Religion in Quarantine: Heidi Campbell on "Religion Embracing and Resisting Cultural Change in a Time of Social Distancing"

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at:

Religion Embracing and Resisting Cultural Change in a Time of Social Distancing
Heidi A. Campbell

Since the mid-1990s, I have studied how religious communities responded and adapted to the then-new cultural phenomenon of the internet (Campbell, 2005). Just as is seen with the introduction of any new media, the internet garnered a range of responses, from those who wildly praised this innovation and called for religious groups to utilize it to those who warned of the potential threats and called for its rejection. This continuum, where one side promotes and adapts to cultural change and the other advocates to resist cultural change, is also very evident in the ways religious groups have responded to coronavirus. Some churches are readily embracing digital technologies to maintain their work, while other groups actively resist government intervention. The aim is to consider how and why they have made these responses, and what the implications may be for the future practice and study of religion.

Embracing Technology for Religious Practice: Practical Implementation Reveals Religious Focus

One of the most interesting adaptions to observe over the last three months has been how religious groups in America have embraced digital technology to continue what they see as their core functions as religious communities. Specifically, many congregations making the transition from face-to-face worship to online forms of meeting.

Surveys of over 1,500 pastors conducted by a collaboration of church consultancy groups in March, found the overwhelming majority of churches moved from offline to online-only services during the pandemic. While the initial survey found most pastors reported feeling “forced” to make this transition, reimagining church as a mediated experience was quickly embraced by many (MacDonald, Stetzer, & Wilson, 2020). The follow-up survey in late April reported pastors were beginning to get a handle on the new technologies and most church leaders surveyed had adopted either a transfer or a translation strategy in bringing their services online (MacDonald, Stetzer, & Wilson, 2020).

Transferring church online involved simply broadcasting or livestreaming traditional worship services on the internet, trying to replicate the look and feel of weekly gatherings as closely as possible. Translating church online involves some innovation to worship rituals and spaces. These innovations show a very pragmatic response to this cultural shift — churches transferred their worship services online in the most efficient way possible to fulfill what they see as their central mission, offering members a form of Sunday gathering.

While the survey reported giving attention to building connection within the church and then an outward missionary outlook as being other areas of concern for church leaders, the overwhelming focus was on moving the religious services online, which raises an important question (MacDonald, Stetzer, & Wilson, 2020):

When did religion in America, specifically Christianity, become primarily event focused?

Religious groups have used church attendance and membership growth as evaluative tools for institutional vitality. When individuals’ commitment to public rituals and gatherings become the central way most religious institutions evaluate religious commitment, we see a very instrumental understanding of religion promoted. The use of ritual events as the basis for determining community membership or investment defines community primarily in institutional and place-based terms. In many respects, this embrace of digital technology by churches is based on supporting a very narrow and traditional notion of what religious community is all about.

Resisting Religious Regulation: Debating Religious Liberty vs. Communal Responsibility

One area of strong resistance from religious institutions is the cultural changes forced upon them due to social-distancing requirements. Many churches have framed government regulations imposed on them as more than just annoyances – for some, they have been framed as a full-on onslaught against their religious freedom and their concern is not wholly unfounded. On Easter Sunday, members of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, being fined $500 per member for their attempts to navigate around the 10-person-or-less public gathering edict by instituting “parking lot worship.” Here, members sat in in their vehicles in the church parking lot and listened to the pastor preach via their car radios (Reynolds, 2020).

Churches have focused their protests against public-gathering regulations that have prevented religious groups from freely meeting as a violation of their First Amendment rights (Gjelten, 2020).These protests revolve around a careful rhetorical debate between the constitutional right of Americans to the free exercise of their religion and the demonstrated need to protect public health at this time of pandemic. Some groups have critiqued moves towards creating “virtual church” that relies on internet streaming services and platforms as settling for an inauthentic expression of the church (Perkins, 2020). By presenting health regulations and social distancing as a violation of religious liberty these groups set up an “us versus them” dichotomy. They not only present themselves as victims of governmental oppression of their right guaranteed by the US constitution, but as the true church of authentic believers that has not been swayed by liberal rhetoric about following governmental guidelines.

What this all comes down to is a question similar to that posed above, i.e., the centrality of the worship event defining American religious practice. Cries for freedom of worship are underpinned by an assumption: If the church body is not physically gathered, then it cannot truly or fully exist. This creates a very limited idea of what religion is and what the church is and represents in culture.

Challenges for the Future of Religion

According to my research over the last three decades, peoples’ understanding and practice of community have shifted (Campbell & Osteen, 2020). The reality is that most people experience community as a social network of relations. This means that for most people, community is something that is dynamic and changeable, holds multiple connections, and is determined by personal needs and choices. This idea of the network challenges most religious groups’ understanding and practices of community (Campbell, 2020). I believe this essay, as it reveals religion as event- and program-based, suggests that religious groups may need to rethink their dependence on older models of community and religious commitment. It also amplifies the need for awareness that religious communities now function on a network model, a fact made visible by offering mediated online gatherings and revealing the rhetoric of the religious resistance against social distancing.

Heidi A. Campbell is Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University and director of the Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies ( She is the author of over 100 articles on digital religion that involve studying the intersection between religious practices online and offline. She is the author of 9 books, including When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010), Digital Religion (Routledge, 2013), and Networked Theology (Baker Academic, 2016).

Campbell, H. A. (2005). Exploring religious community online. We are one in the network. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Campbell, H. A. and Osteen, S. (2020). Research summaries and lessons on doing religion and church online. Retrieved from

Campbell, H. A. (2020, May 4). Distancing religion online: Lessons from the pandemic prompted religious move online [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Reynolds, J. (2020, April 12). Democrat governor of Kentucky orders police to take down tag numbers of church-goers, other Easter gatherings so government can impose two week quarantines on citizens. Tennessee Star Online. Retrieved from

Gjelten, T. (2020, April 17). Opposing church closures becomes new religious freedom cause. NPR. Retrieved from

MacDonald, A., Stetzer, E. and Wilson, T. (2020, March 27). How church leaders are responding to the challenge of COVID-19. COVID-19 Church Survey Summary Report. Retrieved from Report%20v5.pdf?dl=0.

MacDonald, A., Stetzer, E., and Wilson, T. (2020, April 14). How church leaders are responding to the
challenge of COVID-19. COVID-19 Church Survey Summary Report: 2nd Round Survey. Retrieved from

Perkins, T. (2020, May 5). Religious liberty means COVID-19 restrictions cannot target churchgoers. Religious News Service. enemies-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/.