Benefits and challenges of virtual worship for flourishing

In 2024, Dr. Van Cappellen was awarded grant funding from the Templeton World Charity to investigate the mechanisms and flourishing outcomes of virtual worship participation! Dr. Van Cappellen serves as Principal Investigator on this grant ($499,489) titled “Worship 2.0: Testing the benefits and challenges of virtual worship participation for flourishing”, a three-year project beginning in September 2024 to August 2027.

Specifically, this project will examine the benefits and challenges of different worship modes in evangelical Protestant Christians and Black Protestant Christians churches, for whom virtual worship is practiced more frequently. Flourishing will be assessed at both the personal and spiritual levels: through psychological well-being and subjective happiness, and felt presence of God and spiritual well-being.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (2023) showed that attendee satisfaction with regards to the overall service and specific sermon differed little between virtual and in-person formats. However, much larger differences arose for feelings of connectedness with other attendees and active participation in the service. The potential loss of embodied practice and physical participation may in turn implicate the social and emotional experience of virtual worship.

How then might virtual worship impact flourishing outcomes? Correlational evidence shows that lower levels of psychological distress and higher self-rated health are associated with more frequent in-person worship attendance (Upenieks et al., 2023). The frequency of virtual worship, however, showed no such associations. Similar to other extant research on this topic, these findings are limited by the cross-sectional design of the study and do not lend themselves to causal inference. The present project thus aims to fill this gap in the literature on the causal effects of virtual worship participation.

Through qualitative, quantitative, and experimental data, we address three research questions:

  1. Does virtual worship participation bring the same benefits for flourishing as in-person worship?
  2. Are the mechanisms through which worship is thought to affect flourishing still activated by virtual worship?
  3. What factors optimize the experience of virtual worship?

Across a series of five studies, this project will address existing gaps in the research regarding the causal effect of virtual worship on flourishing, the factors that influence these effects, and how the social and emotional experience of worship potentially explain them. By actively partnering and collaborating with practitioners, we hope to ground the research in real-world experience in order to yield and disseminate findings that are both scientifically robust and practically relevant.