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Covid-19. Locked down, but not locked out?

 

As I and many others have observed, Covid-19 lockdown has done what two world wars, the plague of 1665 and the Black Death failed to do, namely, locked us out of our church buildings.

But churches have been quick to ‘reinvent themselves’. In a matter of weeks, church has migrated from ‘meeting places’ or ‘sacred spaces’ (depending on one’s theology) to cyberspace. Exiled from buildings, the church has very quickly found new ways to continue ‘business as usual’, using electronic communications and social media. For Christians, this is one of the ‘big stories’ of the Covid-19 era. We might be locked down, but we are not locked out!

But will this ‘exile’ in cyberspace have the same effect as exile in Babylon had on ancient Israel? Is it the start of a new future, or just a passing phase before we return to ‘normal’, a distraction, or even a deception?

A success story?
Cyberchurch has been a huge success, both in terms of ‘church attendance’ and ‘mission’ – or so it would appear. And this seems to reflect a new wave of religious feeling and spirituality in the nation since Covid-19. In other words, since pandemic and lockdown, there are, it is claimed, more ‘church goers’ and more ‘seekers’.

In the early days of lockdown, the Archbishop of Canterbury reported that ten times as many people were watching church online as previously attended services in church buildings. A report by the Durham University Centre for Digital Theology (yes, there really is one!), published 23 April, stated, “most churches are going online to discover that far more people are accessing their service when came to the building. What seemed initially to be a devastating blow to churches may actually generate growth”.

Closer to home, in mid-April, one of our own associates reported that about five times as many people watch his live-streamed service now than attended his village chapel on Sundays. One pastor friend commented that online church had drawn in the ‘fringe’. Many others tell similar stories.

This has prompted a huge outburst of excitement and enthusiasm for the ‘brave new world’ of cyberchurch. Jay Colwill, Canon Missioner at Southwark Cathedral, likens embracing cyberchurch to building windmills to “benefit from the movement of the Holy Spirit in these days”. The writers of the Durham University report above also “suspect it is a movement of the Holy Spirit”. For them, “in the period of Lockdown Church, the spread of the gospel is being enabled by the cutting edge technology of the day – the Internet. In the providence of God this network communication has been put in place just in time to enable Christians electronically to travel the world at speed in relative safety”. And the theologians and commentators have also been busy analysing, evaluating and reflecting critically on the phenomenon, for example here.

Pete Greig (founder of 24-7 Prayer; pastor of Emmaus Road church, Guildford; former HTB bigwig, etc) reports that a Tearfund survey “indicates that some 3 million new [my emphasis] people have turned to prayer in the UK since the lockdown began”. The same survey, he states, shows “that record numbers have begun attending church online since the lockdown began”. While “we’d expect around 5-7% of the nation to attend a Sunday service at least once a month”,  he goes on, “over the past couple of months, this figure has jumped – in fact it has skyrocketed – to 24% of the British population. Almost one in four. And 5% of these people wouldn’t normally be at church in, well… a month of Sundays! “I’ve never known a time in my life,” says Nicky Gumbel, “when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now.”

Greig describes how the secular media has caught on to this apparent surge in spirituality, with headlines like, “British public turn to prayer as one in four tune into religious services online” and “young people lead resurgence in faith” (referring to the survey finding that participation in online church is highest among 18-34-year-olds).1)The same article also reported that the “Vicar of Dibley tops a poll as the best screen priest to lead nation through the crisis”. Many other media outlets also ran the story, according to Greig, including Good Morning Britain and BBC News at Ten. Greig concludes by asking, “could this be the beginning of the spiritual awakening in our nation for which so many have been praying so faithfully and so long?’.

Statistics
The Tearfund survey, to which Greig refers, was one of two carried out by Savanta ComRes to investigate religion and spirituality in the UK since lockdown. Tearfund’s was the first and questioned 2,101 adults  between 24 and 27 April. The second, for Christian Aid, surveyed 2025 adults the following weekend, 1-3 May.2)A third survey, as above, also for Christian Aid, investigated people’s attitudes to faith leaders during the crisis. Among other findings, this showed that of a list of Christian faith leaders from TV or film, approaching one in five (18%) British adults say they would trust Geraldine Granger from the Vicar of Dibley the most to provide moral or spiritual leadership to Great Britain during a national crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic! All were conducted online3)Strictly speaking, the survey sampled the online population, reportedly now about 87% of the total. But the data were weighted to be nationally representative of all UK adults by key demographic characteristics including age, gender, region and social grade. It is a matter of debate as to whether or not such weighting fully compensates for the offline 10-15% of the population. and explored a wide range of indicators of changes in religious and spiritual practices and attitudes.

The findings of both suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has stirred religious and spiritual feelings and sensibilities in a small proportion, but significant number, of people in Britain. For example, the survey for Christian Aid suggests, “just around one in twenty British adults (ie c 3.5 million people) say that since the Covid-19 lockdown they believe more strongly [my emphasis] in God (5%), the power of prayer (5%), angels, spirits or supernatural and invisible beings (4%), life after death (4%) or miracles (4%)”.

In terms of virtual (Christian) church attendance, neither survey asked this question directly, but an approximation is provided by the answers to the questions they did ask. In the Christian Aid survey, which is more recent, 15% said they had “watched or listened to spiritual or religious content online” since Covid-19 lockdown, comprising 11% who self-identified as Christians, 2.6% as other (non-Christian) religions, and 1.4% as of no religion (ie nearly 1 million people). Interestingly, 23% of those identifying as Christian had accessed online religious or spiritual content, compared with 78% Sikhs, 69% Muslims and and 63% Hindus. There is no indication of what sort of content they had accessed, but is seems most likely that it will correspond to their stated religion. So, this survey suggests that maybe 10-12% of the population are watching or listening to Christian content online.

The Tearfund survey4)Tearfund’s press release is here. first asked people about their religious affiliation and church attendance. In terms of the former, 51% said they were Christians, 9% of other (non-Christian) religions and 37% of no religion. Stated church attendance was as follows: 57% never attend, 16% attend regularly (ie once a month or more, ie more than twice Greig’s 5-7%), and 19% attend irregularly (every two months or less).

The survey then examined whether or not respondents had watched or listened to a ‘religious service’ since lockdown. This was in fact asked as two separate questions. A total of 19% said they watched religious services live on TV, on demand or livestreamed: 7% had started since lockdown, 12% were doing it already. A further 5% had stopped watching religious services, 6% did not know and the remaining 70% did not before or after. The breakdown for those who listened to a religious service online or on the radio was fairly similar. As widely reported, an estimated 24% of the population watched and/or listened to a religious service online; just over 9% of the population doing so for the first time.5)The aggregated data do not add up, but I am seeking clarification. The general picture emerging from these findings is that Covid-19 prompted approaching 10% of the population to watch or listen to religious services for the first time, and a slightly lower proportion to stop doing so (ie a net gain of 1-2%, ie 0.75 – 1.25 million people).

Although some, including Pete Greig above, have taken ‘religious service’ to mean ‘church’, as with the Christian Aid survey, it does not, but rather includes all ‘religious services’. The breakdown for new watchers and listeners in terms of religious affiliation was as follows: all – 9.4%, Christian – 6%, Other (non-Christian religions), 2.5%, no religion – 0.9%. Again, it seems likely that the affiliates of non-Christian religions are mostly watching or listening to their own religious content. As with the Christian Aid survey, the data suggests that much higher proportions of  Muslims (25%), Hindus (52%), Sikhs (14%) and Jews (30%) watched or listened to online services than did Christians (12%); 12% of ‘other religion’ and 2% of ‘no religion’ also watched or listened to religious services. The data also show that 6% of people of ‘no religion’ were already watching or listening to religious services online, while 5% used to, but had stopped.

It will be clear that the data provided by these surveys is by no means clear cut, leaves a lot of stones unturned, and prompts as many questions as they answer. The statistics support a general impression that cyberchurch has drawn in many who do not normally attend church services in church buildings, and that this includes some who do not identify as Christians and more for whom their Christian affiliation is nominal. But they do not really justify the rather simplistic, upbeat headlines reported above.6)The data from both the Tearfund and the Christian Aid surveys might benefit from being worked over in more depth and detail than I have time for although I am not sure what use the findings would be. And, anyway, I can’t help wondering why two Christian overseas aid and development charities are spending their money on rather inconclusive British social attitudes surveys? It is very early days and these were snapshots reflecting just a few weeks, ie the honeymoon period, and we have no idea as to the long-term sustainability of cyberchurch. Further, there is little comparison between dropping in anonymously to an online service, maybe doing something else at the same time, and not necessarily even watching until the end, and regular church attendance and engagement. In addition, ‘religious services’ and ‘religious content’ will include anything from a local church livestream through to BBC’s Songs of Praise.

Are people praying more?
The surveys above asked whether or not lockdown had caused more people turn to prayer? Here, Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at Savanta ComRes, has made my life easier by posting an answer to this question, based on the Tearfund and Christian Aid surveys.

The two surveys, she reports, “found that no, we are not all praying. According to our research”, she writes, “44% of adults in the UK say they pray. While the proportion of those who pray seems to have decreased since 2017 (from 51% to 44%), the proportion of those who pray regularly has seen a six percentage points increase in that time (from 20% to 26%).

“There are certainly new people praying”, she continues. One in twenty (5%) people surveyed told us they have started praying during lockdown and didn’t do it before. But there is no net gain in pray-ers, because 6% of people say they used to pray, but have stopped since lockdown”.

“This data doesn’t tell us why”, she says, “and we would need to carry out more detailed quantitative research or a nuanced qualitative project to explore whether stopping prayer represents doubt, distraction or disillusionment. Whatever the cause”, she concludes, “the faith leaders who are excited about the newcomers to prayer and the relatively high numbers of people engaging with religious services remotely will do well to remember that there are at least as many people turning away from prayer as those who are trying it out”.7)The survey does not attempt to establish to whom people who do pray are praying; as with online services, a proportion of those who say they pray will be praying within their own (non-Christian) religious tradition.

Cyberculture
Cyberchurch works for some more than others. I doubt there are that many Christians who are not missing meeting together, but there is no doubt that some have taken to exile in cyberspace more easily than others.

First, for those whose personal and social lives, are already located in cyberspace, the transition is relatively easy. For the ‘cyber generation’, social interactions with peers, friends, family, communities, interest groups and church are conducted to a great extent via social media, and business, education, entertainment, recreation and obtaining information via the Internet. For many of these, cyberchurch is likely to be part of their experience already, and transitioning to it as their main experience is relatively painless.

Second, cyberchurch is also likely to be working quite well for those denominations and traditions whose public worship centres on ‘gathering around the word’, ie for whom the sermon is the focal point of the church service, and whose services are mostly done ‘from the front’ with the congregation ‘spectating’. Hence, even though many adherents may be less immersed in the cyberworld, traditional Baptists and conservative evangelicals, for example, may have found watching the pastor do the service online not too different from watching live.

Third, cyberchurch is probably working particularly well for those churches whose worship already employs appreciable online and digital content. For example, there are many new churches and fellowships with more than one campus, where the sermon is only preached at one site and livestreamed to the others. Modern charismatic churches, whose corporate worship centres on the worship band, the stage and screen, already employ a great deal of digital technology. Contemporary Anglican churches, like St Aldates in Oxford, for example, have computer screens fixed to the pillars in order to enable congregants to watch the action at the front even when the church’s architecture prevents it. Even traditional evangelical churches have abandoned hymnbooks in favour of projectors and screens, which may also display other digital content (like pretty backgrounds to the song lyrics).

Exclusion
As will be obvious from the above, and I imagine from most readers’ experience, cyberchurch is both inclusive and exclusive. While it embraces the cyber generation, it excludes the 10-15% of the population who have no access to the Internet and those for whom going online is irksome, difficult or stressful. Although there are many older people who have become adept at using electronic communications and social media, there are many more who cannot or do not easily do so. However, many churches have sought to reach out to these with telephone calls, letters etc – pastoral care may still be working, but shared worship is on hold.

Exile
For some churchgoers, the issue is deeper than a technical or cultural one. For those with a liturgical, sacramental and sacerdotal theology, ie for whom for whom liturgy, symbol, sanctuary, sacrament and priesthood are integral to corporate worship, cyberchurch is just not authentic ‘church’. “How”, they might ask, “can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange [cyber] land?”.

Back in 2002, for example, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Social Communications declared that “the virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel”, while acknowledging that the internet can still “enrich the religious lives of users”.

For these, especially, bu actually for all of us, our current sojourn in cyberspace is indeed a form of exile. I realise comparing it to the exile of the 6C BC Jews in Babylon, as I have done here, might seem extreme, fanciful, even absurd. Apart from the millennia of historical distance, theirs was preceded by devastation and destruction and lasted 56 years.8)The exile sensu stricto lasted 56 years, but after “70 years are completed for Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:10), which appear to be dated from Babylon’s overthrow of Assyria to its fall to the Persians’ Our church buildings are still standing, our clergy as busy as ever, and our exile is likely to be over in a matter of months (although it may be longer than we expect). But some of the symbolic parallels are compelling, both in terms of the loss (ie of the Temple, sacrifices and priestly service) and the opportunity (ie to reflect, repent and reconfigure life and faith).

Three aspects of our present exile, in particular, I suggest are of ‘prophetic significance’, demand our attention, and urge us to ‘consider our ways’. These are our church buildings, Holy Communion, and church institutions and the clergy that support them.

Church buildings
For those within liturgical and sacramental traditions, the church building, or at least the physical setting of worship, matters a great deal. As Roman Catholic architectural theologian, Denis McNamara, writes, “proper churches are built to signify theological realities like the presence of the Christian community, the importance of the Church in civic life, and the presence of the full liturgical assembly: the Trinity, the angels, saints, souls in purgatory, etc. Liturgical art and architecture is therefore properly called sacramental in the broad sense of the term, since it makes invisible theological realities knowable to our senses.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision early on in lockdown to take the legally required closure of churches for public worship a stage further by banning his clergy from praying and recording or livestreaming services in their churches, to ‘set an example’, prompted the ire of many Anglican clergy, for whom the church setting matters deeply.

For example, for former Bishop of Worcester, Peter Selby, this marked “a decisive point in the retreat of the Church of England from the public sphere to the private realm”. As Giles Fraser comments, “it is clear that Bishop Selby sees this as an historic moment in which the church reveals how much it has lost confidence in its own distinctive values, looking instead to the government to set the moral tone”. Or as Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, put it, “Church buildings narrate the development of a community more than any other. … But this time round the church has written itself out of the story.”

Even evangelicals have a much stronger attachment to church buildings that they usually care to admit, as I explore further in this article – which also urges us to take time to reconsider and reconfigure our relationships with our church buildings.

For the ancient exiles, the Temple was eventually rebuilt, although not on the scale or with the splendour of its predecessor. But, by then, as an outcome of the Babylon experience, the synagogue tradition, with its tripartite identity as house of assembly (beit knesset), house of prayer (beit tefillar) and house of study (beit midrash), was well established. The synagogue became a foundation of Jewish life in the Second Temple period and arguably was the basis of the NT church. As I shall argue in a future article, I believe a similar trajectory is also a window of opportunity for us beyond our present ‘exile’.

Communion
Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist is integral to the public worship of nearly all Christian churches, and has been for at least 1800 years. Yet, just as the Temple sacrifices were terminated with the demise  of the Temple, so across the world, this sacrament or ordinance has all but ceased, certainly as a shared experience of the gathered congregation,9)Evangelicals do continue to share in the Lord’s Supper online, and within families, while Catholics can watch their priest saying Mass on screen. But both are poor substitutes for shared communion around the Table. with the closure of church buildings and the banning of meeting together. “The roads to Zion mourn, because no one comes to the set feasts” (Lamentations 1:4).

Different Christians churches and denominations have quite radically different beliefs about the historical origins and biblical basis of the rites that most churches practise today as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, and these have been the focus of  much contention and division over the centuries. Revisiting these is an important part of the taking stock and considering of our ways that I am advocating here. But the cessation of these rites is, I suggest, of particular prophetic significance, and should primarily prompt us to “turn aside” (Exodus 3:2-3), to “behold and see” (Lamentations 1:12), and to seek the word of the Lord as to its meaning.

Institutions
As well as the Temple edifice and the sacrifices, the ancient exiles lost the institutions behind these, including the priesthood. Granted, the priestly families continued and played a major role in the exile and later return. But they were not able to function as priests performing sacrifices. The Jews also lost the monarchy, the City of Jerusalem and nationhood.

I have elsewhere drawn a parallel between the ancient exiles’ loss of these institutions and our experience of the loss of Christian Britain. “Just as the ancient exiles underwent the loss of temple, priesthood and worship, nation, city and monarchy, so we today are experiencing the loss of Christian privilege, power and influence, and the crumbling of church institutions and the institutions that bound church and state together.”

Covid-19 is, I contend, accelerating this. As I reported above, the hierarchy of the Church of England, for example, has come under a lot of fire from within its own ranks. As Bishop Selby suggests, the way the Bench of Bishops has handled the current crisis is indicative  of a much deeper malaise. As it is doing in many other contexts, Covid-19 is simply accentuating and accelerating processes that were already underway.10)For ordinary believers, there is a view, which I share to an extent, that part of God’s purpose of this time in ‘exile’, and the trends in church and state that preceded it, is to wean us off our dependence on church institutions, organisational structures and church buildings, and lead us into something new and more biblically authentic in the way we do church.

Again, I believe this is of prophetic significance and calls for much thoughtful and prayerful attention.

Disquiet
To return to the matter of cyberchurch, it would be churlish to pour cold water on the obvious benefits of cyberchurch. Across the country, local pastors, ministers and church leaders and members have made very effective use of digital communications and social media to keep in touch with and care for their congregations and reach out to those on the fringes. I would not wish diminish or denigrate that.

Second, it would also be presumptuous to question such luminaries as Pete Greig or Nicky Gumbel from my rural backwater! They and many others of similar status and profile represent hundreds of churches and thousands of believers, who clearly have found the current experience of cyberchurch exciting and rewarding and the harbinger of a great awakening.

Third, it would be overreacting to make too much of the issues of cyberchurch and cyberspace, or to be too critical, because we will return to meeting in our buildings in due course. It may be longer than we expect before we do, though. If the Bishop of London is anyone to go by it won’t be before the end of the year. But the sensible down-to-earth view is to expect a return to a semblance of ‘normality’ (or, to use a phrase that is almost as worn out as ‘unprecedented’, a ‘new normal’), but having some new ideas to incorporate alongside our mainstream church life.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of our present exile in cyberspace and our response to it that prompt a certain ‘prophetic disquiet’, as below.

Wilderness. First, in my earliest reflections and writing (in a series or prayer guides here, here and here) on the pandemic and lockdown, the predominant theme was that of ‘wilderness’ (which I have conflated with the idea of exile). The essential call at the heart of the current situation is to ‘wilderness’, as a place of intimacy with the Lord, testing and refining, closeness to nature and preparation for the challenges ahead. I warned of the dangers of  being too enamoured of  electronic communications and urged prayer that “churches will use them wisely and not be too anxious to carry on ‘business as usual’ using social media, but rather embrace the opportunity for ‘time out’ with the Lord”. However, it seems that many churches, and Christian organisations and ministries, are busier than ever in a frenzy of online activity, when we should be seizing the God-given opportunity to ‘come aside’.11)And yes, I know we also have generated more output in the last weeks than ever before! But I am about to take my own advice, and after the next few posts, plan to step back for a while.

‘The Matrix.’ Second, as I wrote in an earlier article, cyberspace is public space and can also have a distinctly dehumanising effect. We need to be wary. We need to ‘take the red pill’!

Distraction. My third concern is that, occupied with immediate digitally facilitated business as usual, and more, we are in danger of missing the point, and being oblivious of the challenges ahead – of ‘arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ or ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. There are some very stormy waters ahead, and it would not do to be so concerned to maintain the status quo that they catch us unawares.

Content.  Fourth, while much output has been generated, broadcast and accessed online seemingly with great effect, as described above, this is no guarantee of the content of that material. Is the content people are watching or listening to giving them the ‘words of eternal life’ and calling them to repentance, or just making them feel good?

Management. Finally, it disturbs me that church leaders still feel they need to manage their people’s faith (as one colleague put it), and risk using cyberchurch to perpetuate the culture of passivity and dependence that plagues much of the church in Britain. Of course, pastors must care for their flocks with diligence and sacrificial love. But their calling, along with that of the other Ephesians 4 ministries, is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” so that ” we should no longer be children”, but “grow  up in all things into him who is the head – Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-16). And this may mean releasing them into the care of the Great Shepherd, without their earthly pastors in between.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notes   [ + ]

1.The same article also reported that the “Vicar of Dibley tops a poll as the best screen priest to lead nation through the crisis”.
2.A third survey, as above, also for Christian Aid, investigated people’s attitudes to faith leaders during the crisis. Among other findings, this showed that of a list of Christian faith leaders from TV or film, approaching one in five (18%) British adults say they would trust Geraldine Granger from the Vicar of Dibley the most to provide moral or spiritual leadership to Great Britain during a national crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic!
3.Strictly speaking, the survey sampled the online population, reportedly now about 87% of the total. But the data were weighted to be nationally representative of all UK adults by key demographic characteristics including age, gender, region and social grade. It is a matter of debate as to whether or not such weighting fully compensates for the offline 10-15% of the population.
4.Tearfund’s press release is here.
5.The aggregated data do not add up, but I am seeking clarification.
6.The data from both the Tearfund and the Christian Aid surveys might benefit from being worked over in more depth and detail than I have time for although I am not sure what use the findings would be. And, anyway, I can’t help wondering why two Christian overseas aid and development charities are spending their money on rather inconclusive British social attitudes surveys?
7.The survey does not attempt to establish to whom people who do pray are praying; as with online services, a proportion of those who say they pray will be praying within their own (non-Christian) religious tradition.
8.The exile sensu stricto lasted 56 years, but after “70 years are completed for Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:10), which appear to be dated from Babylon’s overthrow of Assyria to its fall to the Persians’
9.Evangelicals do continue to share in the Lord’s Supper online, and within families, while Catholics can watch their priest saying Mass on screen. But both are poor substitutes for shared communion around the Table.
10.For ordinary believers, there is a view, which I share to an extent, that part of God’s purpose of this time in ‘exile’, and the trends in church and state that preceded it, is to wean us off our dependence on church institutions, organisational structures and church buildings, and lead us into something new and more biblically authentic in the way we do church.
11.And yes, I know we also have generated more output in the last weeks than ever before! But I am about to take my own advice, and after the next few posts, plan to step back for a while.
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