What might growth in “online worship” mean for the church?

Aug 26, 2020 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

What should we make of a new report, claiming that polling data shows how one in four people in the UK have engaged in some kind of “online worship” since the start of the pandemic lockdown? This went up to nearly 30% of the population in August, apparently, which of course is much higher than the number who normally attend churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship – probably less than 10%. From the report, whose findings are summarised in an article on the Premier websitewe learn that in particular, nearly half of all Londoners have participated in some form of internet-assisted religious activity, and most amazingly, “half of the country’s young people (18-34) indicated that they regularly engage in online faith-related activity, including regular prayer and regular engagement with online corporate worship”.

One of the authors of the report concludes that this data challenges the church to think of new ways of gathering and of pastoral care in the future, using technology to ensure that more people are included through a combination of physical and online meeting. But if these statistics are true, surely they mean far more than this – they indicate that there should be huge optimism about the future of the church; that there is obviously unusual openness in the population to spiritual things, and perhaps the deadening effects of secularism are already beginning to be reversed. This is now the moment, not for pessimism and defensiveness, trying to hold on to models of Christian believing and belonging from the past, but for grasping hold of exciting opportunities for evangelism and exponential church growth.

But a closer look at the article gives hints that at the very least, further questions need to be asked before concluding that the UK church is about to enter a golden age of rapid growth without any inconvenient downsides such as societal conflict and persecution which historically often accompanies such awakenings.

Firstly, the report doesn’t explain how the poll was conducted in ways which could eliminate bias. I’m not a statistician, but I’d like to know how the organisers could be certain that those members of the public, presumably chosen at random, who responded to requests for information were not disproportionately more religious than those who chose not to respond. And then, while anecdotal evidence and impressions are not always reliable, my experience, and those of young people I know, would question the idea that if half of all 18-34 year olds have done some kind of online religious activity in the past few months, the churches have seen any benefit. Just the other day I was hearing in an online prayer meeting of pastors and lay people from across the country, how many churches are struggling to keep their young people engaging with church or faith-related materials.

So what exactly was this research, from the University of Durham, measuring? We are told: “The study focused on six faith-related activities — prayer, meditation, corporate or organised worship, reflection on nature, choir and yoga…” Ah. The first three are common to all religions, and we know from previous surveys that many people pray and meditate who are not part of any church or other religious group (perhaps half the population), including a substantial number of those who don’t believe in God.

But then, “reflection on nature”. This is not explained. Would it include watching Countryfile, or Gardener’s World, or a David Attenborough documentary? By this criterion, anyone on holiday in the Lake District or walking by the sea, taking a deep breath and marvelling at a sunset, feeling an inner stirring at the magnificence of creation which could be described as almost a spiritual experience – this would presumably count, and perhaps this explains the higher August figure when people are on holiday?

The report goes on to admit that while by their broad criteria of ‘online worship’ there are 19 million religious people in the UK, nearly a third of those who normally attended church before lockdown have not engaged with online services, or presumably returned to physical gatherings. It would seem sensible – and urgent – for further research to be carried out to establish the true extent of this rapid ‘cliff-edge’ drop off in church engagement which will surely be of crisis proportions, no matter how much it can be dressed up with optimistic conclusions drawn from how many people are gardening or doing yoga during lockdown.

I have not read the full report summarised in the Premier article. But it seems to me that its conclusions largely confirm what we already know, and certainly can’t be used to support the idea that we are on the cusp of a new genuinely Christian revival. Over the past ten years, the consensus of research has shown a decline in religious faith in the West: more than half say they have no religion, and 1% of young people identify as churchgoing Christians. At the same time the public influence of religion in the West has declined, the secular humanist worldview has been increasingly assumed and promoted – a worldview which is increasingly being described as ‘religious’, as it involves faith commitments, has its own rules and rituals, and even forms of worship (this article shows how atheists are becoming ‘religious’, while Christians are becoming secular).

Meanwhile in other parts of the world, religion continues to thrive and sometimes be used as a political rallying point;. So for example historian Tom Holland explains how in two of the most rapidly modernising states with recent commitments to secularism, Turkey and India, appeals to religion by populist leadership are becoming more common.

There is also genuine church growth and sacrificial Christian discipleship in the face of persecution, despite the influence of secularism, particularly in the global south.

In short, statistics and sociological analysis can be used to show that our nation – and our world – is becoming more secular, and more religious at the same time. That may mean that more people are questioning the secular narrative, and could be more open to the gospel, but it could also lead them to alternative spiritualities hostile to Christian faith. Surveys of how many are engaging in ‘online worship’ do not prove much, especially if it is not specifically measuring those engaging with church fellowship and teaching from Scripture, genuinely worshipping in spirit and in truth according to Jesus, and growing in faith and love.

See also: Covid 19: The church in response. The results of a survey by American Anglican Council of church attendance trends since the beginning of the pandemic, seeking to measure elements of faith commitment not just online viewing.

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