A new study by a research team at Durham University has found that one in four people across the UK have engaged in some form of online worship since lockdown began. The researchers studied the state of online and offline religious activity in the UK over the coronavirus pandemic through a tracking poll with Savanta ComRes.
The study focused on six faith-related activities — prayer, meditation, corporate or organised worship, reflection on nature, choir and yoga — breaking the data down into age categories and UK regions and nations.
26% of respondents in July and 29% in August said they had engaged in corporate worship online regularly - 'regularly' was defined as "at least once a month". The team pointed out that this was a significantly higher rate of attendance in comparison to figures from the National Centre for Statistics that indicate about 1 in 10 people regularly attend - many other estimates are much lower than this.
The researchers stated: "Even if we accept that 10% is the norm, we are seeing research which suggests that up to 30% of existing church attendees are not engaging in online worship,
"So, the comparative figure may be around 6-7%. As such, the figures for attendance suggest a quadrupling of that figure for online engagement in July and August. In real term figures, this would see the attendance at online corporate religion rising from 4 million per Sunday to 19 million during the pandemic."
The poll also found that London is UK's capital for faith, with the city topping all regions of the UK in its engagement with faith-related activities. For example, in the category of corporate worship, London’s average is 46%, while for the rest of the UK the average is 30%.
Dr Peter Phillips, Director of the Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University and Head of Digital Theology at Premier, said: "For a while now, we've known that there's something big happening in London around faith. And this is another piece of research which shows that clearly, London has a very high number of people who are engaged in faith. It's not just people coming into London to the big churches, it's actually people who live in London who are ones who have faith or do faith-related activities - up to 50% again, so about half of London, engaging in online worship every week."
Another key finding was that roughly half of the countries’ young people (18-34) indicated that they regularly engage in online faith-related activity, including regular prayer and regular engagement with online corporate worship - the data showed that faith-related activity or spirituality among Gen Z and millennials is currently higher than other generations.
Phillips added that the latest findings pose some critical questions over how the church should function moving into the future. "How do we want to do future and church into the future? Do we want to the church that we've always done, kind of physical church where we all retreat back into our buildings?
"Or do we want to create a kind of hybrid model for church or religion, because this covers mosques and synagogues and so on as well...where we kind of map together both what we can do online and also what we can do offline into one seamless community?
"That's going to take some technological shifts. But I think it's a way forward and because it includes the disabled, the housebound, the elderly, the vulnerable and frail. I think those are the people who we need to reach out to and we need to embrace within our physical churches, rather than those of us who are just physically able to say, 'well, it's okay for me, I can get to church'.
"Let's do this pastorally and have a kind of pastoral revolution of including everybody in the church."