In the early days of lockdown, people were quickly talking about a possible revival. Surveys suggested that a high percentage of people had accessed online church content, the number of views of our Facebook and Youtube streams were double, if not quadruple our normal Sunday morning attendance.
The problem is that there is a huge difference between checking in online as a one off and beginning to engage longer term with the Gospel. The online visit to a church service may be best comparable to visiting church at Christmas, Easter or for a wedding or funeral. Further, we need to be very careful about coming to conclusions about what our Facebook views are telling us. One hundred views may actually represent 10 or 20 people clicking several times. They may also represent 100 people who just clicked straight on and off of the feed whilst scrolling.
I think increasingly, churches are realising that whilst there may have been some new people engaged with the Gospel during lockdown, there are also a lot of people who have gone missing from those meetings. Some may return after a three month sabbatical from church but others may not. The lockdown has highlighted that many of our churches had both a core membership and a fringe of people who were content to attend, some being there consistently each week and others dipping in and out. I think it is highly likely that we will find out after lockdown that many of those on the fringe will not return, definitely not automatically on their own without some encouragement by friends.
Social media often makes a distinction between reach, impressions and engagement. There are a lot of people who may potentially have seen my tweet or post but I cannot guarantee they did. It may have appeared in their timeline but that does not mean they read it. It is only once they engage with it that I can say that it has definitely been seen.
It may help us to remember this distinction when thinking about church. It is good to have a wide reach and be in contact with lots of people. We can definitely say that they will be less likely to hear the Gospel without some contact from Christians. However, just having contact and running events for people will never be enough. We need to find ways of fostering true Gospel engagement.
Perhaps lockdown will teach us to distinguish between those attending or even signing up as church members and those who are truly engaged with the Gospel.