It is no secret that Church attendance across the United Kingdom is in decline and has been for a long time now. In our churches, we have been fortunate – until Covid struck – to enjoy church attendances that have remained fairly stable – in Hope Church our church attendance even increased by 8% in 2019, largely due to the success of Hope.4.All – our venture in mission geared towards all ages and families. On a Sunday, it is really pleasing that we’re now back to divvying up again into our three teaching groups of adults, under 10s and 10-13s. This said, our regular church attendance for all our physical congregations, including Hope.4.All, is still lower than it was this time in 2019. Covid has caused church attendances in church buildings across the UK to decline even more quickly than previous years.
In many ways I can understand why! For example, I recall a churchwarden saying to me earlier this year, “It’s wonderful, for the first time in many years, I’ve got my Sundays back”. I’m with you! There were on occasion Sundays during the main lockdowns of 2020, when, with our online services pre-uploaded to the web set to go live on the Sunday, I relished the opportunity to join in church online at home in my pyjamas with a cup of coffee! It is not just ‘fear of catching Coronavirus’ that is keeping people from coming back to church. Someone else told me how the risk of having to isolate if they come into close contact with a positive case, is a risk they can’t take because they need to work. There are lots of reasons why you are not all back with us on a Sunday – yet.
So church attendance is down. And it will take a long time to get back to where we were before Covid. But I wonder too, is church attendance really down? Whilst church attendance is down ‘onsite’ – in our buildings – ‘online’ church attendance however is up. The Church of England reported that whilst their physical church attendances declined in 2020, their online viewing attendances however increased by 92%. One of their research studies suggests that 1 in 5 people who now join them online are not regulars at church. Whilst attendance on a Sunday is down, the activity of the church however in many ways is up. Examples I can think of here, are the monthly Foodbank Collections now established on Hope Church car park, church members joining the local Covid-support groups during Lockdown, garden get togethers, and one church regular who has joined the Flintshire Litter Pickers.
One church leadership blogger, Carey Nieuwhof, (who has a gift at observing present culture and its affect on society and the church, and then speaking prophetically to the church, encouraging us in how to respond), in light of the events of the last sixteen months, presented a talk recently on “Leadership for the Future”. He presented a number of ‘Disruptive Trends that Leaders must respond to’, one of which struck me was this, “Growing churches will shift their focus from gathering to connecting”. In Summary, he encouraged us to “Be the local church – nobody should be able to out-local or out-community the local church” and “Make the goal of your online presence, connection, not just content”.
When the church is empty, I like to go in on my own, sit quietly and pray. Pre-Covid, I would pray for more people to come to church, for us to reach the point one day when every seat is taken every Sunday! My focus was on growing the ‘gathering’. If attendances were down one week, I could feel down – the week had a been a fail and a flop. If we take Carey Nieuwhof’s ideas here seriously however then we will not be as interested in counting service attendances, be they online or onsite, as much as measuring ‘connections’ made with people.
We have some work to do to get our ‘gatherings’ back to where we were. Given our strong village communities, I imagine we will do reasonably well over the coming months at gathering people back quickly. But it’s important that the Sunday gathering is not the be all and end all. Our onsite and online church services remain. But also, we need to be thinking about how we can ‘connect’ with one another better, onsite and online and offsite. In particular how will we better connect with and serve our local communities as the church?
If you’d like just one small idea: Flintshire Litter Pickers are in Hope Caergwrle Abermorddu this month – starting at Caergwrle Car Park on Sunday 8 August, 2-3:30pm. Go along! And I’ll put you in touch with the regular community litter picker I mentioned above, if you would like me to. Very often the best way to be the church is to look at the good that is already going on in the local community and join in. Who then, will you seek to connect with?
In Christ, Adam
Rev Adam Pawley