There are now over 240 services being shared digitally across Norfolk and Waveney every week. Diocese of Norwich churches are live streaming services, hosting virtual groups, and sharing content digitally via YouTube, Facebook, Zoom and others.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused churches to close their buildings on government advice, local churches rose to the challenge of being church in the era of self-isolation and social-distancing.
From Sunday morning services to crafts and story-time for children, prayer meetings, PCC meetings and home groups or Bible study groups, the invitation is offered to tune in to from home and join with a community of people sharing the gospel.
The offerings are varied as the churches offering them: from Norwich Cathedral and town-centre churches to smaller, rural communities; from traditional services to short reflections, interactive study groups and fitness sessions. In addition to the services, Zoom coffee meet-ups and virtual soup lunches have been held.
There is growing anecdotal evidence that more people are joining in with digital services than might have come when they were held in a church building.
The Rt Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich, says:
“I have taken part in imaginative online worship and am in awe of colleagues who have learnt so many new skills and are reaching out to their communities with Christ’s message of hope.
“Many clergy are telling me that more people are attending online worship, whether live-streamed or pre-recorded messages than attended church physically. Perhaps we are reaching people who, through ill health, age or infirmity have had to ‘self-isolate’ for years. Some good things are coming out of this.
The Revd Andrew Whitehead, Vicar of Cawston parish church reflected on their Easter service:
“We estimate that our ‘attendance’ today was somewhere around 100 people (and it continues to grow) – not bad for a village of 1,500 people where a regular Sunday would see 30-40 people in the pews.
“In our Zoom virtual after-service refreshments slot, we learned that we had people with us from London and Cardiff, and we welcomed former residents of Cawston who have long-since moved away. We also had people from Cawston who would not normally darken the door of the church; people who struggle with depression or mobility issues; people whose work or family life makes it hard to physically come to church.”
The Revd Sally Kimmis, Team Rector of 13 churches in the heart of Norfolk tackled her first digital service for Easter Sunday:
“It was a technological challenge for me, but I was determined to gather as many people together as possible to celebrate this most important festival of the Christian year.
“We’re now holding regular Sunday services using Zoom for the duration of lockdown and are experiencing good numbers. We were concerned about those who cannot access this technology, but they are joining by phone, and we’re also grateful for broadcast services, backed-up by regular phone contact by the ministry team to keep people connected.”
The Revd Canon Catherine Dobson of the Coastal Group of churches describes the learning experience:
“Our first Zoom service was a wonderful way to get people worshipping together. Things didn’t always work as planned – people manage to unmute themselves by accident, dogs barked and we lost connection with a key person at one point, but the experience was an honest and real act of worship together as a community.”
They’re now managing a fortnightly Zoom service.
“We’re getting better all the time! Last Sunday it was a wonderful surprise to have two groups of people joining in from Spain – a local family working out there for a year, and a couple who are unable to get a flight home, having been out there for the winter.
“Again, some of those joining are not the people we would usually see in church. Maybe joining a service from home is much less threatening than walking through the church door – more like the anonymous cathedral form of worship. It is a great way to show what the church does, and for people to try it out.
“Unsurprisingly, God continues to be made known, even in lockdown.”
The photo shows Rachel Seabrook of St Edmund’s Taverham filming her weekly Wednesday evening “Rectory Ramblings” which is live streamed church’s Facebook page. You can view past broadcasts from St Edmund’s here.
National research backs-up local anecdotal increases in church engagement
According to recent Tearfund research, during the Coronavirus outbreak a quarter (24 per cent) 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), this jumps to three quarters (76 per cent) amongst regular churchgoers. One in twenty UK adults (5 per cent) who say they have watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown has never gone to church.
A third (34 per cent) of UK adults aged 18-34 say they have watched or listened to a religious service since lockdown (on the radio, live on TV, on-demand or streamed online) this compares to one in five (19 per cent) adults aged 55+.
While some may view religion as more appealing to the older generation, the research shows that younger adults aged 18-34 are significantly more likely to say they pray regularly (at least once a month) than adults aged 55 and over (30 per cent versus 25 per cent).
You can read the full Tearfund report here.