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How the UK church grew in Lockdown during the COVID pandemic. Interview with Hope Together.

Many UK surveys show the same things - huge numbers of people who don't normally have anything to do with church, attending online services.

12.5 million people attending church online - rather than usual 3-4 million

In May 2020, a Guardian / Tearfund survey showed that 25% of all adults had attended at least one virtual service since Lockdown began.  That's 12.5 million people, of which 1 in 5 had no previous church contact - 2.5 million.

The same survey showed 33% of all 18-34 year olds were attending virtual church services - 4 million young adults.  Many churches were reporting doubling of their previous weekly congregations.

In August, Durham University reported a survey in England showing that 25% of all Londoners had engaged in virtual church services in the prevous 6 weeks - a period after Lockdown effectively ended. 

This is the greatest opportunity and greatest missional crisis for the church in a generation - since most of these people are completely lacking in any personal contact with a local church.

50% of 18-35 year olds attending church online in London

The same survey reported that 50% of 18-35 year olds in London had attended online church services in the previous 6 weeks. And 6% said hat they had already been to a physical church service since lockdown eased.

In January 2021, a Pew survey reported that 10% of the nation said their faith was stronger because of COVID - 4% said the opposite so a 6% net gain in spiritual conviction.

In February 2021, the Anglican Church together with Hope Together charity reported a repeat of the Guardian / Tearfund survey in May 2020. The February 2021 findings were that 23% of all adults said that they had been attending church online. 

86% of those attending church regularly before COVID lockdown, continued to do so online, 4% less often.

21% of people who had been only attending church from time to time before Lockdown said that they had become regular online attenders.

4% of all those attending online reported no previous church contact at all.

Most people attending online regularly who did not before said that they were intending to start attending physical church services when allowed to do so - maybe 500,000 people.

What does this all mean?  Can surveys be trusted anyway?

The fact is that the surveys above should not be such a surprise.  Huge numbers of churches across the nation have reported higher than expected attendance online.

Take my own church for example - which normally has up to 100 in total attending on a Sunday.  That would translate to no more than 70 views since many couples and families watch together.  But the church has seem typically 170 views a week, sometimes as high as 340.

I know a church leader who has seen across 160 churches over 16,000 people indicate online that they have found faith for the first time.  Others have reported extraordinary responses in ways they would never have imagined.

Future of hybrid church

It is clear that during the stress of the pandemic, many have asked spiritual questions and have begun to pray for the first time - as often happens in times of national crisis.

What is less clear is what the longer term impact of that will be.

In the meantime, churches coming out of lockdown need to take steps not to abandon their virtual congregations who have been attending anonymously and may rapidly revert to their anonymous lives with little ongoing church contact.

A major priority therefore is to ensure online or hybrid church services are not only friendly and accessible to those unfamiliar with church or Christian teaching, but also provide easy ways for those watching to become known.  For example a live chat screen on the church website, or offering to pray for people who want to text their first names to a particular phone number etc.

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