Survey shows churches adapted well to lockdown

April 8, 2021

Church leaders across Scotland have made “remarkable adaptations” during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep worship going and serve their communities in new ways, a survey has found.

A new study, available here, records that 96 per cent of 369 congregational leaders spanning 27 different denominations continued with ministry and mission work despite restrictions on movement and the closure of church buildings.

Lockdown resulted in a dramatic rise in online worship and other content, with 92 per cent of churches offering some form of weekly content.

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 titled “Adapt and be Flexible– the Mission Doesn’t Stop” – The Scottish Church and the COVID-19 Pandemic 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.”

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.

The Scottish Episcopal Church provided the second biggest number of responses to the survey, after the Church of Scotland, with a total of 46 submissions.

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

The report found:

  • Legal restrictions led to a 43 per cent downturn in the number of Church projects serving local communities, but 51 per cent 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 per cent of congregations increased their missional activity during the pandemic, often in partnership with other churches, the state, or civic organisations.
  • Only 16 per cent 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 per cent) 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 per cent) 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.

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.”

One Scottish Episcopal Church priest said the experience of the past year had shown “that the church is people not buildings” and that “what we do week in and out supporting our community is important and shows them God’s love.”

The report revealed that 89 per cent 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 per cent of churches offered some kind of online worship but during the initial lockdown the figure rose to 96 per cent.

The report found that 63 per cent 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

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.”