How do people feel about COVID -and what does that mean for your church?

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I’ve been giving regular updates for those producing risk assessments for in person church gatherings in the light of COVID-19.  I’ve identified the following major risks to consider.

 IDRisk DescriptionProbability
1Risk of causing COVID infection spreadLow
2Risk of invalidating insuranceLow
3Risk of breaching H&S LawLow
4Risk of increased congregation anxietyModerate
5Risk of creating a bad witness to the communityLow to moderate

We can distinguish two types of risk, objective and subjective.  Objective risks include the real possibility that an event you organise might result in an increase in COVID cases leading to people who attended, or their friends and relatives, being hospitalised or worse.  The risks of breaching insurance terms or health and safety law are also objective.  Subjective risks concern perception. If your members or people in the local community perceive that you are organising something risky then it will affect your relationship with them and their likelihood to engage.

We are moving from the summer holidays into the Autumn and it is over a month since England we through its stage 4 end to COVID restrictions.  Now is a good time therefore to be re-assessing peoples mood in order to get a better feel for those subjective risks. How do you do that? Well, the best way is to ask people what they are thinking and how they are feeling.  I would do this through a asking a number of questions.

As an experiment, I asked the following questions on twitter. 

  • How anxious/worried do you currently feel about COVID-19?
  • Do you think that COVID-19 can be eradicated?
  • What number of cases per day would you be willing to live with?
  • What number of hospital admissions per day would you be willing to live with?
  • If “living with COVID” required higher taxes to improve NHS capacity, what would you be willing to pay?
  • What measures would you be willing to accept as an ongoing requirement for living with COVID?

Now, a poll on twitter is not necessarily going to give a scientific feel for the overall mood of the nation because it will be doubly skewed first by the type of people who are likely to follow me on twitter and secondly from within that particular group of people, the type of people who are likely to respond to a survey.  This would be a problem if I were seeking to get a view on overall public opinion. However, this isn’t a problem here because our concern will be to test the mood of specific people we interact with. 

You’ll noticed that I asked questions about how people are feeling at the moment, whether or not they currently feel anxious about the present situation but we also need to plan for the future, so we need to get a feel for what people will be thinking and feeling in two or three months.  Sothis is why I’ve asked a variety of questions. 

I’ve asked whether or not people think that COVID can be eradicated.  This tells us whether or not they see the present risk as exceptional or whether it is going to become something we will learn to live with over time.  It’s also important because people will be adjusting their behaviour to reach certain goals. If I think that the aim of mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowds was to ensure that the virus stopped spreading completely then for as long as COVID is around, I’m unlikely to change my behaviours. This is likely to become problematic because such aims are out of line with official public policy and expectations.  The current line is that COVID isn’t going away.  If you have people in your church who think that we shouldn’t be meeting publicly, singing, etc until the virus is eradicated then that is going to give you some specific pastoral headaches.

The other questions encourage participants to think about what it will mean for us to “live with” a virus that is becoming endemic.  The two most obvious ones are the ones that ask the respondent what level of daily cases we can comfortably live with and what level of hospital admissions.  The former provoked some discussion as there have been some people arguing that the daily case figures are no longer relevant and should not be published.  I deal with that particular question here.

It is also worth adding that whether or not you personally think the case numbers are relevant and should be published doesn’t matter in this context.

The facts are that:

  • Whether or not we like it, the numbers are published
  • Most people do not actually check the figures each day but do have a general awareness of what the levels are.
  • Simply stopping the daily reporting of cases will not in fact help those who are anxious because it will leave them without information and potentially suspicious about why the data is no longer published.
  • If you stop publishing daily case data but continue to publish hospital admission rates and mortality data then it is possible to trace back through the data to calculate the case rates.
  • Case rates provide a predictor for what future admission and mortality rates are (hospitalisations tend to lag cases at 7-10 days and are around about 3% of positive test results).

Most people will have a gut feel for what would count as good news, what we can live with and what would cause them to worry.  That gut feeling is not an exact science and is not fixed.  It will change based on what we have expected and what has actually happened over the past few months.  For example, I suspect that if you’d been asked this question a few months back when worst case scenario models were predicting 100-200,000 cases per day and 4-5k admissions then you would have been more likely to accept 30-40k worth of cases which would have fallen significantly short of the previous peaks. 

Now, our feelings about 30-40k of cases per day is a little bit more complex.  On the one hand, we are relieved that we did not see a peak of 200k daily cases. We’ve also seen that we can live with that number of cases but we are also continuing to hear stories from doctors and nurses about the strain of NHS services and we are experiencing the inconveniences of supply chain and service problems caused by the ongoing measures required to hold cases at this level.  So I suspect that many people will feel that we cannot really live with that level of infection on a long term basis.

However, this would change again if we discovered that a mixture of booster jabs, previous infection and new treatments meant that fewer and fewer people ended up in hospital as a result of catching COVID. It would become more and more like the common cold.

I also asked a question about NHS services and taxation.  Why did I ask that? Well, what we can live with in terms of COVID prevalence of course is relative to healthcare capacity. 

You will see that a significant number of those I surveyed indicated a willingness to pay 1p or 2p more on tax to invest in the NHS.  Now, such answers should be treated with caution by politicians.  It is well known that people will often indicate in opinion polls a willingness to pay more tax for certain things but this does not necessarily translate into votes for parties who go ahead with such measures. What the answer indicates is a level of concern about that particular issue. In this case it indicates to me that there are quite a few people saying that they think “learning to live with COVID” won’t come without a level of ongoing cost to us. That cost might include financial investment, but it may also include permanent changes to our behaviour.  This means we have to consider how our ministries might be affected by longer term behavioural changes.[1]

When I asked the questions, these were the results I got.  First of all, the vast majority of participants thought that COVID could not be eradicated.  They accepted that it is something that we are going to have to live with.

A significant number also think that “living with COVID” will mean quite a high number of daily cases, though notice the proportions who would prefer to see case numbers under 40k daily and especially under 5k.

The crucial point though is the affect that COVID is having on hospital admissions and mortality.

  Notice that not as many people answered this question suggesting that more people are following the headline case numbers.  However, those answering this question were prepared to live with a significantly lower number of admissions than we are currently seeing (and are projected to see through the winter months).

All of this seems to align with how people currently feel about COVID.

A substantial proportion of respondents (45%) were not all concerned about COVID now. However, this meant that 54% did have concerns.  I suspect that this will mirror what we are seeing in church attendance with those who are not at all concerned being in the vanguard of returning and participating whilst those who are slightly concerned either cautiously engaging or planning to soon. Those who are somewhat concerned about COVID are probably willing to return to in person attendance within the next few months providing case numbers and deaths don’t rocket and providing they can see their church taking reasonable pre-cautions.

Then there are those who are “extremely concerned.” It’s important to be alert that there are people who feel very anxious about the ongoing risk from the pandemic for two reasons. First of all, this group are likely to be most resistant to returning themselves.   Secondly, like it or not, some within this group will also be vocal in questioning the wisdom of returning and of removing or reducing restrictions. They may even be discouraging others in the “somewhat concerned” category from returning.

What I would encourage you to do is to ask similar questions of your congregation and in the local community. You can do this in conversation or through a formal survey. This will give you a feel for the mood locally. You will then have to make decisions about which categories you prioritise when planning your future activities and gatherings.  For example, if you have close to 50% of the church who are not at all concerned about COVID and another 20-30% who are slightly concerned then you may decide that the important thing is to help those people get back to meeting normally as quickly as possible and that this is important for their spiritual health.  In so doing, you are probably concluding that the other 20-30% are unlikely to return and engage within the short to medium term.  Alternatively, you may take the view that your priority right now is to do everything to bring the whole church back together and draw new people in and if possible to leave no-one behind.  How you answer that will depend on

  • Who and how many fall into each category in your context
  • Your own temperament and view of the situation
  • Consideration about what is best in terms of the spiritual health of the church and what honours and glorifies God.
  • Consideration for what is most loving.

I’ll try and flesh out some specific proposals for how churches might move forward in a later post but to show the complexity here, let me give two examples.  In the first one, I know that quite a large proportion of members and the community remain extremely or somewhat anxious about COVID and that includes a significant number of people who might be considered core members of the church as well as others who are genuinely spiritually hungry and vulnerable.  In that context, I would probably be advising that the church needs to continue to move extremely cautiously with re-opening.

On the other hand if I were advising churches ministering in student contexts then I suspect the make up is going to be different. Furthermore, they have an added consideration.  Such churches tend to see high turnaround of attendees and in September/October, they’ll be seeing a lot of people checking them out to see if this will be their home church for the next 3 or 4 years (or longer).  Most of them will have already made decisions about returning to normal life by moving cities to start their course. They’ll be attending lectures and tutorials and socialising with other students at freshers events, going to pubs and clubs etc.  So their expectation of church will be “if those other things are returning to normal, why isn’t the church?”  I would be inclined in such contexts to move more quickly to normal in person church. 

Those are not easy decisions to make but that is probably the nature of the conversation that church leaders need to be having.

[1] Two examples here. First, we have tended to assume that attendance stops growing when you are at 80% capacity.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I suspect that over the short to medium term we should revise that downwards towards 60-70%.  It is also my personal opinion that behavioural changes will hasten the death of the independent Christian bookshop as people will be less willing to buy browse books that have been handled by others. Similarly if you were considering opening a Christian coffee shop I would think again.

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