As I write, the government has just announced the reintroduction of limited Covid rules requiring the wearing of face-coverings in shops and on public transport in England to protect against the Omicron variant.
We pray that these measures will prove temporary, and that the new variant will not undermine the strategy that has thus far enabled an end of lockdown.
Since September I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of church leaders, including at the recent FIEC Leaders’ Conferences in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester and London. This has given me an impression of how churches are regathering and rebuilding. It is too early to identify all the long-term impacts, but I have observed the following general trends.
Many evangelical churches have grown
New people have started attending church regularly. This is largely transfer growth as people have relocated, made the decision to join a more local church rather than commute to one further away, or chosen to move to a church that they believe is more Biblical than the one they were attending before lockdown. Many of these new attendees were able to check their new church extensively online beforehand. Some city centre churches which have a large number of attendees commuting in have seen a reduction in numbers. In contrast, the Covid crisis seems to be precipitating the more rapid decline of non-evangelical churches, some of which have been slower to reopen.
Many evangelical churches have seen conversions
Whilst there has been widespread transfer growth, it is hugely encouraging that many churches have seen more conversions over this Covid period than in recent years, and Autumn has seen numerous baptisms across the country. Some of these conversions have resulted from online services and evangelistic courses during the lockdown period.
Most evangelical churches have yet to see a return to stable attendance
Whist many churches have grown, weekly attendance does not always reflect this. Some church members remain cautious about attending in person. Many are less regular, taking more Sundays away to visit family and friends. In effect, they are catching up on lost time. Back in July, I thought it would take until Autumn half-term for attendance patterns to return to normal, but this was an underestimate.
Most evangelical churches have a new fringe
Many churches have found that they have lost their existing ‘fringe’ attendees, and it has been difficult or impossible to reconnect with them. At the same time, they are attracting a new fringe and making increased efforts to reconnect with their wider community.
Most evangelical churches are experiencing cumulative exhaus-tion
Whilst the immediate crisis may have ended, the effects are ongoing and many people remain drained. This is true of both church leaders and church members and has made it a challenge to restart ministries. Volunteers may not feel ready to recommit to regular service, making it hard to staff activities. We need to be patient.
Some evangelical churches are closing
One impact of the Covid crisis is that some smaller churches that needed revitalisation have chosen to close. We know of at least eight FIEC churches that have closed. The effort required to restart is greater than that to continue in maintenance mode. This is not a failure if the result is that people and resources can be redeployed in ways that better advance the kingdom of God.
I hope that these observations will reassure you that what you are experiencing in your church at the moment is ‘normal’ and encourage you that God has been at work through this difficult time to both refine and build His church. I feel confident that we will look back on it as a time of unexpected blessing.
John Stevens is National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).