Churches within the British Union Conference (BUC) have been closed for the last six months during the COVID-19 pandemic causing an unprecedented lifestyle adjustment for many individuals. What have been the effects of church closures on the membership across the BUC? How were members able to adjust to new ways of worshipping via Livestream, Zoom and other online platforms? The BUC Communications department sought to explore some of these factors with a view to suggest how online church can be used effectively in the future.
The purpose of the survey was to gather the scope, practice and impact of online church upon members within the BUC, thus examining the effectiveness of an online church, how members are adapting to this new form of experience, and testing an hypothesis that as a result of the necessary move to online church, members’ expectations on how missional a church can be, will change toward a readiness to embrace a greater online church presence.
Using an online, self-administered, anonymous survey, powered by SurveyMonkey, a 10-item questionnaire was sent electronically to members within the BUC territory. This was done through the BUC News newsletter during the two-week period from Friday 10 July until Wednesday 22 July. The survey link was also shared via the BUC social media platforms on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook during the same period.
There were some questions (Q 5-9) where responders were able to select more than one answer.
The response rate was very encouraging, perhaps the largest number of responses to a BUC survey in any shape or form. 1,034 people completed the survey through to the end.
The first factor to be established was the response rate from the five regions that make up the BUC. Although the South England Conference (SEC) is the largest territory most of the responses came from the North England Conference (NEC).
Online services have been in existence for some churches within the BUC for several years. A list of some of the churches that regularly streamed their services can be seen here. Such online services may have been established to cater for members of local churches who for some reason were unable to attend church. Other churches recognised the wider coverage received through a streaming service and as a result had developed a weekly online congregation entirely different to local church attendance.
During church closure, with online church being the only means of following or experiencing a service, there was a sudden influx of churches now adapting to this new way of reaching their members. Some churches, having never streamed their services before, were now entering into a new realm of digital competency needed to effectively keep up with the demands of church life in lockdown. Similarly, church members previously not privy to this new way of experiencing church, were suddenly drawn into a new world of virtual reality that encompassed the mastering of new gadgets and also of social media platforms such as YouTube, Apple TV, Facebook and Zoom.
The survey shows, however, that for the majority of members it did not take long to adjust and for them to become aware of the plethora of online church services that were being offered each week, not only within the BUC but, perhaps more enticingly, overseas too.
The response therefore to question 2 suggests how popular online church has become, to the point that 2/3 of all those surveyed have made it a weekly practice to watch more than one service in a day. Just under 40% of those responded admitted to watching three or more services on a SSabbath. Prior to church closure close to 70% said this had not been their practice.
With an increase in online presence, and members becoming more aware of the benefits of services being streamed, when asked if "you will continue watching services online when churches reopen?", 46% responded 'they definitely will'. This represents more than half of those who prior to church closure had not been involved in watching online service at all.
One of the concerns with so many churches providing an online service was whether members would remain loyal to their local church's programmes. Were there too many online services to choose from? The results seem to suggest that in fact choice of services was a positive factor, with 66% of those, when asked, 'what has been most beneficial to you with online church?', choosing the option 'variety of services available.' Interestingly 29% responded honestly that the most beneficial aspects of online church was 'not having to dress up and travel to church.'Some of the comments for this question included:
"having more time for the family and time in nature, with a far less stressful SSabbath."
"One can relax in one's home and enjoy the services at one's own pace."
"Seeing so many of my church family in one place despite being lockdown."
"Usually I don’t make it to Sabbath school, so having Sabbath school online helped."
When asked what the dislikes were having online church, the responses were varied, with the majority having no dislikes at all. Some of the open comments to this question included:
"Not many of the elderly members understand how to use Zoom."
"Lack of physical interaction with the church family, online worship is too impersonal, nothing can replace the richness of reaching people in a very personal way."
"Sometimes the sound quality isn't always good so I can't really listen properly."
"Its confusing. I WANT MY CHURCH BACK! Sick of online church and I don’t want a medical lab church where I can't even sing or mingle."
With churches being closed, online services provided a new way of keeping some form of continuity. It also enabled members to rethink how they could spend the Sabbath hours without the need to travel to church or, for some congregations, spending several hours in the church from Sabbath school to evening vespers.
The question was therefore asked – How have you found your Sabbath experience during church closure?
The answers were spread between three main responses – 52% said 'I'm finally enjoying a good Sabbath's day rest.' 49% responded, 'I'm now spending more time with the family' and 44% said they were now 'spending Sabbaths more creatively.'
The comments also suggest there has been a major shift in thinking about how Sabbaths should really be kept against the backdrop of church demands with several services, meetings and events crowding the day. Here are some of the comments:
"More time with the family, am having more quiet time with God, more time to read the Bible, study and rest."
"I'm able to join in the church service every Sabbath with my family members who are in another countrySabbath."
"My disabled father can now join us for Sabbaths. He does not go to church and misses the sermons."
"We are having more discussions as a family without chasing time"
"I can actually KEEP the Sabbath and I am no longer overworked.”
The question we often hear as we emerge from lockdown is, “what will be the 'new norm’?”. The responses certainly suggest that for a good number of people, Sabbath-keeping will become a more conscious practice, with specific changes made to how the day is spent.
In contrast to the previous question, members were asked 'What are you missing most about going to church?'The expected response was the most selected – the fellowship and interaction with 77% recognising this a well-missed experience which cannot be effectively catered for during a virtual church experience.
Some of the additional comments were:
"Congregational singing, praise and worship in a live environment is irreplaceable!"
"I miss being able to interact face to face with the Teens and Pathfinders, who I teach. It is needed for them to stay focused"
"For me it’s been a nice break from church to be honest"
With an array of online church services on offer, it was encouraging to know that an outstanding 75% of those surveyed still followed their local church services each week. As noticed from a previous question, most people had been watching more than one service a day, therefore this question provided the option to select more than one answer.
We can see therefore from the chart below, that members also watched their local conference/mission or the BUC services. However interestingly 50% also watched overseas services.The last question provided for further opportunity for open comments. Of the 1034 surveyed, 743 comments were made. Here is a selection:
"I feel that instead of so much money being spent flying pastors over from places like America we could do more services online and use the money for evangelism. We could get tablets for those who might not have them, like the elderly."
"I'm impressed by the way the church has responded to online services. It has been a blessing with some real soul-stirring sermons. I would like to congratulate the church and I pray that it uses this medium to hasten God's coming."
"They need to continue. We get non-Christians watching from around the world."
"I work from home 5 days a week spending a lot of time in front of the laptop. I would rather be spending my Sabbath doing something else than another day in front of the laptop."
"It’s a new experience and God is using this platform to bring people together who wouldn’t come to church otherwise. Praise God for that!"
I’m now able to take part in Zoom prayer meeting every week as I don’t like going on especially dark evenings.
"Long may it continue."
"As much as I enjoy online services, I wouldn't want it to be an excuse for members not to attend church when it re-opens."
For a full view of all the results see here https://www.surveymonkey.com/results/SM-JN7HSGXG7/
Having collated all the results and pored through reading over 1000 different comments, the main points can be served as a general conclusion to the survey.
- Online church has proven to be an immensely effective means of connecting with members and maintaining social and spiritual contact in the absence of a live church setting.
- Members adapted quickly to using various methods of screening platforms such as YouTube, Livestream, Apple TV viewed on devices such as a mobile phone, laptop or cast on TV.
- With the array of various services offered, members settled into a routine of viewing more than two services on a Sabbath
- In some cases, reports revealed greater attendance at services such as prayer meetings and bible study. Further analysis suggests that lapsed members and new visitors were becoming more involved and were comfortable with the online experience.
- Despite its advantages, online church fell short when it came to the need for a fuller fellowship and interaction with others…and as a result was not considered the ultimate alternative to church attendance.
- The hypothesis stated earlier that, as a result of online church, members’ expectation of how missional a church can be will change toward a positive embracing of an online church presence, proved to be consistent with the many comments expressing a combined approach to church services being both live and continuing online when churches finally reopen.
In a survey that has reached a significant number of people representing all areas of the BUC, the consensus remains that online church services and meetings are a very effective way to maintain a church experience. There is much scope in how churches can take this form of ministry forward as a means of not only maintaining contact with members who cannot attend church, but more so as an evangelistic tool for reaching a new audience of people who would otherwise not attend a physical church building in person.
The survey challenges us to redefine what church really is ... in reality church never actually closed, just the doors to many of our buildings. As Christ's disciples we must learn to worship, pray, encourage, witness, disciple and serve in creative ways that still brings glory to God without having to depend on a physical building to do this.
This period of church closure is a preparation for what will come in the near future when we will have to develop new ways of worship under a period of severe duress when our faith will be sorely tested in the most trying and testing times.