are turning into online-based morning prayers — or religious education — which they might not have the chance to attend in-person. In that sense, the church may be online, at least in some capacity, for good.

“I think that people didn’t see the point of digital before Covid,” he says. “Now, they do see the point of it.”


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