How has the lockdown affected people’s spiritual habits?

12 May 2020

Carys Moseley comments on the recent Tearfund survey which found that people’s spiritual habits during the lockdown have changed significantly.

Savanta ComRes has recently published the results of a survey commissioned by Tearfund on British people’s spiritual habits in relation to the lockdown. This survey helps give a detailed picture of how people of different religious affiliation have responded, and of their interaction with churches. The survey is a random representative sample of the adult population of the United Kingdom and was conducted between 24 and 27 April this year.

Although the survey has been briefly reported on in some of the press, mainly the Christian press, it has not so far received very thorough analysis. This is needed as it is looking at a watershed moment in history and running to 210 pages, it furnishes very important and thorough evidence that churches need to understand in order to be better at reaching people.

Relationship between prayer and being in lockdown

The survey asked when at all did respondents engage in certain spiritual activities. What this meant was whether they had started since lockdown, continued from before the lockdown, used to do so but stopped since lockdown, or have never engaged in such activities.

These include prayer, watching a religious service, listening to a religious service, listening to religious music, contact with a religious worker, asking someone to say a prayer, meditating or doing a mindfulness activity, and reading a religious text.

How often do people normally pray?

Perhaps the most astonishing of the findings is that adults aged 18-34 are more likely to pray than those older than them. The percentage of adults of all age groups who never pray did not differ significantly. This suggests that adults under 35 who do pray are more intense in their approach to prayer. Of those who pray, 19% do so several times a day.

Muslims were much more likely than Christians to pray several times a day, no doubt because of the requirement in Islam for formal prayer five times a day. This may explain why men were slightly more likely to pray several times a day than women. However, anybody using this survey should realise that the total number of Muslims captured by this sample was only 76. This is a problem as statisticians tend to agree that sample sizes must be at least 100 in order for results to be meaningful. Likewise, the samples for other non-Christian religions were under 100. If what is wanted is a meaningful comparison between people of different religious affiliation, there would need to be changes to the sampling.

People who prayed for the first time

Much has been made in the press of the fact that a small but significant minority of people (5%) have started to pray for the first time since lockdown. However, what has not been so widely reported is the fact that another 6% of people say they stopped praying since lockdown. Likewise, whilst 5% of people said they had read a religious text for the first time since lockdown, 6% say they have not done this since the lockdown started. Finally, whilst 7% of people said they had watched a religious service on tv or online for the first time ever since lockdown, this was offset by the fact that another 5% said they had not done this since the lockdown.

The gains are therefore smaller than many people have imagined. Of those who say they pray several times a day, 13% say they only started praying at all since the lockdown. Particularly fascinating is that out of those who attend church once a week, 7% only started praying during lockdown. How can churches encourage these people?

People who stopped praying or Bible reading since the lockdown

The survey furnishes some sobering evidence of people ceasing to pray since the lockdown. Younger adults were the most likely age group to say that they had stopped praying since the lockdown began: 9% of those aged 18-24, 8% of those aged 25-34, and 9% of those aged 35-44. One in twenty of those who attend church every week say they have not prayed since the lockdown started. Are these people who have given up their faith?

Nearly one in seven (14%) have not read a religious text such as the Bible since then either. It is frustrating that the survey did not give respondents a choice as to which religious text they were reading, whether it was the Bible or something else. This is especially the case given that the survey distinguishes between people with affiliation to different religions.

Has watching services online made up for church attendance?

Much has been made in recent weeks of the fact that whilst church buildings have had to close, congregations have been able to move their services online. To what extent have churchgoers followed up on this? The survey helps illuminate what has happened.

Nearly one third (31%) of weekly churchgoers started watching services online since lockdown, but 4% of weekly churchgoers stopped doing this since lockdown, and nearly a quarter (23%) have never done this.

Likewise, if churches think that moving worship online is the answer to so many of their problems, they need to consider the fact that 20% of adults aged 18-24 stopped watching worship online since the lockdown. This is significant because younger adults are more likely to have internet access.

What the survey has not asked is how many respondents have internet access, and also how many attend churches that have online provisions for worship. Not all churchgoers have internet access, and not all churches were providing online worship before the lockdown. The survey did not ask whether people lived in rural or urban areas, a factor which can make a difference here.

Has online worship attracted new people?

Many Christians have been excited about the possibility that online worship would reach new people. To what extent has this really happened?

The truth is that the more frequently people attend church, the more likely they have been to start watching worship since the lockdown began. Only 1% of those who never attend church have started to watch online worship. Where is the change most marked? Over one fifth (22%) of those who attend once a fortnight started to watch worship online, whereas the figure dropped to only 8% of monthly attenders. For every level of commitment, there were many more people who were already watching online worship before the lockdown than had begun to do so since then.

We must therefore conclude that the fact that churches have gone online due to being shut down by the central government has not led to a rise in ‘attendance’ at online worship. Online worship has not only not made up for church attendance, it has not really attracted that many new people.

Loss of contact with religious workers

The survey asked whether respondents had been in contact with a religious worker (whether such a worker had visited, called or messaged them, or whether respondents had contacted such workers). Over all of the UK, whilst 1 in 20 (5%) started doing this during lockdown, more (7%) had the experience of this stopping since lockdown. Only among those aged 65 and over was the reverse true. This general decline in contact was true over England apart from London, and Northern Ireland, whereas the opposite scenario was found in Scotland and Wales.

Again, it is frustrating that the survey did not give respondents the choice to indicate the religion of the worker in question. The difference between a non-religious person contacting a Christian minister and a regular churchgoer doing so is important.

What things have respondents prayed about

The survey did provide several choices regarding topics for prayer. Respondents who did pray were most likely to have prayed for family (53%) and friends (34%) or to thank God (34%). Older people were more likely than younger people to pray for frontline staff such as NHS workers, and men more likely than women to pray for someone who was unwell with Covid-19. Among the least popular prayer topics were the government’s response to Covid-19 (18%) and confession of sins and asking forgiveness (17%).

Who prays for the government?

Those who attend church weekly were more likely to pray for the government’s response than those who never attend (32% versus 5%). This may indicate the importance of churches teaching people and leading by example through intercessory prayer. The fact that only a minority among even the most committed churchgoers have prayed for the government is surely important. Is this the effect of the lockdown forcing people to be stuck at home? Or is this already a problem? We can’t tell from this survey.

Levels of trust in society

Given that the response to the crisis has been led by central government it is important that the survey measured levels of trust in the following: faith leaders, government leaders, friends, family members, news, and social media. Adults aged 18-34 were the least likely of all age groups to trust government leaders or the news to provide information and guidance in relation to the Covid-19 crisis. Trust in these institutions went up with age.

This correlates with the fact that young adults under 35 were the most likely to pray during this period. This is highly significant given that all other surveys show that this is the least religious demographic. What is going on here? Is it that younger people who have a religious faith are less trusting of government and news than their parents, and so more likely to pray in response to a major crisis? Has society reached a turning point?

The importance of bringing hope

These survey findings are in some ways encouraging for Christians, as they do show a small but significant increase in prayer, watching online services and in some places contact with clergy. At the same time, those outlets that have covered the survey so far did not investigate the equally important and indeed rather troubling findings regarding stopping prayer and losing contact with religious workers. The survey itself could have been more fine-grained as regards providing options for distinguishing clearly between different religions, for example, indicating Bible reading rather than Qu’ran reading.

Churches can indeed take heart from these findings in that they show a small surge in spiritual interest. Whilst probably motivated in the first instance by fear of the pandemic, this signals an important opportunity for Christians to reach out to people and introduce them to the gospel. At the same time, there is clearly work to do in understanding those people who have not prayed or worshipped since the lockdown, as they may well have undergone a crisis of faith. This shouldn’t be surprising and indeed if Christians are to be people who bring hope, we must not allow such a crisis to have the last word in people’s lives. Once we start emerging from the lockdown measures, these will be major challenges to face together. Until then, churches must start thinking about how best to reach those who have not been involved since lockdown or have no access to online services, and encourage more prayer for our leaders as they make important decisions that will affect how churches are able to function.

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