By The Ven. Bob Jackson (Eyam Parish, Derbyshire):

Greetings from England! I have fond memories of doing ‘Leading your Church into Growth’ in Queensland a few years ago. But suddenly the way churches grow has transformed, so we need to transform as well!

Around 85 per cent of Church of England benefices appear to have taken their church services online during our ‘lockdown’. Estimates are very tricky to make, but from a survey I’m conducting, it looks to me that just under 30 per cent of Anglicans in the UK are not accessing their church’s online service, either because there isn’t one, or they are unable to, or choose not to. But, even after allowing for this, total ‘attendance’ online appears to be around 50 per cent higher than in-person attendance pre-lockdown.

Some of this huge increase is people attending more often – it’s back to the 1950s when there was nothing else to do on a Sunday! But some, probably at least half, are new or returning churchgoers. A recent population survey estimated that 24 per cent of the UK population has accessed a church service online or on TV or radio since our lockdown began in March. This is the largest, quickest growth in churchgoing we have ever seen – after years of decline. Mostly, churches in the UK are using YouTube, Facebook and Zoom.

Most churches are conducting church meetings, small group gatherings and after church coffee by Zoom – which crashed under the load on the morning of Sunday 17 May! And there seems to be a major wave of online Alpha and similar courses. My own village church struggled to get more than two or three people on an annual course pre-lockdown, but currently has 15 doing online Alpha.

And many churches are seeing major changes to their ministry and community support. St Mary’s Bramall Lane, an inner city church in Sheffield, has seen a huge increase in people accessing their free meals programme. They were running out of food from the supermarkets and made a giant order to buy food they couldn’t afford. Just before they placed the order they got a phone call offering a ton in weight of food, including every exact item on their list.

We are finding God is with us in all we do in these dark, yet strangely exciting times.

Because of these huge changes, because our previous programmes and way of life have stopped, and because there will be a new and more complicated world to do mission and ministry in when the buildings are back in use, I’m encouraging all churches to re-imagine their life and future during the comparative calm of the UK lockdown.

It’s clear that most churches should continue to run an online element along with in-person church, as we have found a route into the living rooms of the nation and the nation has responded. We can’t go back to merely hiding away in our buildings. Apart from that, every church’s response will be unique, but it is helpful to pray and think about it under the following four headings.

  1. Wider Doors: We’ve opened a new doorway linking churches and homes. How can we maintain and widen our doors of welcome, both online and off it?
  2. Deeper Wells: The times are more serious, so people have been seeking God and a deeper spirituality. How can we offer spiritual depth and encourage encounter with the living Jesus? There is little point in welcome if there is no well for the newly thirsty to drink from.
  3. Wiser Programmes: How can we continue to reach more people through an integrated in-person/online model of church? Can we also take the chance to review all church programmes and only start and re-start those that open the doors wider and dig the wells deeper – become less frantic, more focussed?
  4. Smarter Structures: How can we change our leadership and organisational structures to support the church of the future rather than the church of the past?

I’ve been a church leader for nearly 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like this! The opportunities and the challenges are greater than they have ever been. Churches that rise to meet them will flourish and grow in wonderful new ways.

For a fuller account of these observations, thoughts and suggestions, read the two documents ‘Everybody Welcome Online’ and ‘Everybody Welcome to the Future’ on the Durham University website.  

First published in anglican focus on 8 June 2020.

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