I’ve hesitated to write this post. It's probably premature. We're still slap-bang in the middle of a vast crisis and no one really knows how it's all going to end. But here's the thing: over recent weeks, and particularly over this last week, prayers that some of us have been praying for decades, suddenly seem to be finding answers in the most unexpected ways.
1. The UK Blessing
For starters there’s the national blessing song. Released a week ago, it has now been watched two million times which is equivalent to 200 new people every single minute of every hour since last Sunday. Yesterday a BBC journalist asked me about the extraordinary unity the song displays. A lot of people are celebrating that. And stories just keep coming in from those who don't consider themselves religious, saying that the track has moved them unexpectedly to tears.
Is a worship song going viral everything we’re praying for? Of course not! But is it something? You’d better believe it! Maybe something is stirring?
2. Prayer Surge
Then there’s the research commissioned by Tearfund and released on the same day (quite coincidentally) as the UK Blessing song. This survey indicates that some three million new people have turned to prayer in the UK since lockdown began. The online British bookstore Eden reports a 55 per cent increase in sales of Bibles in April. And demand for prayer resources from 24-7 Prayer has been going through the roof. At Emmaus Rd our twice-daily prayer meetings are suddenly wonderfully well attended. Now we know why.
Is a sudden surge of prayer everything we need? Of course not! But is it something? Could it be a start? You’d better believe it! Something seems to be stirring in the UK.
3. Church Attendance
The Tearfund survey also indicates that record numbers have begun attending church online since the lockdown began. Generally we'd expect around 5-7 per cent of the nation to attend a Sunday service at least once a month. But over the past couple of months, this figure has jumped - in fact it has skyrocketed - to 24 per cent of the British population. Almost one in four. And 5 per cent of these people wouldn’t normally be at church in, well... a month of Sundays! “I've never known a time in my life,” says Nicky Gumbel, “when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now.”
Is virtual church attendance everything we’re praying for? Of course not! But is it encouraging? You’d better believe it!
It seems to me that people are far more likely to attend a normal church service if they’ve attended a digital one first. Here at Emmaus Rd we are by no means unusual in having more than doubled in size since lockdown and we have more people than ever signed up for our next Alpha course (online). It’s not everything. But something does seem to be stirring.
4. Public Opinion
Slowly the national media is picking up the story. First the Guardian newspaper last Sunday, then Good Morning Britain on Wednesday, followed by a piece by my friend Krish Kandiah in the Times on Friday and a BBC News at 10 report last night.
What are we to make of this? Is a week of positive media attention everything we’re praying for? Of course not! Is it widespread or prominent? No, not yet. But it's a pleasant change from the usual cynical sniping. Could it be an early sign that public opinion is preparing to shift? You’d better believe it!
5. Young People
I would never have believed a few months ago that I’d be seeing a headline in a major British paper saying this: “British public turn to prayer as one in four tune into religious services online”.
And then the stunning subheading: “Young people lead resurgence in faith”.
Yep, you read that right: the demographic leading the charge to church is the sophisticated, supposedly post-Christian 18-34 year olds.
We do not pray ex nihilo. No-one can jump to the top of the staircase in one go. We find faith for the big things that God hasn’t done yet, by celebrating the small things he's doing or he's already done. On a cold, dark night when we spot sparks in the hearth, we blow on them. We don't pour cold water on them. We pray: "More, Lord." We say: "Well, if you can do this, maybe you can do that?"
Are all these developments any more than embers in the hearth? Has this past week been without heartbreak? Are we experiencing some kind of revival? Are any of these encouragements guaranteed to last? To all these questions we must clearly answer with an emphatic "no!"
But could these sparks somehow become a wildfire? Does tragedy often precede resurrection? Could this really be the beginning of a spiritual awakening in our nation for which so many have been praying so faithfully and for so long?
My friends, this is a time to pray with greater faith, preach with greater confidence and plan with great ambition. Yes, let’s dare to believe it!
Pete Greig is the founder of the 24-7 prayer movement and the author of a number of books including, God on Mute (David C Cook), Dirty Glory (Hodder and Stoughton) and How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People (Hodder & Stoughton).