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Why lockdown drove some away from church  

18 March 2022

If the quality of online worship was below par, people voted with their feet, or screens, report Leslie Francis and Andrew Village

WHEN Philip Richter and I (Leslie Francis) published a second book in 2007, analysing the motivation behind church-leaving, we employed a question mark in the title, Gone for Good? (Peterborough: Epworth). For us, the jury was still out.

In the book, we identified 15 main themes underpinning people’s reasons for giving up on church, and accessed these themes through 153 items. The item that received the highest endorsement was about habit: 69 per cent said quite simply: “I got out of the habit of going to church.”

A likely consequence of the first national lockdown and the inaccessibility of churches is that people may have got out of the habit of going. Once broken, the habit may be difficult to reinstate.

THE Covid-19 and Church-21 Survey that was live between 22 January and 23 July 2021 was designed to assess how well online worship had kept this habit of churchgoing alive, and also how much socially distanced in-church services had helped to rekindle the habit. So, we asked participants in the survey whether they had given up accessing online worship or given up going to socially distanced in-church services during the pandemic.

Our findings are based on the responses of 826 Anglicans living in England who had not been involved in ministry or in leading worship during the pandemic. Nearly all (96 per cent) had attended church at least once a month before the pandemic, and 84 per cent had attended at least once a week.

Of these 826 participants, nearly one in four (23 per cent) had given up on at least one activity of online worship or going to church by the third lockdown: 15 per cent had given up on online worship, and 13 per cent had given up on going to church. Ten per cent had given up online worship, but not church services; eight per cent had given up church services, but not online worship; and five per cent had given up on both.

Not everyone who gave up something answered the question asking why they had given up. Of those who did, and who gave up online services, only a small minority (13 per cent) indicated that this was because they were too hard to access. More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of this group agreed with the statement: “online services do not work for me,” and 40 per cent agreed that it was too distracting to watch at home.

Of those who gave reasons for giving up on attending church services, only 14 per cent indicated that this was because it was too complicated to book a place, something that was required by many churches in lockdowns. For just over two-fifths (42 per cent), it was because they disliked socially distanced services. For almost one quarter (23 per cent), it may have been a response to lack of contact from their church; and, for nearly one third (30 per cent), it may have been because they were generally critical of the Church’s response to the pandemic.

One third (34 per cent) indicated that they had discovered that they could manage without church.

Of the 826 respondents who were asked the giving-up questions, 776 had accessed online worship. Among this group, there were two statistically significant predictors of the frequency of giving up on such services. First, one third of those under 40 years old gave up online services, which was twice as high as among those in their forties or in their sixties or older. Second, Anglo-Catholics were twice as likely as Evangelicals to give up online services. There were no differences between men and women, and between introverts and extraverts.

Of the 826 respondents who were asked the giving-up questions, 644 had attended church services in lockdown. Among this group, there were, again, two statistically significant predictors of the frequency of giving up on such services, but these were not the same as for online services. First, women were more than twice as likely as men to give up on attending church. Second, extraverts were twice as likely as introverts to give up on attending church. There were no differences among the age groups, or between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics.

FOR both groups — accessing online worship or attending church service — those who gave up were more likely to record a negative experience of the relevant sort of worship. Analysis showed that it was experience of worship that was probably the immediate reason for giving up. Younger people and Anglo-Catholics were the least positive about online worship, and were most likely to give up on it. Women and extraverts were the least positive about socially distanced worship in church, and were most likely to give up going.

This was a sample of people who were generally very frequent churchgoers before the pandemic, so probably the least likely to make a permanent break because they got out of the habit of worshipping.

They show us that, for some, the quality of worship is important, and they will vote with their feet, or screens, if it does not give them what they are looking for. The efforts that so many devote weekly to creating worship that can touch hearts and minds are important and worthy of support.

The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, at York St John University.

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