Church and the aftermath of the pandemic

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Here’s my regular update on where we are in terms of churches coming out of lockdown restrictions.  First of all, an update on the current data.

As you can see, we’ve seen a further increase in UK cases over the past week or two and that increase is continuing, primarily driven by the English case situation with numbers falling in Scotland though Wales and Northern Ireland have seen some increases.[1] There are also signs that the rate of growth may be slowing again which may lead to cases starting to fall by around about half-term.

Crucially whilst we are now beginning to see hospitalisations and deaths increasing a little after falling in recent weeks, the admission and mortality rates are significantly lower than at the peak of the second wave through last winter.

As I said in my last write up, this is encouraging because it means that even if you do contract COVID-19 you are much less likely to end up seriously ill, in hospital or dying than you were prior to the vaccination programme role out. There are some concerns at the moment about the pace of the booster vaccination role out and whether that might reverse gains here.

At the moment, due that data, we can say with reasonable confidence that church gatherings are low risk in terms of spreading COVID and causing outbreaks. I’ve heard anecdotally of a couple of contexts where a number of people within a congregation did go down with the virus but that seems rare and indeed when I asked a survey question, I got this response:

So the objective risk of church gatherings leading to a local outbreak and consequentially to hospitalisations and death seems low. I suspect that people are in the main beginning to see that and so confidence is returning. This doesn’t mean we should go free for all at the moment not least because concerns with COVID-19 are not just about serious illness and death but the potential for significant life disruption. The requirement remains to self-isolate even if asymptomatic. This affects education and work. Until we have a situation where that is no longer necessary whether because case numbers are low enough not to significantly affect admissions or because improved treatments and repeated expose to COVID have combined to reduce the mortality risk then we are still going to be living with the disruption of the virus for some time.

Therefore, it seems wise through the next few months to continue to include some measures in church settings. My personal view is that the focus would be best on ensuring additional space so that people don’t feel crowded in and continuing to encourage a form of track and trace within the congregation.

The affect of this is that I think that we are still seeing some disruption from the pandemic and so very few churches (if any) are at the stage where they can say that everyone is fully back to where they were pre-pandemic.  However, as people have seen admissions and deaths stay low and the feared 200k cases per day failing to materialise, I think we are getting closer to the point where we can say with some confidence that all who intend to come back to in person worship have done.

To that end I conducted one of my little twitter polls. As you can see, most people who responded have either returned or expect to return within the next month.

Additionally, when look from the other angle, church leaders are reporting that between 60-80% of their pre-pandemic attendees have returned and some are seeing between 80 and 100%.  However, this does not mean that church-life is close to returning to what we used to consider normal.  Pete Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance reports from his conversations in the tweet thread linked below.

In summary:

  • People are returning but as yet, attendance patterns are less regular than pre-pandemic.
  • That returning to volunteer roles within church is proving challenging and this affects some ministries.[2]

Other conversations back this up.  The situation can best be described as “varied” and “fragile”. Some churches have imploded and are at the point of closure -and not just ones you would have assumed were small and dying. Others are suddenly experiencing a surge in transfer growth. The pandemic has also been a catalyst for other changes in habits so that when I asked the question whether or not people had opted to move church during the pandemic, this was the response.

In some cases, they were left with no choice. They had to find a new church because their old church had sadly not survived the lockdowns.  Others however moved because they felt let down during the crisis, that they weren’t fed, that there wasn’t real provision for gathering and that pastoral care didn’t happen.

Now, here’s the thing.  When you probe a bit further, then you discover that those changing church or no-longer attending may be responding to issues highlighted or exacerbated during the pandemic then you tend to find that those who left or moved were responding to issues that were already present in their churches and in their own lives before 2020.  

I wouldn’t be surprised if this works the other way too.  I suspect that we will find that new people joining who weren’t attending in person prior to the pandemic may have been prompted by COVID to investigate Christian faith more closely but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that there had been some prior exposure to/contact with/interest in Christianity before they started joining in online. Indeed, people I have met who have joined in person church tend to generally speaking have not just started to watch online services but:

  • Will have had Christian friends who had invited them along to online events
  • Tend to have moved beyond watching YouTube and joined in with a zoom group for Alpha, Christianity Explored, a small group or other activities (one church ran a well-being course).
  • May well have already moved to professing faith in Christ.

In other words, I don’t think that the pandemic has circumnavigated or changed the rules of evangelism that it is dependent upon personal contact and is a long-term work.  Those who are enjoying a mini-harvest now have already been engaged in the long-term hard work of weeding, ploughing, sowing, watering. 

Now I want to move from there to some implications and potential actions.

First, whilst we are not quite at the point of saying that all who are coming back to in person worship have now come back, we are rapidly reaching that point. This means that the balance of probabilities is moving so that if someone isn’t present, especially if you have had no or minimal contact with them over the past 18 months then it is probably wisest to assume that they don’t plan to return. So we have to make some decisions about what to do about that.  My advice would be that if you haven’t already done so, then get round to visit them. Now if this is your first contact with them (and I don’t include sending group emails and round robin newsletters in ‘contact’) then that conversation may not be easy, if even possible. But I would still try, even if it means recognising failings and saying sorry. 

Second, if people who have watched online but haven’t engaged in person with the church yet, that probably means they aren’t planning to immediately to join you but it doesn’t mean that time won’t come (but not on its own). It would be a good time now to be talking as a church family about those friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who we know have engaged online. I would prioritise thinking about how we continue to seek to reach them with the Gospel over rushing to put old programmes back on.

How do we do that? Well partly it will involve continuing to meet them where they’ve met us -online. Keep running some content for them to engage with. That may not mean running a pandemic style YouTube service but it might mean pod-casts, online events in the week, blogs, etc.  You can ask for feedback via comments and polls. It also means engaging with friends, neighbours and colleagues in person and following up on what they’ve engaged with online. 

Third, we need to take serious heed of the point that if people have moved, left or become less frequently and less deeply involved that the issues involved probably pre-dated the pandemic which only served to accelerate and exacerbate trends and problems already present.  So, now is the time to start looking back, asking questions, learning, praying -and perhaps also repenting where we’ve got things wrong. It will also mean responding to societal changes that have affected church patterns. For example had we really cottoned on to the way that a lot of families were affected by work expectations (long days that affected engagement midweek and shift patterns that disrupted Sundays), single parent and split parent families, elderly relative care, and weekend sports and clubs activities? 

We won’t come out of the pandemic well if we either take a laissez-faire approach or if we try to manage our way out. We will pray, evangelise and pastor our way through!


[1] This is important because it suggests that England isn’t experiencing unique conditions due to policies on things such as masks but rather indicates that this is a factor of where we are in the pandemic. Scotland came out of lockdown a little later than England and has different academic terms. The result was that England’s exit wave was not as extreme as Scotland’s and I suspect that is having some impact on the pattern of cases.

[2] Which suggests that there may be potential analogies with current economic and food/fuel supply issues as we seek to return to previous capacity.

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