Churches rising to lockdown challenges attracting new worshippers thanks to Zoom prayer sessions

By Francesca Williams
May 10 2020, 06.25

We continue to find ourselves amid extraordinary circumstances in the UK lockdown. 

In a true test of versatility, churches have proved themselves constant and, in some cases, managed to engage more people than ever before. 

Many pre-recorded Sunday services are streamed weekly via YouTube, set to replicate regular services as much as possible, with prayers, readings and singing. 

Team Rector Mark Eminson, 40, of Merton Priory Anglican parish said his churches now have an expanded online platform providing spiritual resources.

He said: “We wouldn’t have done it otherwise but have enjoyed the challenge and surprised ourselves at how well we have done.”

One Merton group’s ‘God in the pub’ meetups have become ‘God at home’ over Zoom, and Goudhurst and Kilndown church hold weekday prayer sessions on Zoom followed by bible study. 

Reverend Hugh Nelson, 47, of Goudhurst and Kilndown parish, reported a significant rise in church engagement since lockdown. 

He explained: “If we said in normal times ‘we will be in church at 10 o’clock to pray and chat’, you would get about two people. Through this we have got over 50.”

Kilndown’s smaller Sunday service has jumped from an average congregation of 30 to more than 100 screens tuning in online, with 160 on Easter Sunday. 

Other churches have recorded a similar pattern. Numbers have doubled at Hope Church in Winchester and All Saints Kingston reported online services have widened their reach. 

It will be interesting to see if they manage to transform new online relationships into human ones after the pandemic and boost church attendance, but some are anticipating this may not be the case. 

Reverend Eminson said: “Obviously as human beings, in a crisis we are more likely to turn to ultimate things and beliefs in God.”

Practical care has been organised within communities for the vulnerable with volunteers collecting medical and food supplies and providing companionship. 

Reverend Eminson said he and his colleagues have been calling members of their congregation, especially those in need of company. 

He said: “It’s a proper conversation not just a hello and goodbye at the door on a Sunday morning.

“I’ve even written cards and letters. In a way we are recovering a more traditional quality of relationship.”

The pre-existing community cupboard at Goudhurst and Kilndown church has become a larger food bank as the number of donations and people using it has increased.

Ali Mackey, 45, one of the helpers at the food bank, said: “It’s important to help people regardless of the situation. It makes you feel you are doing something for those who need some extra support.”

A special donation of tulips brightened the week as surprise deliveries were made to those in need of a pick-me-up. 

Reverend Nelson said: “I think people are especially grateful for practical support. The food and the flowers have really blown people away.”

Some issues, however, are more complex. Government guidelines state only immediate family members can attend funerals and that social distancing measures must be followed throughout. 

Professor Paul Cosford, Emeritus Medical Director at Public Health England, said: “Losing a loved one is distressing and funerals are important and personal. During this very difficult time for the country, our aim is to protect the most vulnerable from the spread of coronavirus.”

The brutal necessity of such measures has made losing a loved one all the more painful for families. 

Reverend Nelson said it has been the most difficult part of his role, as one service he took had only four attendees and they had to sit two metres apart. 

He said: “At a time when you most want to be physically present and close to someone, they couldn’t even put an arm around each other.”

Reverend Nelson believes this time has shown Anglican churches are often overly attached to their buildings and hopes it will broaden people’s understanding of what church really is. 

He said: “We can meet in church, but we can also meet online, in a field, on Zoom, all of that is church. 

“It’s not just an hour on Sunday in a building. Church is a community of people who are trying to live more like Jesus in our prayer life, our service and care for others.”

Related Articles