The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of church doors in many nations across the globe. But in the UK, as elsewhere, that hasn’t meant churches have shut up shop and gone quiet. Instead, most churches have taken services, prayer groups and other church-related activities online as they continue to engage with people in a range of ways in the virtual space.

And that move, according to the results of a national survey released in the UK last week, has led to some surprising results. The poll, which was conducted by the Evangelical Alliance UK in conjunction with Stewardship and Eido Research, found that not only have more than half of the churches surveyed reported a significant increase in people expressing an interest in finding out more about the Christian faith, most churches have also reported significant numbers of people who wouldn’t normally appear at Sunday services attending online gatherings. And more than one in 10 have even seen an increase in the number of people surrendering their lives to Christ.

UK churches EA poll1

Will there be a new dawn, a 'reset moment', for UK churches as they emerge from coronavirus lockdowns? That's one of the issues that arise from a new Evangelical Alliance UK poll. Pictured is a church in the UK town of Hythe. PICTURE: Martin Drew/Unsplash.

That, according to Peter Lynas, director of EA UK is the “big message” from the poll which involved leaders from almost 700 churches representing a broad range of Protestant denominations including the Anglican, Baptist, Elim, AOG and Methodist churches as well as 196 faith-based organisations.

“We’d heard stories that more people were checking in online – what we were curious about was [whether it was] Christians going to different services or [whether we were] in fact seeing non-Christians looking in and actually taking an interest in what’s happening at this moment?” he says.

Peter Lynas EA UK

 

“[W]e know that if you’re going on holiday or you’re buying a house, you check it out online first, you have a look around. So to allow people to do that first in church makes it a much easier bridge to cross.”

- Peter Lynas, director of the Evangelical Alliance UK, referring to one of the benefits of holding church online.

The results showed it was the latter with the data revealing 70 per cent of churches polled reporting people who would not normally attend church logging into online services, 59 per cent reporting an increase in people interestedsee In finding out more about the Christian faith, and 11 per cent reporting seeing an increase in those making first-time commitments to Christ since the lockdown started.

Lynas says the data confirms that churches have remained focused on their core mission of reaching people with the Gospel during the coronavirus, noting most seem to have adopted the idea that “while buildings are closed, churches are open”.

The use of online technologies to reach people has obviously been key, particularly in reaching people who may not usually attend a church. Lynas recalls the comment of a friend summing it up as “there never been an easier time to sneak in the back door of church”.

“[W]e know that if you’re going on holiday or you’re buying a house, you check it out online first, you have a look around,” he says. “So to allow people to do that first in church makes it a much easier bridge to cross.”

“Those who have checked it out online are much more likely to turn up in person. And that’s going to be one of the big challenges when churches meet again - to bring the people who checked out church online…[into] to the real physical environment.”

Lynas also notes that earlier research conducted by aid agency Tearfund UK had shown that young people and men in particular were “happiest or most likely to engage in online church”.

“That’s two quite hard-to-reach groups that actually like to come in that way.”

EA UK poll stats1

GRAPHIC: EA UK

Lynas says there “no doubt” a significant number of churches the EA has spoken to intend on continuing to engage in online spaces in a greater way even after churches are allowed physically back in the building. Noting that not only does it “make it easier for people to check in and find out about church”, he says churches say it can also be important for those people who can’t physically get to church on a Sunday.

“Having this as an alternative option for people can be a really positive [thing] for those who find access difficult for a variety of reasons,” he says. “So I think they’re been really encouraged and are thinking about how they can keep that going.”

The EA UK plan to ask about churches’ future intentions in a follow-up survey in a month or two.

One of the other issues the survey touched on was church finances. While the results showed that two thirds of churches were concerned about loss in offering incomes thanks to the coronavirus, the majority of churches  - 61 per cent – reported that they believed their income was going to increase, stay the same or drop by less than 10 per cent during this period.

“Having this as an alternative option for people can be a really positive [thing] for those who find access difficult for a variety of reasons. So I think they’re been really encouraged and are thinking about how they can keep that going.”

- Peter Lynas, talking about the move to online services.

“So they think that’s manageable and most, the vast majority, carry enough reserves to cover a loss of income for six months…” says Lynas, noting that as well as being an important giving priority for many members, churches also often owned their own building or had significant funding reserves.

“So they’re not overly worried in the short-to-medium term. I think the big concern is if the economy absolutely tanks, it doesn’t matter how committed people are – if they don’t have a job and they don’t have money, then there’s going to be some challenges.”

The poll reveals church leaders also believe needs are going to rise as a result of the crisis with 77 per cent concerned about an increase in mental health problems, a similar percentage concerned about an increase in poverty and individuals debt, 56 per cent concerned about the impact on employment and 49 per cent concerned about the impact on social infrastructure and services.

And while church and organisational leaders reported significant concerns about the future as the lockdown starts to ease with many calling for greater clarity so they can plan, the majority of church leaders did report that they were in a good or very good emotional state despite the fact that 31 per cent of churches said they had used a government furlough scheme for some of their staff during this period.

Lynas notes that this sense of well-being comes despite the increased workload for many ministers as they have navigated moving things online and ensured ongoing contact with congregants.

“So we’re encouraging those in churches to recognise that – we’re going to have to give our ministers a bit of breathing space over the summer. Because what they’ve done in seven days is what would have often taken seven years – move an entire service online, rearrange programs, continue to meet the needs of the vulnerable…So I think churches have shown great creativity and agility and have to be commended for that.”

Conversations with church leaders have also revealed a sense that it won’t be simply business as usual when churches resume in-person gatherings.

EA UK poll graphic2

GRAPHIC: EA UK

Lynas says the EA is encouraging churches to think about coming back together as a “reset moment” rather than simply “business as usual”.

For some churches that may mean operating with less staff. Lynas says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“So we’re going to go back to the priesthood of all believers rather than staffing everything out. It’s going to [mean] looking at our volunteers and people within churches and saying ‘We need to step up’…”

In fact, he says, with the charity sector being squeezed as well, there’s actually going to be a “real opportunity” for churches.

“Churches are sitting there with this huge volunteer group, their congregants ready to act in this moment, I think,” he says. “So there’s going to be a lot of need and a real opportunity to release everyone into kind of every-member ministry in this moment. It will be challenging but I actually think it will be a huge opportunity.”