Episode 58: “Rethinking Virtual Community” featuring Heidi Campbell

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 58: “Rethinking Virtual Community” featuring Heidi Campbell

What can online faith communities teach us about people’s need for interaction and authentic relationships? In this episode we speak with Heidi Campbell, who has studied online churches since the early days of the internet. She shares key learnings emerging from the experience of so many churches that moved worship online during the pandemic.

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on StitcherListen on Google Play MusicListen on SpotifyListen to more Leading Ideas Talks episodes


Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brought to you by Changes Congregations Face. This adult leadership study curriculum from the Lewis Center is an ideal conversation starter for your small groups, especially for congregations evaluating their own ministries or engaging in planning for the future. Changes Congregations Face is only $3.99 at churchleadership.com/studies.

What can online faith communities teach us about people’s need for interaction and authentic relationships? In this episode we speak with Heidi Campbell, who has studied online churches since the early days of the internet. She shares learnings emerging from the experience of so many churches that moved worship online during the pandemic.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Reverend Dr. Heidi Campbell, Professor of Communications at Texas A&M. She just edited a free e-book entitled The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online. Our focus for this podcast is rethinking virtual community.

Heidi’s work is at the cross-section of religion, theology and communication, and in particular digital communication. Her first book was Exploring the Religious Community Online. I share this with you all so you can get a sense of how long she’s been thinking about the digital community. Heidi thank you for joining us and for your work in this area over a number of years.

Heidi Campbell: Thank you for having me.

Doug Powe: I would like to begin our conversation by asking, can you share the background on how the latest e-book, the free resource The Distanced Church came into being? And why you wanted to get this free resource out to individuals?

Heidi Campbell: So I’ve been studying the intersection between new media, religion and digital culture for almost 25 years. So it’s always on the forefront of my mind, you know, what’s happening especially with the church in technology. And in February/March, I found myself in Germany working at a research institute while I was on my sabbatical. And so we started hearing about the pandemic. And I have a lot of people that I follow on Facebook. And I kind of like to tune in every once in a while to my Facebook feed on a Sunday and just see how people are doing online church services. So I was really surprised at the beginning of March. On a typical Sunday there would be maybe five or six of my networks doing an online church service. But that middle week — the 14th, 15th, 16th of March — when the pandemic hit Europe and North America really hard, I suddenly saw 20 plus church services pop up on my feed, and with each Sunday, them growing more and more. So I felt we were in a very important, interesting moment, especially when I noticed some of the people that were adopting digital technology and trying to do church online were people that maybe a year ago would have been critical about using technology in the church. A year ago they were saying the church and technology are kind of at war with each other. Or it’s kind of seen in an adversarial role. And now suddenly, a gift from God. So I really felt it was important to capture what was happening, both from a researcher perspective like myself, and from the pastors that were out there and trying to make these choices for the very first time. About what technology do we use. Very practical questions, as well as “How is this going to change how we do church?” and “Just how do you search during a time of crisis?” So the book was really my effort of trying to create a virtual conversation between scholars like myself who’ve been working in this area asking, what can we add as far as help or advice, whether it be best practices or just theological reflection to what’s happening? And then to hear from pastors asking, what are the things that they’re really struggling with during this time? So I purposely in the book picked pastors that were in churches that are one hundred or less. You know the average church in America, I believe, is in the 80s. And so I want to see what is the average pastor working with right now and how are they making these choices. And so they’re bringing those people in, as well as scholars I knew all across the world that were either theologians or media scholars that could offer this insight. And so I hope that’s what the book shows people — this virtual conversation between these two groups that can learn from each other.

Doug Powe: Thank you. I appreciate that background. And there are a couple questions that come to mind as you were talking and I want to pick up on. You shared talking about best practices and also theological reflection. If you had to pick one or two — and I always hate when people ask me this — but if you had to pick one or two insights you gained as you were editing the book around the theological reflection and around the best practices what would those insights be?

Heidi Campbell: Well generally speaking, the pastors really kind of spoke from the heart and were looking more at what have we done? What seems to be working? What’s not working? What do we wish we knew? And the main thing that came out of the pastor’s discourse on best practices is being willing to experiment and just jump in there. Churches oftentimes, when they’re thinking about doing a new program or new structure, you know you want to get all right. You want to get the program in place, the people in place, and then slowly roll it out with a longtime running up, giving people forewarning. But that’s not what happened. And so most people, within a matter couple of days, they had to figure out how to get online, how to use live streaming. Is YouTube or Zoom or Facebook the best platform? So the lesson of being willing to do what they call beta testing. In digital culture you roll out a new program or software. You put it out there and it’s got some kinks and some bugs. But you know that your users are going to give you feedback and that’s how you’re going to refine the product. So watching pastors go through that uncomfortable stage where they might put up a Facebook filter that makes them look like a rabbit for part of the service because they didn’t realize. But being willing to be less polished and just run with it. And I think people really appreciated during this time that these pastors are struggling just like us, and trying to adapt, and trying to connect with us. And so it gave a less professional but more real feel of what the church is all about. And I think with scholars the key thing was realizing that digital culture and offline culture are really kind of interconnected in different ways. Some scholars see that as a very blurred context where you really can’t tell what’s online or offline anymore. And others will see it more as kind of bridged or connected. But the idea is that churches need to understand digital culture even if they are not using technology — the culture of technology is influencing how people see relationships, how they see community, how they interact. And so this became one of the things that the theologians and media scholars were talking a lot about. What does this the church need to understand about digital culture? How might it actually benefit and help church culture? And what ways might the technological choices have theological implications? So lots of interesting conversations around those areas in the book.

Doug Powe: So I want to unpack this theological part a bit more, particularly around community. Can you share more from your own research and just from talking with others where you believe digital culture can actually be transforming in terms of the ways that we think about community?

Heidi Campbell: Yes. So going back, I just started my research in the 1990s. And that was when online communities were found on these bulletin boards — it was like a website — you’d log on to and then it would be asynchronous texting or via email groups. So you’d email and the group would get your comments. So I did these studies of three kinds of online communities, or they described themselves as churches, that met via email and how they began to see that as their faith community. And the interesting thing, and I talk about this in my essay in the book, is that the key things that people are looking for online as far as community, is they’re saying back in 1990, they’re looking for a shared faith. They’re looking for people that are transparent. They’re looking for what I called at the time the “Virtual Cheers” — someplace “where everybody knows their name and they’re glad they came” from that old TV show. They’re looking for intimacy and accountability. So these traits are not unique to the online. These are the same things people we’re looking at would want an offline faith community. Connection. Relationship. The surprising thing is that a lot of these people were saying, “I find this more online than off line.” And so I think one of the things I’ve been doing a lot in my work is looking at, “Okay, these are the values and traits of community that people value. How can the technology facilitate that in either the way you design it or the way that you use a technology to benefit the church? Are there ways that you might use or design technology that would challenge or would cause people to not feel in community or feel disconnected? So you know that’s one thing, I’ve been surprised that a lot of the things I said in 1996 in my research, or in 2000 in my thesis, are some of the same things that are people are looking for today and seeing that people are just kind of waking up to how digital technology can both enhance community in ways that maybe aren’t possible in the offline as well as realizing that the online isn’t a solution in itself. Just because you’re using digital media it doesn’t mean you’re having more interactivity or more community in your faith space.

Doug Powe: So you talk about that basically there’s this connection between returning to your early research and finding some of the same things, and people looking for community, and community basically. If you had named those characteristics, I would say “That’s exactly with someone coming at church in person would be seeking.” So why is it then that you think people may be more comfortable — I don’t know if that’s the right word — trying to find these values or these characteristics online versus sort of going in person to try and find these same characteristics?

Heidi Campbell. Well, I tell the story, and tell it my thesis, and then at the beginning of that book Exploring the Religious Community Online, of my experience of going into a service during Holy Week, and going into this large church, sitting down, and you’re going through the ritual. You know, I think it was Maundy Thursday. And I’m in this place full of a lot of people. People on either side me. But yet there was no space in the service to actually interact. And you know people at the end of the service just kind of dispersed. And so it’s like, I go here to celebrate this communal event — the Eucharist, the Passing of the Peace. But I feel very disconnected from the people in this room. And then I walked up to the computer lab at my university. And I logged on and was doing some of my online ethnography in an online group where we’re using an early form of a chat room, and talking, and having a prayer meeting. And I began reflecting, “Wow! I know more about these people that I have never met, that are on the other side of the screen, and had more interaction than I did with these people on either side of me.” And I think for me, that says two things. One, it says that there are many possibilities — that sometimes either because people are introverts, or just the structure of different programs — we don’t have the space in church to build that community. And community is really focused on just the service. And digital technology can really extend that, from just being a two-hour event to church becoming a 24/7 event, because of the interactivity and opportunities the Internet proposes. But also one thing I observed, and I’ve heard other people talk about this in the last couple of months, that North American Christianity especially has become very event oriented. All the energy of most pastors and staffs is all spent getting that one hour or two hour service together — whether it’s online or off line. And then all the programming that is related to it. So you know there’s so much focus on the event. It’s the community. It’s like community happens if you go to the Sunday school, or if you choose to just stop by the coffee corner or coffee hour. It is programmed in. It’s not something natural or something that’s seen as based on communication and relationship. It’s just kind of like “ticking the box” of one aspect we need to have in our program. And I think a lot of people found this out when they put their services online, what they actually recreated oftentimes was the old the televangelist broadcast kind of model. So okay, our services are online. But our service is very flat or not interactive. Or people are encouraged to be kind of passive because they’re just watching the church service. Whereas at least if they are in the building there are certain kinds of protocols, and ways you act to engage. And so that was in some ways critiquing the technology. But actually, even when they tried to change and do different things, I found in my research that actually it was the church and ways church has become structured over time in the 21st century that’s the problem. Not necessarily the fear that people had of technology. Technology actually could solve part of the problem that we’ve created in church culture in America.

Online summer courses from Wesley Theological Seminary are available for academic and CEU credit. Courses in July include Howard Thurman: Mystic, Prophetic, Theologian from Tony Hunt (July 20-31); Faith on Film (July 27-31, 2020); and more. Registration is now open. See the full list of online summer and fall courses and register at wesleyseminary.edu/WesleyOnline2020. At Wesley, we pray that you keep safe, keep learning, and keep leading.

Doug Powe: I think what is interesting, and I want to try this out. You can shoot me down pretty quickly if you think I’m wrong. I actually believe a possibility exists that because people have had to be innovative during this time of the pandemic, when they do start in person, and I’m hoping they won’t give up what they’re doing online when they do the in person. But when they do start in person, it actually may help the in person to be more interactive and to help people to connect with each other more. Because I think your story is helpful. You’re right that we’ve made the assumption that just because we were together we were connected. But the reality is, in many cases, people were very disconnected, especially if they weren’t a part of the community. Do you have any insights in terms of how can we pay more attention to making sure those connections exists? Particularly online? How do we make sure that even as people may be coming by and watching us on Facebook or some other medium, that we really are trying to help them to be connected? And aren’t just doing like we do in person and they become disconnected from us?

Heidi Campbell: So one thing I found, in going back to my early research in the 1990s, is that a lot of people experience more depth of communication. They’re able to have more in-depth Bible studies or debates about interpretations of Scripture online than they ever had in an offline church experience or Sunday School experience. And so a lot of the people I talked to said, “Hey, we’ve learned ways of talking, or ways of facilitating conversations, or even doing prayer that maybe we can actually transport into the offline contexts.” Unfortunately, for most of them in the research, I’ve found that the pastors just didn’t really register that. They would say, “How could you learn something authentic online and then want to bring it offline?” But I think you know again that people want — they don’t want conversation. They want intimacy. They want a space where they can be heard. So I think there was lots of different experiments out there. One that happened in the town where I live, a church that’s not too far from where I live, where they had just three components to their church service. They had a little bit of worship. Someone would give an announcement. And then the pastor would do a much more truncated sermon. But the idea was then everyone was put into home groups. And if he hadn’t been in a home group before the pandemic they tried to get you into one. And then the pastor would use the sermon and offer questions and even little clips that those small groups could use via Zoom or even by telephone to have a conversation and process. So the technology allowed them to have some conversations that they wouldn’t have been able to have because of the ban. But it also then created these opportunities where the pastor was thinking constantly, “Okay, how can I create not just a sermon, but actually a sermon that can then be shared and communicated and people get feedback and then actually has a life to it?” And so I think there’s creative ways just the technology allows us to do certain things, and certain things well. And there’s certain things that you know can be more problematic. But it’s looking at how can the technology encourage that conversation? Communication. Openness. Transparency. And again especially that sense of 24/7 communication that transcends boundaries of geography.

Doug Powe: Talking about transcending boundaries, one of the things you can say is wonderful about virtual or online community and also can be challenging is that you can bring together people from various cultural backgrounds, very sort of different theological perspectives, and all these things together in one space. Have you thought about or reflected upon how you navigate, making sure things don’t explode, when you’re bringing together a group of people who might be really diverse in a way that can be engaging and helpful but not harmful?

Heidi Campbell: I mean think anything that involves people it has potential for both positive and negative.

Doug Powe: Absolutely.

Heidi Campbell: Anyone who has kids knows that you can’t control what people are going to say or how they react. But I think that you can create an environment — whether that’s in a school classroom, in a church service, or even just online — you can create expectations about how we treat each other. One of the things I found really interesting my early research is these e-mail communities had certain rules about how you write your posts. What kind of language you use. What was seen as positive or negative joking in the group. And if people didn’t live to those expectations, they said, “Well, if you’re in this group, you’re a Baptist or you’re an Episcopalian, or you’re at least a Christian, so there should be certain behavior norms that you adhere to. And we as a group have set out these rules.” And they were very good at policing themselves. And if somebody came in and was doing something that they saw as problematic, or especially not ethical, or treating someone badly, they would often call that person out. Or have them ask the moderator to step in. And I think again it’s because if you can’t see people, if you don’t speak, you’re not present online in many contexts. Now that’s changing now with a lot of the visual software we have. But it forces you to be more open and set boundaries about what communication is expected and how you are expect to behave. We often don’t have those same boundaries put out so clearly in offline spaces. We just assume a lot of things. So I think these digital spaces, when it limits one aspect of our senses — whether it’s sight or whether it’s touch — we create compensations, like motocons. We create certain behavior rules to try to bypass or try to fill that gap. And I think in some ways it causes people to think more authentically or in more creative ways. And so a lot of things get lost in the assumptions of how we do church. Like we think if we gather in the same building we have community. And that’s definitely not the case. So I think you know the online environment is causing people to rethink that in good ways and in challenging ways.

Doug Powe: Thank you. That was that was helpful. I’m going to switch a little bit but it’s still in the same vein. I’m going back to a comment you made earlier during our conversation, about when you were in Germany and you were watching multiple services on Facebook. And I’ve heard this from other individuals who have typically gone to their particular church service on Sunday and that’s it. But since the pandemic, they’ve been able to watch multiple services, even services that are different from their service, because they’re at home now. Do you think this will be something that continues as we go along? Or do you think that people simply fall back into their old traditional ways when they’re able to fully participate again in their own congregation?

Heidi Campbell: I think it depends on the people. You know the Pew American Life Project on Religion brought out some interesting statistics in the fall 2019, that the fastest rising groups of spiritual seekers are the “nones” — people that are spiritual but don’t affiliate with a certain group. Or what is becoming the “dones” — people that still say “I’m a Christian.” They might even say, “Oh I come from I’m a Christian from the Methodist tradition. Or I’m Episcopalian.” But they’re kind of done with the institution of church. So I think the Barna Research Institute brought some interesting data to say that there’s a lot of drift off — that only like 40 percent of people that normally would go to church have actually been logging on to their church services online. A large percentage of people are also looking at other churches online. And I think it’s given an excuse for people like the “dones” — they were looking for a reason to kind of check out and this is it. I think also people are looking at other spaces. It could be that they’re looking for a little bit more flashier presented experience. Or maybe they’re like “Hey, I’ve always heard about this church down the road. And I just want to check it out.” So I think we’re going to see a lot of flow between churches. And I think we’ll see people that are going to drift off from church. And I think there will be other people that the offline tradition is so important, that they’re just going to go back to that. That’s just what they’re happy with and that’s what they want. But I think we’re going to see it’s not just one trend but multiple interesting trends happening in the next six months to a year or whenever the pandemic we can say it’s finally over.

Doug Powe: Yeah. I agree with you. I think it will be multiple. And I’m not sure we’ll ever say “It’s over” for quite a while. So this could be interesting. I’m curious — and you have hinted at this in a couple of your responses — but what do you think the limitations are to online community?

Heidi Campbell: Well, I think one limitation is people assume “Oh well, we have a Facebook group. And we livestream our service. And there is this ability to have comments. So we have community.” That’s just a false assumption, the same as assuming if you’re in a room with a group of people you have community. So community is about again relationships, interaction. It’s about the mission and values of the church being lived out in a tangible, concrete way. So I think one of the challenges is finding out that just putting your service online doesn’t create community. You have to be intentional about it. So how do you use Facebook versus YouTube? How do you use the comments as a way to encourage exchanges and not just getting people that are coming in and saying negative or inappropriate things. Looking at the example I gave of the pastor — of thinking through “How do I redo my sermon and create an opportunity that allows people engage in these small groups?” The challenge is using stuff out of the box doesn’t usually work. Or I’ve seen a lot of apps that are geared at businesses or education. They’re saying, “Oh, we’ll just do this. Then you’re going to have that community, you’re going to have that interaction.” Just because you’re sharing information doesn’t mean you have community. If people don’t feel cared for. If they don’t feel loved. If they don’t feel like they can share and connect with people on like values, and if don’t feel like “Cheers where people know the name and they’re glad they’re you came,” you don’t have community. And I think we put more focus in the church on proximity as community versus communication and relationship as community.

Doug Powe: And I like that language of proximity versus communication. I think that’s really helpful. As we get ready to bring this to a close, Heidi, I would like to hear your reflection on where do you think we’re going to go from here in terms of what church community looks like? I know you’ve said it’s going to play out in multiple ways. But do you think we’re going to see more dedication by church leaders to maintaining some sort of online presence? Or do you think slowly we’re just going to erode back to sort of our traditional ways of thinking about church?

Heidi Campbell: Well I’ve seen a couple interesting trends. One is — and I wrote about this in my essay in The Distanced Church, there’s three dominant strategies I saw in the first six weeks of how people were using Internet technology to their church online. The first was a “transfer” strategy where people were just trying to get their services online very practically and just finding the technology best to do that. Then the second strategy was “translate” and saying “Okay, what does a technology do well? How could we may be like, again in the example of the pastor that eliminated parts of the service to focus the time and people’s attention on the elements that they felt were the most important — maybe turning the church service into a conversation like a “fireside chat” or a “talk show” versus a formal service to create that sense of connection with people. The last strategy was “transformation” where people both understood what the technology does well as well as what their identity was and what they wanted people to have out of the church experience. And then they began to reflect on how do we change both what we do practically as well as maybe our theological understanding. So, during the early days there weren’t very many people doing that transformational strategy. But I’ve seen a lot of people beginning to experiment. Because they’ve seen, “Oh, this really worked.” Or, “Hey, we had a lot of good feedback after we did this with small groups.” Or, “We asked everyone to email in their prayer requests and then we did this.” So I think that if those churches that were willing to experiment and go outside the box, we’re going to see a transformation that will impact not just what is done possibly digitally, but trying to bring those things that work online back into the offline environment. I think another thing that we’re going to be seeing and that’s a challenge is just using technology doesn’t afford community. A lot of people are realizing that once I put my content online there is a lack of control. And I think the idea of churches being hierarchical or focused right now especially on the celebrity pastor — it’s a really a hierarchical, really ordered structure. And churches that are willing to be disrupters, or are willing to be disrupted and deal with the chaos and deal with the messiness of life in church both online and offline — I think those are the ones going to be able to make a good connection between the offline and the online and create a nice bridge. I think you know a lot of churches I’ve heard say “Oh, you know, we’re definitely going to keep doing online church because we’re getting so many more people attending or at least clicking on their service. You know just because they click on or the church had this many views doesn’t mean that many people actually came or watched the whole service. But they’re seeing a lot more people viewing. And so seeing that “Wow! A digital strategy is actually important. It’s can reach out to people!” And we’re thinking of it maybe as the digital gateway to get them into the community, whether it’s through mediated interactions in digital media or offline. I think that will become really important. And I think churches that are willing to make those connections — not just broadcasting like a TV service — but see how can we actually have a seamless connection. Whether people are online or offline, they’re part of the community. They feel you know them. They feel loved and cared for. And they feel that they’re growing in their faith because of it. I think these new kinds of strategies between the online and offline could be really interesting for the church.

Doug Powe: Heidi. Thank you so much for taking time today to have this conversation. And again just want to lift up how wonderful this free resource is. And I hope that our listeners will take advantage of it and download it. And thank you for all your good work in this area.

Heidi Campbell: Thank you for having me again.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with New Testament Professor Shively Smith about innovative approaches to teaching the gospel that disrupt our staid and familiar notions of the biblical text.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Related ResourcesThe Distanced Church - Reflections on Doing Church Online


About Author

Heidi A Campbell is Professor of Communication, affiliate faculty in Religious Studies and a Presidential Impact Fellow at Texas A&M University. She is also director of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, and a founder of Digital Religion studies. She has received the RCA Scholar of the Year Award and TAMU’s Transformational Teaching Award. One of her recent books is Digital Creatives and the Rethinking of Religious Authority (Media, Religion and Culture) (Routledge, 2020), available on Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.