A quarter of adults in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began, and one in 20 have started praying during the crisis, according to a new survey.
The findings of the poll reinforce indications of an increase in the numbers of people turning to faith for succour amid uncertainty and despair.
The Church of England has said that unexpectedly high numbers of people are tuning into online or broadcast services, and 6,000 people phoned a prayer hotline in its first 48 hours of operation. Other faiths have also reported surges in people engaging with online religious activities as places of worship have been closed during the lockdown.
The survey of more than 2,000 people, commissioned by the Christian aid agency Tearfund and carried out last weekend, found that a third of young adults aged between 18 and 34 had watched or listened to an online or broadcast religious service, compared with one in five adults over the age of 55.
One in five of those who have tuned into services in the past few weeks say they have never gone to church.
The most frequent subjects of prayers since the lockdown has been family (53%), friends (34%), thanking God (24%), the person praying (28%), frontline services (27%), someone unwell with Covid-19 (20%), and other countries with Covid-19 (15%).
A separate poll, commissioned by Christian Aid, found that The Vicar of Dibley, the Rev Geraldine Granger, the BBC TV character played by Dawn French, would be the public’s choice of screen priest to lead the UK through the coronavirus crisis. In second place was Sister Evangelina, played by Pam Ferris, from Call the Midwife … with Father Ted Crilly, played by Dermot Morgan, from Father Ted taking third place.
Many churches are experiencing a downturn in giving during the recent quarantine. And what they are seeing is not a typical. Here are some thoughts I’ve gleaned over the years and from clients.
During an “external crisis” (meaning job layoffs in the community, people leaving the area for a different town or quarantine due to a pandemic) the following occur. In addition, below are actions that can help crisis-proof a church’s budget.
1. Giving is down roughly 25 to 40% for churches that have not strongly emphasized online giving before the external crisis. Those that have emphasized online giving beforehand still drop but only about 20 to 25%. The lesson here is to robustly embrace online giving going forward.
2. During an external crisis there is usually a loss of long-time givers. This is because the external crisis exacerbates some frustration they have. However research by Bruno Dyck and Frederick Stark at the University of Manitoba (“The Formation of Breakaway Organizations: Observations and a Process Model,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44) found that if people who stop giving are personally visited and listened to, the frustration can often be diffused. This is hard to do during a quarantine, but it’s something to consider as restrictions loosen.
3. New givers will usually appear during one of these external crises. This is because people see the need for the church and the good things it’s doing. And they want to support it. However new givers typically do not give as much as long-time givers. Therefore if you are replacing them one for one, it’s usually not enough to make up the difference.
4. An important strategy is to track the quarterly ebb and flow of giving. Every church has a giving cycle. e.g. certain times during the year when giving decreases. It’s important to know when these coincide with an external crisis, so that you don’t over react to a downturn fueled by two concurrent forces: seasonal and external.
5. Some of my church clients who are younger congregations put a freeze on “new spending” when they saw the external crisis on the horizon. This doesn’t help you too much when you are in the middle of a downturn, but it is a good strategy for the future.
6. During this time another prescription is to make online giving convenient and to communicate it as an important option. Allowing giving to take place online allows the giver more time to pray over and consider their support.
7. It’s critically important to teach the reason for giving. Giving not just to keep the church going, but to increase ministry during this time when more people have needs. Therefore emphasize the good you were doing, why people give and how people’s spiritual journey includes meeting the needs of others.
Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: As pastors and church leaders craft their messages to church members about moving forward during this uncertain season of quarantine, Mitch Daniels letter is an example of candor, concern and positivity. It can serve as a model for your responses.
TO THE PEOPLE OF PURDUE:
The global pandemic which has altered every previous reality of daily life has, of course, inflicted great harm on the nation’s colleges and universities. American higher education, often criticized for its antiquated ways and its slowness to change them, has improvised and responded with admirable, even amazing alacrity to enable students to finish this semester with the progress they anticipated.
The central question now, assuming governmental authorities permit reopening of our schools by the customary August start dates, is should schools do so, and with what new rules and practices. Purdue University, for its part, intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.
Institutions committed to the on-campus educational experience face special difficulties in returning our operations to anything like their previous arrangements. At Purdue, we have pursued a conscious policy that promotes density of our population. Our campus master plan aims at bringing people more closely together. Our housing policies, with significant success, have been designed to encourage on-campus living. And there are far more of us; we have grown our entering classes, both undergraduate and graduate, by some 25%, while investing heavily in programs like learning communities that foster higher retention and graduation.
There were sound reasons for these steps. Serving more students is our most worthy social mission. Making the campus more convenient and walkable likewise has obvious merits. Most important, all the evidence reveals that students who live and spend more of their time on campus succeed academically at higher rates. The learning experience is enhanced not only by being closer to faculty, labs, and classrooms, but also by being closer to other students, especially those from different backgrounds.
Now, sadly and ironically, the very density we have consciously fostered is, at least for the moment, our enemy. Distance between people, that is, less density, is now the overriding societal imperative. It could be argued that a college campus will be among the most difficult places to reopen for previously regular activities.
… The approaches below are preliminary, meant to be illustrative of the objectives we will pursue. View them as examples, likely to be replaced by better ideas as we identify and validate them.
My latest article for @BiblicalLeader Magazine has become a chapter in my 2020 book, Growing the Post-pandemic Church. In it, I discuss how you can keep your church from declining during a pandemic. Check out the article below and see their website for the full article.
Now that banning gatherings is becoming commonplace, the faith community will be temporarily forced to morph into something new (or maybe something old, read on).
During this time and afterward some churches will thrive, but others may struggle. Having coached churches for 30 years, trained hundreds of church leaders and earned two doctorates in the field, here is my forecast with survival options for those churches at risk.
Churches that will suffer the most:
Churches with aging buildings and no savings
During the 20th century having an impressive building was a way to make a church’s presence known. Many churches borrowed their way into debt to restore, renovate and expand older facilities. When downturns in attendance occur (and they always do) such churches may not have the flexibility made available by sizable savings.
They are vulnerable because they do not have contingency plans for an attendance downturn. If a roof needs repair, a boiler replaced, etc. a church may find itself no longer inhabitable after a quarantine.
Impressive facades, of course, weren’t the way the church became known in the New Testament. Paul reminded the church that they should not be known for their physical attire, but instead he encouraged them to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12, NIV).
Survival options: Look for ways to cut overhead by selling, leasing or giving away facilities that drain budgets. Research the correct amount of savings a church like yours should have and create a savings plan. Also, begin to build your church’s reputation upon compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. These are the best avenues to make a church visible in a community.
Churches that have overbuilt
A church building craze exploded in the ‘70s and ‘80s and led to many sanctuaries that are outsized for their current congregation. Even a megachurch (a church of over 1000 attendees) may still have hundreds, if not thousands of attendees. But the cost of oversized facilities and their upkeep may mean that that even these churches have little resources available for unexpected expenses or low offerings.
This problem arose in part because of a popular 20th century adage (not supported by research) that, “If you build it, they will come.” And so, the size of the expansion was customarily based on the size of the congregation at the time of building.
For example, a church in the 1990s may have been running 400 people in an early service and 600 people in a second service with a facility that seated 800. An architect might suggest combining the two services (not a good idea, because it decreases options in times and styles) and combine into one service in a new 1,600 seat sanctuary. “After all,” the church leaders reasoned, “400 plus 600 equals 1,000. And, a new sanctuary of 1,600 would give us room to grow.” But, when the service times and styles were merged in a large cavernous sanctuary, the church began to run only 700 people. A lack of options in times and styles started the church on a downward trajectory.
Survival options: Look at ways to right-size sanctuaries. Converting part of the sanctuary into classrooms, welcome centers and prayer spaces can create intimacy in the once larger space. And look for ways to monetize facilities.
My co-author Mark DeYmaz in his book, The Coming Revolution in Church Economics: Why Tithes & Offerings Are No Longer Enough and What You Can Do About It, outlines dozens of ways churches can lease out portions of their facilities, create local business hubs, develop shared working spaces, etc. to increase income from aging buildings.
Multisite churches, who own their own sites
A trend in the 20th century was for growing churches to purchase older church buildings, theaters and community buildings in which to hold satellite worship services. Many times denominations did this to encourage growing churches to take on the expenses of a closed church. But, because of the reasons cited above (e.g. the cost of maintaining the facilities) when combined with attendance drops, liabilities were rapidly created.
Survival options: Lease or rent sites for offsite services. And look for opportunities to sell, lease or give away facilities you own. This promotes longterm flexibility when demographics, styles and finances change.
Churches that rely on the onsite Sunday morning offering
With the proliferation of online giving tools, most churches have embraced online giving. However, some have not and this creates hurdles for supporters. Even churches that have misgivings about online tithing, offerings and pledges will rethink their strategy when the church is dispersed.
Survival options: Create and promote an online giving option. Many denominations have a preferred online giving tool to use. Then educate your congregation about why disciplined giving and online avenues can help a church to thrive.
Churches that put on a Sunday spectacle.
Some churches spend an inordinate amount of time and money on the lighting, sound, musicians, broadcasting and staff associated with putting on an elaborate Sunday morning experience.
These Sunday morning expenditures will now be seen as optional, as churches are forced to focus more on smaller groups as a way for people to be connected and discipled. And, congregants may discover that smaller groups which are flexible and meet in neighborhoods are more enjoyable and convenient.
Survival options. Many of today’s young pastors have created youthful churches that are moving away from Sunday performance and toward more organic expressions of church. I provide a look at 12 categories of organic churches in my book, Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations. Most of these emerging congregations prefer less staging, softer music, audience participation and smaller auditoriums (capacity around 200).
Churches that will survive:
House churches, pub churches, café churches and online churches.
These entrepreneurial smaller churches are often dismissed by leaders of more established congregations. Typically they meet in rented or free facilities. Their low overhead allows them as small churches to more easily survive fiscal cycles brought on by a quarantine.
Churches that have spent their money on staff, rather than spent their money on facilities.
The trend in the 20th century was to expand facilities and stretch staff. This created overworked leaders. Then, when emergencies arose small staffs were not able to handle the extra workload. But if a church spends its money creating a team of experienced and talented staff, these entrepreneurs can create innovative online options.
Churches with bi- or co-vocational leaders.
My colleague, Dr. Jay Moon, describes bi-vocational pastors as those who work two jobs until the church can support them. He describes co-vocational pastors as those who work two jobs, never expecting the church to support them full time.
In other words, the latter have a clear calling to leadership in the marketplace and to leadership in the church. Because the co-vocational pastor does not envision a time where she or he will be in full-time employment of the church, they may be able to make longterm decisions without personal financial needs clouding their judgment.
Still, both can be an advantage during times when churches are unable to physically meet. A bi- or co-vocational pastor will become less of a drain on the church finances. And a pastor who is involved in marketplace leadership will better keep her or his pulse on needs in the community.
Churches that are young, having been recently planted by a mother church.
Planting a church is an arduous endeavor that requires creativity and entrepreneurship. It takes tenacity, good theology and a balance between ministry and family. The very balance needed in a good church planter can help him or her maintain equilibrium during attendance swings brought on by viral quarantines. And, did I mention that many church planters are bi- or co-vocational? That’s another strength.
Good news—most churches will survive.
My 30 years coaching leaders has led me to believe that God empowers his people to survive and thrive in difficult times. The Bible is overflowing with people that God empowered to overcome adversity. Church history further attests to this.
Christians have a grit whereby they come together and work for the long-term existence of the community of faith. It may mean that the facilities, staffing and priorities may change during and after a quarantine, but the Holy Spirit and God‘s will for his church will not change.
A Scripture reminder is Paul’s admonishment that “We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us” (Colossians 1:10-14, MSG).
What every church can do to increase survivability
Focus on making learners, as Jesus commissioned us in Matthew 28:18-20. Your goal should be to help congregants “learn” during this time, not necessarily congregate.
Focus on small groups as the primary venue for discipleship. Research indicates that most people stick with a church when they are involved in a small group which meets regularly for Bible study, prayer and service. The Methodist movement was founded and grew because of such small groups. And Jesus exemplified this when he chose 12 learners who he apprenticed to become his 12 apostles.
Focus on prayer and serving the needs of others. During a difficult time Christ does not want us to make foolish decisions about our health. But he does want us to think of others as more important than ourselves. This means considering ways we can help others during this period and therefore let Christ’s light shine through us. Philippians 2:1-4 (MSG) sums this up fittingly:
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.