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Smaller churches have recovered more after lockdowns than larger ones, Easter data suggest

27 June 2022

Diocese of Rochester

The Revd Esther Bevan, Assistant Curate of St Alban’s, Dartford, conducts an Easter Day service this year in British Sign Language

The Revd Esther Bevan, Assistant Curate of St Alban’s, Dartford, conducts an Easter Day service this year in British Sign Language

SMALLER churches have recovered more than larger ones from the effect of Covid lockdowns on attendance, a study published by the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS), based on figures this Easter, suggests.

This Easter, attendance in church was three-quarters what it had been at Easter 2019; but, when numbers attending online were added, attendance was about the same.

The figures show that the vision of a “mixed-ecology” Church of England is right and “realistic”, the study says.

Data were submitted immediately after Easter by four dioceses — Lichfield, Oxford, Canterbury, and Rochester — and analysed by Dr Bev Botting, a former head of research and statistics for the national church institutions, who is now a data analyst for the diocese of Oxford, and the Ven. Bob Jackson, a church-growth consultant and former Archdeacon of Walsall.

They found a wide variety in the numbers attending individual churches: attendance at many had fallen dramatically, but at others it had grown.

They concluded: “Decline was not inevitable. Some churches showed that it is possible to grow congregations post-Covid, and it is possible that onsite numbers will increase further by October once the threat of Covid has reduced further.

“It was always likely that the shock of Covid lockdowns would be a blow to all churches but an opportunity to some.”

The number offering online services — “Church at Home” — had fallen over the previous six months, but about 44 per cent were still offering some online provision, usually on YouTube, over Easter. Online attendance added more than one third to the figures for the churches that provided it.

Churches that did not offer online services were the only ones to show a drop in total attendance. The fall in “onsite” attendance between 2019 and 2022 in churches also offering Church at Home was the same as other churches, which may mean that people are treating online attendance as an additional option rather than an alternative.

“That online attendance continues to be so significant, even when the buildings are fully opened, suggests that it will continue to play a significant role in the future churchgoing mix,” the authors say.

Although it was the first Easter for three years without Covid restrictions, there was another small surge in cases of a sub-variant around Easter; so the study was still not carried out in “normal times”.

Of the 755 churches that submitted attendance figures, it was smaller churches that showed stronger recovery in attendance in person — and at many the congregation had grown.

Churches with more than 200 people in 2019 had only 69 per cent of their 2019 attendance, but the smallest churches, with fewer than 25 in the congregation, averaged 188 per cent. This was true in each of the four dioceses.

The report says: “There have been fears for small churches emerging from Covid — will their elderly congregations have died, fragmented, be unable to reconvene? With their technological edge and younger profiles, perhaps larger churches will have had the strength to withstand the lockdown years better. The Easter onsite attendance numbers, however, suggest the exact opposite.”

The phenomenal online attendance at Canterbury Cathedral — the figures for Easter Eve and Easter Day outnumbered the 2019 Easter figures across the whole diocese — were removed from the broader analysis to avoid skewing the overall picture.

The cathedral’s YouTube Easter service had 47,000 views, representing at least 30,000 people. Some of those who had joined online services during the pandemic “even flew across the Atlantic to attend in person the Cathedral that had become their own online”, the authors write.

The study concludes that churches should continue to develop their online services, but should also “invest in the old-fashioned pastoral basics of a team making lists and visiting”, particularly visiting families, who have been slower to re-engage with church after the lockdowns.

Dioceses should invest in support for larger churches that are struggling to recover numbers, and offer technical support to parishes to develop high-quality online provision, the authors recommend.

CPAS is hosting a webinar on the findings on 7 July.


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