The Church has gone online with panache! We started with live-streamed services from church buildings, then quickly diversified into online Agape services, Facebook Lives and even gallery-view Zoom celebrations, which allow you to send people off into breakout rooms for discussions or prayer ministry.
There are youth groups using Minecraft for their Bible studies and Alpha has jumped online. Others have provided phone and/or text-based services. Some have celebrated kitchen-table eucharists, and Catholics have streamed masses by the million.
The digital Church is enabling and extending the local church. Tim Hutchings' research (Creating Online Church, 2017) showed that rather than decrease the number of people attending local expressions of Church, digital Church provides a safe place for people to see what Church is about – a kind of shop window for the Church. Long before the coronavirus pandemic Church leaders would report that when they spoke to newcomers, they'd discover the individual had been viewing online for weeks or months before darkening the physical doorstep.
People are turning to God
In a time of national crisis, it is no wonder that people turn to God. We're hearing of people asking Siri how to be saved. Covid-19 survivors are encountering God at death’s door. The UK Blessing was itself a kind of transmission of God’s grace to the millions who watched.
The numbers of people viewing services online ticks on up. There has been a profound shift in the number of people engaged in praying the daily offices, regularly, at different times of the day. A ComRes/TearFund poll talks of 25 per cent of the population viewing church online and many are praying more. Micro-research projects I have seen, and encouraged, prove the numbers have evidential truth. Some churches are up by 45 per cent, others 300 per cent, and some even 1000 per cent up.
Peter Lynas from the Evangelical Alliance has been looking at Google Trends results over on his Twitter stream, pointing to more people searching for 'Church', 'Bible', 'Gospel', and then comparing 'Prayer' to 'Vaccine'. If you do longer term searches, these figures are not as positive as they seem – searches for 'church' have been declining during the pandemic. But there is a rise – you just need to look a bit further.
If you look at the trends in the UK during 2020, there was an initial peak trend for 'online church' (yellow) 'mass' (red) and 'service' (blue), which seems to be projected to rise again as we enter a post-lockdown period:
But the real shifts are around more open spiritual terms – a shift to 'prayer' (blue) 'Jesus' (red) and 'God' (yellow). 'Online mass' is included at the bottom in green as a control line. Interestingly, the shifts in the UK for these three terms are not matched if you do the same search for the USA, France, Germany or China. There does seem to be something special happening here:
The most-shared Bible verses are changing
My own past research has showed a shift towards 'therapeutic' Bible verses being shared on social media, and a shift away from God/Jesus being mentioned.
But that could be changing.
YouVersion report the following five verses were the most shared on Sunday 15 March:
- Hebrews 13:16 — Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices.
- Psalm 91:1 — The one who lives under the protection of the Most High dwells in the shadow of the Almighty.
- 2 Chronicles 7:14 — And my people, who bear my name, humble themselves, pray and seek my face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.
- 2 Timothy 1:7 — For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.
- Philippians 4:6-7 — Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Note that each of these verses mentions God. More than that, many of the verses make God the main subject of an active verb, whereas in the therapeutic verses which were shared in the past, we tended to be the subject of the sentence (like in a selfie). That people seem to be preferring to go with God than with the therapeutic selfie-culture which digital has so often promoted, is a notable shift.
The Church in the UK seems to be going deeper into God. Praying more, reading the Bible more, doing community more (has your church set up Zoom coffee mornings yet?). Of course, this does not factor in the brilliant work being done by the Church which appears nowhere near a digital screen or in online statistics (community care, food banks etc).
What's more, so much of what we're seeing here is also happening worldwide. I have spoken with ministers and pastors in China, Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Ukraine, Germany, Kenya, South Africa, Denmark, UK, USA and Canada. It seems God is moving. God is taking his people closer to himself. God is pouring out his grace.
So many people across the globe have encountered God online during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Church has gone through a mini-revolution in the last few weeks and many weary workers bear the wounds of sore eyes, headaches and frustration about how tech needs to be wrestled into the service of the church. But let’s not forget that the digital supports the local, offers a safe place for people to see what we get up to in our closed church buildings. When we get back to celebrating communion, hugging our congregations and sharing the peace, let’s also do the digital. Let’s have the best of both worlds where all might meet with the living God.
Dr Pete Phillips is Premier's Head of Digital Theology and a researcher at Durham University. With a PhD in John’s Gospel and many years’ experience of teaching and researching the New Testament, Pete now explores the interface between all things digital and theological. He is the author of Engaging the Word (BRF) and The pixelated text
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