Moving worship online has led to an increase in prayer and religious practice, according to a new survey of faith leaders writes Ruadhán Jones
Before the pandemic began, 44% of faith communities on the island of Ireland did not provide online worship opportunities; now this figure is down to just 13%.
This is just one of the key insights of People Still Need Us, a new report by Queen’s University Belfast.
The report was based on a survey of over 2,000 faith leaders conducted between May 6-22, with 439 usable responses.
It includes the testimony of faith leaders from a variety of denominations, including the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, as well as minority faiths.
The faith leaders observed surprising numbers of people tuning in for worship services and other events.
Many described “an intensification or invigoration of faith, including examples of people praying more and people who had previously demonstrated no interest in faith or religion tuning in to religious services or seeking prayer”.
While noting that 40% of people are experiencing more mental health issues, religious leaders testified to the importance of prayer and faith in overcoming these issues.
Almost 90% of respondents said that faith and/or religious practice have helped people cope with the pandemic.
“I could keep the church heated from the shrine candles alone,” wrote one Catholic priest. “If this increased devotional activity points to people seeking comfort in faith, then clearly at least some people are finding strength in their faith.”
Another priest wrote that “lots of parishioners who are not regular attenders at Mass have been contacting us via social media and saying that they are getting a lot of hope and support from our streaming”.
A majority of faith communities provided their members with new opportunities for online fellowship during the pandemic, including the use of Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, Youtube, etc., for activities such as prayer meetings, bible studies and youth groups.
70% of respondents agreed that they would retain aspects of their online ministries when restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic Dr Gladys Ganiel, who conducted the survey, said that there was a “big rush to move faith online for obvious reasons”.
“People can’t go to churches in the same way,” she said. “But it’s also partly because it’s the way people live in the modern world, people spend so much of their life online.”
Dr Ganiel believes that it’s important that churches maintain their online ministry after the pandemic is over.
“If you want the church to be an evangelisation point, you have to be online. It’s important to realise an individual priest or minister can’t do this online ministry alone. There needs to be a group of volunteers who see this as their ministry, or paid staff to bring churches up to speed.”
This increase in online participation has already resulted in greater collaboration between religious leaders and lay members of their communities, though mostly in protestant communities.
One priest wrote in saying he had been “[w]orking through Zoom with Parish Pastoral Council members and so I have others to take responsibility with me for connecting with parishioners”.
However, the report notes that enthusiasm for online ministry was tempered by recognition of its limitations, including its potential superficiality, unequal access to the internet, and how it excludes people who lack the skills to access it.
Religious practice would need to continue with a mixture of online and in-person elements.
It is important to note then, the continued and in many cases increased levels of social care provided by faith leaders to their local communities.
“Among those providing services, 42% said their services had increased, 33% had stayed the same, and just 25% had decreased their services, demonstrating resiliency in challenging times,” the report says.
Even where leaders themselves have had to cocoon, 82% have continued to perform their ministry with the same vigour as non-cocooning ministers.
These efforts included tending to the elderly, young people and the homeless in the faith leader’s area.
Another significant area of social care was providing funeral services and counselling for the bereaved.
Dr Ganiel believes that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of faith in providing a context for grief.
“The pandemic involves a traumatic experience of death for many people,” she said, “when people are deprived of the traditional church funeral that’s even worse.
“But it brings back religious faith as providing a context for grief at the time of death and the role of faith leaders in play in mediating the experience of death and helping people to move on after that.”
More than half of the respondents had conducted a funeral and “their replies provide a stark account of the challenges posed while following the guidelines, but also of thoughtful and at times creative pastoral care”.
One Catholic diocesan priest responded saying, he “found a terrible sadness – we could not touch family members whom we knew well or be really present to those who suffered this terrible loss.
“The various changes made by the State bodies during the pandemic: just ten could be present, some did not receive the Sacrament of the Sick, others no funeral Mass, others not even a prayer was said at the cremation ceremony.”
The report has also highlighted the effects of the pandemic on faith leaders themselves. 46% reported increased levels of stress.
The main sources of stress were feeling guilty that they are not doing enough, conducting funerals and comforting the bereaved.
But ultimately, the report suggests that religious leaders have responded relatively well. A number of respondents noted that the pandemic has led to a greater respect for religious practice and their own ministry.
Commenting on the response from online and in his parish, one priest said he had been given “great hope for the future”.
“Knowing that having gone through the terrible years of abuse within the church globally and feeling slightly irrelevant, that the Church matters more than we fully really realised.”
Dr Ganiel believes that the survey indicates a renewal in faith:
“You don’t know how deeply people are engaging with the online content, but… when you have the surveys and leaders writing in multiple answers like that, it suggests an increased interest in religion evidenced by more people tuning in online than went to church. You can’t say it definitively, but you can start to build a picture.”