I have just looked at the latest set of church statistics and they make for sobering reading – and they relate to church life pre-Covid. Just before Christmas Peter Brierley, the UK’s foremost church statistician, produced his 2021 edition of UK Church Statistics. Although some churches – particularly Pentecostal and Diaspora churches – are growing, for the most part the British churches continue to decline. For instance, in the last five years Anglicans declined by 10%, Baptists by 11%, Methodists by 18%, and the URC by 24%. In the last ten years the percentage of the population in England has more or less halved: from 9.6% in 1980 to 4.9% in 2020. Prospects for the future do not seem good.
What hope, humanly speaking, is there for the future of the British church? How will churches emerge from the Covid-19 crisis? On the positive side, many churches are reporting increases from on-line viewing of 20%, 50% or even 100%. But how reliable are those statistics? Research indicates that many of those logging onto online services stay for a minute or less – the number of ‘hits’ on a church service can be very misleading. Then there other issues to consider. For example, will the same interest be shown once churches eventually resume ‘normal service’ Furthermore, how many ‘regulars’ will return to their former churches? How many will ‘change’ churches after ‘discovering’ other churches? How many people will never return to any church? Indeed, how many churches without tech facilities during the pandemic will find it hard to resume again?
Then there is another issue: once the pandemic is over: how many churches will be able to pay their ministers? Peter Thomas believes it is the financial impact which will change future church life perhaps more than anything else. In an article written for the College of Baptist Ministers he noted that before the pandemic many Baptist churches were relying on rental income or on fundraising activities such as church cafés to supplement their income, with the result that they are now in financial trouble. On the basis of his research he predicted last autumn that around 200 ministries would become unaffordable, leading to redundancies – he now thinks this was a low estimate. Furthermore, with many people having lost their jobs and used up their savings or even died, he expects that giving to churches will go down, which in turn will undermine the financial future of very many churches.
A key concern of mine is that during the pandemic the primary focus of many churches has been on the pastoral needs of their people. Evangelism has effectively been put on hold, with the result that there has been little sharing of the good news of Jesus. Thankfully, not every church has cut itself off from its community. Those churches which over the past months have been involved in serving the community through meals and foodbanks, or through engaging in practical tasks such as shopping and collecting prescriptions, may well have helped to create a positive image of love and care – but will those not involved in community service have been judged to be an irrelevance? It is hard to tell.
However, not everything is ‘doom and gloom’. Undoubtedly there are churches where as a result of the lockdowns there has been a new focus on prayer and on the Scriptures. Chelmsford Cathedral, for instance, has been issuing a wide number of resources, including a daily email, ‘Prayer for Today’, which I have found a great stimulus to personal prayer and reflection on the Scriptures. I get the impression that as a by-product of having to stay at home many people have made the time to deepen their spiritual lives. Similarly, many churches have risen to the technological challenge of developing online services which have been truly creative – although sadly that cannot be said of all churches. Chris Skilton, a former long-serving archdeacon in the Diocese of Lambeth, has suggested that before churches rush into new initiatives, they need to ask themselves two important questions and take note of the answers. Firstly, ‘What have we gained from the experience of this last year?’; and secondly, ‘What have we lost from the experience of this past year?’ He pointed out that not everything which may have disappeared may be worth recovering – indeed, for some churches the cessation of some activities may prove to have been a blessing.
One thing for certain: despite all the uncertainties, now is the time for churches to begin to plan for life post-Covid 19. For even although the new strain of Covid-19 is at this moment raging out of control, with the vaccines now available, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, churches will be open again for Sunday worship by Easter – or if not by Easter, then by Pentecost (which this year falls on 23 May). Sadly, I fear that we may still be wearing masks. How I long for the day when we can sing hymns together – and when we can together eat bread and drink wine!
Now is the time for leaders, in partnership with their people, to develop a vision for a missional future, so that when Easter (or Pentecost) comes, churches are ready to reach out with the Good News. In this regard, we can’t just go back to the old way of doing church – new initiatives are called for.
Some of those new initiatives may well be one-offs. For instance, rather than a series of belated memorial services for loved ones who have died in the past year, churches might well invite all those who have lost loved ones to come and thank God for the memories within the context of a massive ‘wake’. Or, rather than simply organise another exercise in clapping, what about churches putting on events to thank God for all front-line key-workers – a local version of the Queen’s birthday honours – in which the wider community parties together?
Other initiatives may involve creating short courses for people wanting to explore the Christian faith in the light of Covid-19. Instead of restarting Alpha courses, re-writing those courses in such a way that the Christian basics are rooted within the Covid- experience.
Other initiatives may be based in the home. After all the social privation brought about by Covid-19 churches need to encourage deepen relationships with neighbours and with colleagues by inviting neighbours and friends into their homes. I sense that the summer of 2021 will be a new version of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ with parties galore. Let’s encourage people to get on that bandwagon – and use these opportunities for Christ!
If our churches are to avoid terminal decline, then new ways of relating to the community need to be discussed now – and not left to when we all get back together again.