National results on faith, worship and belonging during the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic saw church groups in many areas unable to meet together. Instead, churchgoers stayed home, many watched the live-streamed service or met online via Zoom, some joined a small group gathering in a loungeroom or park, others received devotional material in their letterbox or phone calls, and many simply did not connect with church in that time.
A key focus of the church is to foster an active and growing faith in attenders attendees, and to encourage them to practice rely on this faith in all aspects of their daily lives. So, does growth in faith suffer from ‘separation anxiety’ when God’s people cannot be together? And was there a hidden silver lining to the COVID-19 restrictions on church?
One of the primary purposes of church is to foster an active and growing faith in the lives of church attenders, and to encourage attenders to practicerely on it in all aspects of their daily lives.
Given the complexities of gathering together during COVID-19, the move to online services or very small groups, and in many cases, no in-person face to face worship gatherings, it appeared that this would be a difficult season for the local church. Was it able to provide sustained nurture of faith?
In the 2021 NCLS, we asked church attenders whether or not, and to what extent, they believe they had grown in faith through their local church, in the past year.
The results showed a drop to 25% in the 2021 survey, down from 33% in the 2016 survey. We believe we can attribute this to the pandemic and lockdowns keeping us separated.
“We can surmise that growth in faith happens when we are in community,” said NCLS Director, Dr Ruth Powell. “We can tell this even though this question was not asked explicitly. The number of people who said ‘my church nurtured my faith’ went down, and that was due to the fact we weren’t meeting together.”
People not being able to meet together, and subsequently not growing in faith, is a difficult scenario for leaders of local churches. Yet it’s tempered slightly by the opposite implication: that being in community helps people on their discipleship journey.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews exhorted believers “never to give up meeting together”. Since biblical times, Christians have regularly gathered together for worship, prayer, the sacraments, and the teaching of the Word. The COVID-19 period of enforced separation from other believers shows that these instructions are given for practical reasons: we do better together, and better together in person.
The 2021 NCLS results show an additional result from the COVID-19 period – a positive one. Three quarters of all church attenders told us they continued with private devotional practices at least “a few times a week”.
Further, as well as doing this by themselves, they also met in small groups during the lockdown.
In fact, more than half (54%) said they participate in small prayer, discussion or Bible study groups at their local church. This is an increase from 49% in 2016.
We can see from these results that growth in faith happens when we are in community. The period of isolation where churches could not gather together face-to-face did impact church attenders' growth in faith through their local church, with fewer attenders affirming that 'my church nurtured my faith’. However, while worship gatherings were limited, we do also see how church attenders responded to the pandemic, maintaining small group gatherings for spiritual and personal support. These smaller faith-nurture groups saw an increase in participation.
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