BEFORE the pandemic, about one third of church leaders across the denominations had never used email or newsletters to communicate with their congregation, and most had never used Zoom, a new survey suggests.
Half had never used the phone to keep in touch with their flock before the national lockdown forced churches to close.
The online survey of 1132 respondents from Anglican (508), Baptist (147), Independent (114), Methodist (110), and Roman Catholic (39) churches, among others, was carried out by the Bible Society in May. It was commissioned by the church insurers Ecclesiastical and seen by the Church Times this week.
More than 90 per cent of respondents (1059) said that they had used at least one way of communicating with their congregations which they had not used before March 2020 — most commonly: Zoom (986), phone calls (505), Facebook or Facebook live (364/272), email (443), and a physical or electronic newsletter (422).
Other methods of communicating adopted by churches during the pandemic included meeting in-person from a safe distance (266), video chat (142), Twitter (48), and Instagram (35).
Most of these channels of communication were used for the first time between March and June 2020, when churches were closed to worshippers and the public (News, 23 March 2020). A small proportion were introduced during the second or third lockdowns (between November 2020 and April 2021) when new rules permitted church buildings to reopen for worship (News, 23 June 2020).
The Rector of St Edmund’s, Taverham, in Norfolk, the Revd Paul Seabrook, has been live-streaming informal worship and communion services since 22 March 2020. He said on Tuesday: “At the height of the pandemic, we were getting over 100 visits to our Facebook page a day, ten times as many as beforehand. We’ve had people tuning in from all over the country and even as far away as Arizona.
“By using social media, we’ve been able to reach many more people than ever came through the actual church door each week; so it’s definitely something we’re looking to continue offering.”
Out of the 1108 people who responded to a question on the impact of these new methods on service attendance, 172 said that they had seen a significant increase; 310 had seen a slight increase; 217 had seen no difference; and 186 did not know what the impact had been.
Mr Seabrook has also used Zoom to host weekly coffee mornings and Bible-study sessions, besides providing for people without internet access through printed orders of service. “We’ve seen how effective online services can be, and we’ve invested in some new equipment to help is offer a higher-quality experience for everyone tuning in — but we haven’t lost sight of the fact that our church is for everyone, and not everyone can access the internet.”
More than half the respondents (599) had invested money in implementing new forms of communication: for most, this was spent on live-streaming technology (358), cameras (325), or sound equipment (298). Most (738) said that the equipment would continue to be used when the restrictions ended; 87 said that it wouldn’t; and 315 said that they hadn’t thought about it.
Most people who said that they would continue to use the technology would do so to stream live services (705); of the 105 who said the opposite, most (59) said that this was because the congregation wanted to resume in-person worship.
Out of a set list of activities, which did not include live-streaming services, the newly adopted technology had mainly been used to hold PCC meetings (918 out of 993 responses). Other popular uses listed included hosting public events such as carol services (388), remote choir practice (141), or fund-raising activities (129).
Of the 57 people who said that they had not adopted any new forms of communication during the pandemic, 16 gave a lack of expertise as a reason. Others reported a lack of experience (15) and equipment (11), and having a congregation that was not “tech-savvy” (19).
The church-operations director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, Michael Angell, said: “Even though many churches are now open again, it is encouraging to see that they plan to continue with these new channels and in doing so welcome their audiences, both new and old, back into their churches.”