New report illustrates vast scale of online worship

Church leaders across Scotland have made "remarkable adaptations" during the COVID-19 pandemic to effectively preach the Word of God and serve their communities in new ways.

A new study found that 96% of 369 congregational leaders spanning 27 different denominations continued with ministry and mission work despite the most serious challenge facing the country since the Second World War.

Rev Maggie McArthur, minister of Cardross Parish Church in Dunbartonshire, records an online service. John Young.

The lockdown and subsequent legal restrictions to the opening of buildings resulted in a dramatic rise in online worship and other content, with 92% of churches offering some form of weekly material.

Increased online and social media activity has allowed congregations and Church leaders to reach substantially more people than they did prior to the pandemic.

The report is titled "Adapt and be Flexible– the Mission Doesn't Stop" - The Scottish Church and the COVID-19 Pandemic"

It concludes that leaders have been faithful to their calling, preaching the Word in season and out of season and witnessing to the love and faithfulness of God at a time of "unprecedented disruption and suffering."

Blended engagement

The 44-page study is the product of a research partnership between Action of Churches Together in Scotland, Brendan Research and the Scottish Church Leaders' Forum.

It compliments the Church of Scotland's ‘The Listening Project' – hearing the experiences of people across the Kirk – and new congregational statistics, both of which will be published next month.

Rev Mark Slaney, convener of the Scottish Church Leaders Forum, said: "I welcome the report and the findings and recommendations ground what we already suspected.

"The necessary shift to online church life has drawn us into a much wider field for mission, ministry and worship and we must learn to live a new blend and balance of engagement which could release us into new partnerships and places."

Church leaders were invited to complete an online survey which was available from 26 October to 4 December, 2020.

A total of 184 Church of Scotland ministers took part in the study, accounting for 50% of the responses which came from all 32 local authority areas.

The report found: -

  • Legal restrictions led to a 43% downturn in the number of Church projects serving local communities, but 51% of respondents said their congregations were helping more people than before the pandemic.
  • Researchers calculated that Scottish churches offer up to 12,000 projects and initiatives for the benefit of their neighbours.
  • Despite the difficulties, 26% of congregations increased their missional activity during the pandemic, often in partnership with other churches, the state, or civic organisations.
  • Only 16% of church leaders disapproved of legal restrictions to curb the virus, with the overwhelming majority approving of the Scottish Government's regulations.
  • The vast majority of Church leaders (88%) felt supported during the pandemic but a small minority were critical of their denominations for a perceived lack of support.
  • The faith of Church leaders has remained strong during the pandemic with a significant proportion (40%) saying that their faith had increased.
  • In the midst of much suffering, Church leaders are clear that God has used the pandemic to challenge the Church, and prompt it to adopt new patterns of ministry and mission.
Fairmilehead Parish Church
Fairmilehead Parish Church, Edinburgh.

The report states: "The virus – and the lockdowns and restrictions that have accompanied it – have affected every part of society and caused extraordinary disruption and damage to the lives of Scots.

"The churches of Scotland have responded to the suffering and need of their communities with compassion, creativity and new missional partnerships.

"With buildings closed and normal patterns of ministry and mission disrupted, churches have innovated new practices of online worship, community service, evangelism and pastoral care."

Community identity

The report revealed that 89% of respondents said that faith and/or religious practice had helped people in their congregation cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to lockdown, 18% of churches offered some kind of online worship but during the initial lockdown the figure rose to 96%.

One Church of Scotland minister said online worship has provided people with a "sense of community identity" while another noted that many older members who are not technically minded feel "very left out".

A minister said the digital divide in rural areas where connectivity is poor is "very real" and making online worship content is "extremely stressful".

The report found that 63% of respondents said that they were finding ministry more stressful both during and after lockdown with around one in four finding it more difficult to cope.

The primary causes given were feeling guilty that they are not doing enough, balancing work and life, learning new skills for online ministry and being unsure how to respond to the pandemic.

The report has made five recommendations to the Scottish Church.

  • Online worship is here to stay, and must be adequately resourced
  • Online worship must be adequately reflected upon
  • The Scottish Church should not rush back to pre-lockdown ministry and mission
  • Cross-denominational partnership in mission should be better understood and extended
  • Further research into the social capital generated by the churches should be undertaken

Mr Slaney said: "I am encouraged that the Church appears to have adapted and changed more in a period of months than over several generations.

"I am concerned that only ‘12 out of 100' churches were able to keep services for parents and children open in the initial lockdown and the challenges of reconnection cannot be ignored.

"I trust that the research will provide more than a window on our lockdown experiences but also inspire us to move forward, rather than going back to how things were, and discover a broader, deeper contemporary offering of Christian witness, work and worship together."