The world is never going to be the same again.
That is, at least, what The Point Staff Team heard when we gathered together to watch the HTB Leadership Conference online. It’s a bold statement to make, but after thinking it through, I’ve come to agree with Nicky Gumbel, Vicar at Holy Trinity Brompton and author of the Alpha Course – the world is never going to be the same again…and that’s good!
Don’t get me wrong, there are some things we want to go back to – good health, physical contact, no masks! And like you, I have been broken hearted over the pain and loss that millions of people have suffered over the last 16 months due to the pandemic. Globally, 2.7 million people have died; tens of millions of people have been at risk of extreme poverty; and nearly half of the world’s workforce are at risk of losing their livelihoods. It is no wonder that when we asked our recent Alpha attendees at the start of the course, ‘If it turned out that God existed and you could ask one question, what would it be?’, that two-thirds of them asked why there is so much suffering in the world. It’s a great question that I don’t have room to unpack in this article – but do ask me if you want! What I am writing about is why these shattering storms we’ve experienced and the resulting revolutions we’ve discovered must affect our outlook as we plan for the future.
I’m writing this article during an actual storm; there are blue skies one minute then thunder storms the next. From my office I can hear the birds chatting away, then in a moment’s notice they stop and the hammering of hailstones on my study window begins. In the same way, we have been hit by some great storms of life over the last 16 months. Times of joy have been suddenly squashed by harsh seasons of pain. Sadly, for many, there have been more downs than ups – more hail than hallelujahs.
What we have experienced is no small thing. It has been the first global pandemic for 100 years. Hospitals have been bursting at the seams trying to respond to the physical health crisis. While hidden away in homes people have been drowning in the most extreme mental health crisis. Intermingled with this has been the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Where has God been, we may ask? He didn’t seem to miraculously intervene to stop the pandemic, but He has very clearly been with us as we journeyed through it, and once again He has turned something intended for evil, into good. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ And that is what we have seen – a transformed Church saving more lives for Jesus than we have seen for many years. God not only carried us through the storm, He also used the pandemic to lead the Church into new ways of communicating the gospel and transforming society – ways that we would never have adopted if we hadn’t experienced the storm. Churches were forced, some kicking and screaming, into the digital revolution, and we have discovered that it is good…in fact it is very good!
Before the pandemic, the thought of having livestream services, Alpha Online, Zoom discipleship courses or communion through a screen, was seen as a foolish idea as it would pull people away from attending church services. But with all ‘in-person’ (even that term is new!) activities banned, we had little choice but to venture into the unknown digital realm. But what was unknown to us, was known fully by God, and something incredible emerged. Our digital presence started reaching groups of people we have been struggling to connect with for decades, and it made churches far more accessible than they have ever been.
We haven’t been alone in this – even businesses that claimed to be digitally mature made fundamental changes in their business models during the pandemic, but the transition into the digital space has been a much larger step for the Church as its digital capability was far less developed when lockdown began. But very quickly, Church Online sprung up all over the world, which enabled us to reach people who previously either couldn’t or wouldn’t go to church.
First of all, those who couldn’t get to our church. Church Online opened up the way for us to communicate the good news far beyond Mid Sussex. We have had people joining our services from Southsea to Spain, from London to Liverpool, from Africa to Australia. Our students have been able to stay connected while away and many people have even tuned in to our Livestream Service while on holiday. Finally, and maybe most importantly, those who have been unwell, disabled or elderly have been able to continue (or even return to) worship with us.
Secondly, those who wouldn’t have otherwise attended a church service. Walking into an unknown building with unknown people and sitting through an unknown activity, all makes hearing about an unknown God very challenging. But watching a church service from the comfort, safety and protection of their own home was a much easier step. Hundreds of new people have heard the good news of Jesus Christ through our Livestream services since lockdown began. Nicky Gumbel likened them to Zacchaeus who sat on the margins, wanting to see Jesus but not wanting to be seen by Jesus or the crowd following him. He went on to say that people want to explore Christianity and church anonymously. People want to see what church looks like before they come, and with church online, that is now possible. It might be hard to notice them when we don’t see them, but they are there.
In May 2020, Tearfund completed a survey that discovered that a quarter of all the adults in the UK (that’s 12.5 million people) had attended an online church service since the pandemic started! 20% of them had no previous contact with a church. In August, Durham University surveyed Londoners and discovered that half of all 18-35 year-olds within the M25 area had been to an online church service in the previous 6 weeks…HALF! This is the generation the Church has been struggling to reach for decades! The Church of England reported that viewings of their social media posts doubled to 86 million views in 2020. Finally, the Anglican Church completed research in April which confirmed that people are still watching – 23% of the UK adult population are still watching an online church service. It’s not fizzled out as we might have expected!
Here at The Point, we have seen twice as many people sign up to our church communications in the last 12 months than in the previous 12; over 240 people have subscribed to our YouTube channel over the last 10 months; and we’ve had some of the highest attending discipleship courses that we’ve ever had.
There is a greater hunger than ever for connection, meaning that we are arguably in the middle of the greatest spiritual opportunity in living memory. But will we continue with online church when in-person is back up and running? Will we keep offering online connections? The risk is, if we stop, so will they.
After the last global pandemic 100 years ago, what emerged was the roaring 1920s, which saw economic growth, social expansion, new trends in lifestyle and culture, and immense innovation. Will we now take on the 2020s and see the same growth and transformation in people’s lives? Or will we simply return to how things were before? May we be wise enough and brave enough to keep looking forward instead of looking back. We don’t know what it will look like yet, but we want to progress not retreat, because we are in a time when the local church could advance. There has never been a time in history when this world needs good news more than now. 300 couples get divorced every day. Someone calls the Samaritans every 6 seconds. Our world needs good news. And there has never been a moment in history where we have a greater opportunity to get the good news out there!
So, I believe, we must continue to develop this digital communication revolution so we can not only continue to share the good news, but also accelerate the pace, further its reach and louder proclaim that God is good! So, yes, let’s celebrate and enjoy coming back together in person, but let us also continue to invest into online church. We can’t just go back to what we did before. We need to continue to offer a digital presence alongside our in-person activities.
“This new hybrid model of church providing onsite and online services, resources and community, is something that we should celebrate. We’ve been forced to adapt, create and reimagine what church means and importantly, we’ve become more accessible to those who were unable to attend previously. We should embrace this change and look at how it becomes a tool to help people know the church is there for them, whether or not they choose to or are able to attend a physical location on a Sunday morning.”
Ben Hollebon – Web and Insights Manager, The Church of England Digital Communications team