The coronavirus pandemic, with lockdowns, church closures and social distancing requirements, has changed the way houses of worship all across the world have been able to connect not just with their congregations but with the wider communities in which they are located.

It has presented all Christians - church leaders, clergy and lay members - with an unprecedented challenge in a time of what’s been, for many, unprecedented need – how can they continue to reach out and provide care and assistance for those who have been most impacted during the crisis?

Uk coronavirus Oxford Street

What role has the church played in the UK communities during the coronavirus pandemic? That's the question examined in a new report from church network YourNeighbour. Pictured are shoppers walking in Oxford Street in London after new nationwide restrictions were announced during the coronavirus disease outbreak on 2nd November. PICTURE: Reuters/Toby Melville.

It was that challenge which in the UK led Russell Rook, CEO of the Good Faith Partnership, and social entrepreneur Dom Llewellyn, to create a network known as YourNeighbour which aims to help churches continue with their mission in their local community context.

“They just had an idea – do churches need an organisation to try and help them navigate through this crisis?” says YourNeighbour’s director Tim Pilkington. “And they sent out an email to about 50 church leaders that they knew and the resounding answer coming back was ‘Yes – we need somewhere to go to help us navigate our way through this.”

Tim Pilkington

Tim Pilkington. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

“A lot of bad things happened around coronavirus but the convening power that [YourNeighbour] had of bringing people together to say ‘We want to make a difference’ was just extraordinary...I think churches are uniting in ways they haven’t seen before and I think we’re seeing the benefits of doing that.”

- Tim Pilkington, director of YourNeighbour

Pilkington says the idea – which Rook and Llewellyn managed to bring together in just a few weeks, quickly snowballed and YourNeighbour’s network has since grown to include some 1,165 churches from across a spectrum of some 40 denominations including Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, Methodist and Baptist churches as well as the Salvation Army.

“A lot of bad things happened around coronavirus but the convening power that [YourNeighbour] had of bringing people together to say ‘We want to make a difference’ was just extraordinary…” he says. “I think churches are uniting in ways they haven’t seen before and I think we’re seeing the benefits of doing that.”

Formerly the CEO of World Vision UK, Pilkington started volunteering with YourNeighbour soon after becoming aware of the project when it was launched in April. 

“I stepped back from that [the role of CEO] at the end of February and I was thinking to myself, ‘What should I do next?’ And I felt God saying to me ‘Don’t worry about what you’re going to do next, Tim, just get involved with what I’m doing now’. And I saw this pop-up and thought – ‘That’s helping the church respond to COVID, that’s what God is doing now’, so I ought to get involved with this and volunteer.”

That role involving being among those answering phones on YourNeighbour’s national helpline – which aims to connect people with local churches which can help them - and consulting on a range of issues for the organisation including fundraising and strategy. He’s since taken on the role of director. 

YourNeighbour graphic

GRAPHIC: YourNeighbour's The Church in lockdown report

 

As well as the helpline, YourNeighbour has also provided churches with tookits to help them liaise with local authorities, held online events to help equip and inform church leaders and convened roundtables involving both clergy and government officials.

Pilkington says the organisation is primarily about “convening and connecting”.

“[W]e’re trying to help churches think through how they could make a difference in their communities,” he says, adding that churches have responding by “stepping up incredibly”. “We having seen huge numbers of people volunteering and helping out."

A report on the first phase of the initiative was released last month which shows that churches across the UK, including some involved with YourNeighbour as well as other networks and groups, have delivered five million meals a month to people in need during the crisis.

YourNeighbour itself been involved in projects including the Lockdown Hunger partnership through which some 2.8 million meals were delivered to children over summer when they weren’t receiving meals at schools. In addition, the YourNeighbour helpline has received some 1,300 calls from people looking for practical or emotional help. 

“We saw an appetite for collective action across churches,” says Pilkington. 

And the need is there. Pilkington recounts stories of how people have ripped open food parcels and starting eating at their doorsteps such was their hunger; stories of people almost in tears as they found a listening ear; and report revealing that numerous children had been admitted to hospital due to malnutrition in his home town of Cambridge, considered an affluent community. 

“Having worked in World Vision and having seen the scourge of malnutrition in other countries, I did not expect that to be in my home town of Cambridge,” he says. “So feeding these children and feeding these families hasn’t just been ‘Oh, they might have been hungry and missed a meal’, these are the levels of hunger that actually would have been having permanent impact on their mental and physical development.”

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The report also showed that some organisations had been particularly effective in raising money to support the work of churches in addressing COVID-related issues - Christian giving organisation Stewardship, for example, has raised and distributed some £5 million to support the work of 100 churches and local charities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pilkington says that as a result YourNeighbour was now exploring how it could help facilitate cross-church fundraising so some of the programs already being run by churches could be scaled up.

The church in lockdown report cover

Cover of YourNeighbour's The Church in lockdown report.

He says that while churches have been doing “incredible work”, church leaders and volunteers were becoming “quite exhausted”.

“We’ve got to raise some more resource[s] to help them continue to deliver and meet what is going to be rising need in this country in the coming three months, six months, year, two years, because the economic crisis which is coming off the back of this health crisis, I think we’re only seeing the beginning of,” Pilkington says. 

“So we’re really now exploring that. While we’ve seen this appetite for people to support church-based social action, we haven’t really pushed in to what that would mean to raise funds at that level. So that’s the next phase for us – it’s really looking at how can we resource churches, not just connect them to what’s going on, but [looking at] is there a way we can raise material resources to help churches really continue to deliver…[C]hurches have been stepping up to make a difference and if we can raise some more resource, we can make even more difference. There is a real need and churches can be a fundamental part of meeting the huge need in their communities.”

Pilkington is also keen for YourNeighbour to tell the stories of how churches have been helping in their communities.

“I want us to start telling the story of what the church is doing much better. In the UK, it wouldn’t be part of people’s image of the church that it is such a force for good, you know, and I passionately believe that if we can also do this work and also…tell the story well of what we’re doing, then the church will become more relevant in people’s minds…and people may even start engaging more with questions of faith which would just be spectacular for me.”

Postscript: Tim Pilkington initially spoke to Sight just prior to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement of a second national lockdown in the UK. Asked subsequently whether that has changed any of YourNeighbour's focus, he said: "There is a lot of focus on the restrictions on religious gatherings even when social distancing and other measures are in place - letters from across the faith communities to government about that went in [after the announcement]. Other than that it is all a bit grim but gives an even stronger push for what churches are doing but not fundamental changes."

Correction: A caption which incorrectly cited the network's name has been fixed.