Thousands of churches have taken their services online during lockdown. At the beginning of the prescribed isolation period, social media accounts were full of favourite mishaps: a Plymouth vicar sat too close to his candles and accidentally set his sleeve on fire, and the curate at St Luke’s Hyde Park was frequently upstaged by his young daughter during daily prayers.
Huge online traffic figures were reported, to much rejoicing among church leaders who were working hard to encourage believers to continue worshipping during lockdown. At first, it was difficult to tell what story those traffic data were telling us: given that many churches were not broadcasting online, were usually frequent attenders whose churches weren't broadcasting flocking to the online services they could find and boosting their figures, or did the reported high numbers indicate that new people were engaging online who might not have been attending before? Or both?
We were commissioned to deliver two separate studies in April, four to six weeks since the beginning of lockdown, by the NGOs Christian Aid and Tearfund, to explore online worship and other questions of belief and practice. For faith-based organisations, understanding the ways that people engage with spirituality is crucial when planning how best to help believers respond to major global issues.
It’s important to note that our questions asked about spiritual or religious content broadcast and online, or a religious service (despite the similarity of topics, these were distinctly separate research studies and the questions were phrased differently in each, depending on the research objectives). We did not test specifically for church services broadcast or online during lockdown, but given that the nationally representative samples were of more than 2,000 adults each time - one survey across the UK, and one in Great Britain only - most of those who identified with a religion said they were Christian and, as we will see from the analysis below, many who followed online services were already churchgoers. It’s possible that some people might have engaged with religious services representing faiths other than their own, but we would not expect this to be reflected at scale in these datasets. That would be a separate research study for another time.
Of the many insights presented by these studies, here are some headlines relating to online/broadcast content:
1. More people are engaging remotely than would usually attend in person
British Social Attitudes (BSA) data tells us that, over the 25 year period to 2018, the level of people who say they attend religious services at least weekly, or less often but at least monthly, has remained stable – at around 11% and 7% respectively.
We tested for engagement with religious services during lockdown in different ways in each of the studies, in line with the priorities of each project. Our data gathered for Tearfund, which included Northern Ireland, and therefore has a slightly different sample to BSA, reported that a quarter (24%) of UK adults say they have watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown (on the radio, live on TV, on demand or streamed online). And in the specifically British sample surveyed in the Christian Aid study, with a differently worded question, 18% said they either plan to or have already watched/listened to spiritual or religious content online, on TV or on the radio.
Whichever way we ask the question, and whichever sample we test, it appears that at least as many people are engaging remotely as would usually attend in person.
2. Most people worshipping online already identify with a religion - these data points taken from the study which covered the UK.
More than one in ten (14%) adults who identified with a religion told us that they have started for the first time ever watching or listening to religious services (on the radio, live on TV, on demand or streamed online) during lockdown and a quarter (25%) said they had done this during lockdown and already did it before. In comparison, just 2% of adults who do not identify with a religion say they have started this activity during the lockdown, while 6% said they had done this during the lockdown and already did it before.
In this study, we had asked in an early question how often respondents would usually have attended church before lockdown was imposed - yes, church, rather than religious services in general - and this gave us a crossbreak to help us compare churchgoers with those who don’t usually attend, in their responses to the remaining questions. Unsurprisingly, we found much higher engagement with online and broadcast worship among churchgoers than others. A quarter (34%) who attend church regularly say they have started watching or listening to religious services (on the radio, live on TV, on demand or streamed online) during lockdown compared to 5% of those who attend church irregularly.
3. Online/broadcast services appeal to younger adults - these data points taken from the study which covered the UK.
During lockdown, digital natives are finding ways to embrace faith. Adults aged 18-34 are more likely than their older counterparts to say they have started watching or listening to religious services during lockdown (14% vs. 8% 35-54, 7% 55+) or that they have done this during the lockdown and already did it before (26% vs. 16% 35-54, 12% 55+) .
There are many more questions of religion and belief to explore, especially during lockdown. If you would like to commission our Faith Research Centre to deliver fieldwork on your behalf, please get in touch.