ON EASTER Day last year, our church, St Mary’s, Nantwich, held six services, with a total attendance of 577. On Easter Day this year, its four online services had a combined “reach” of more than 6000. Have we discovered the secret of “numerical growth”, for which the Church of England has been searching in recent years?
We used Facebook Live, which, helpfully, allows you to dig into the data. The 6 a.m. dawn service was the most popular, at which the Paschal candle was lit, reaching 3500 people. Only 43 watched live, but this compares with an attendance of 39 last year.
Viewing took off after the event, and, for this service, it may have had something to do with the primal attraction of a bonfire and the dawn chorus. It has also helped that the Rectory is next door to the church; so, for many of our services, it is possible to have the lovely octagonal tower in the background, and the bells marking the start of the service. We still need the building.
“Reach” is a measure of the number of people who saw the videos, and it is flattering. But we are brought down to earth by the average viewing time: for services that lasted about 25 minutes, the average viewing time was one minute.
When people lose interest in what is on a screen, they change the content, whereas we don’t measure how long people zone out in a church service. Even so, it’s clear that many of the 6000 are the equivalent of people who put their heads inside the church door for a quick look.
If we are allowing more people to do that, it’s worth while continuing to live-stream some services when we’re back in church. That would also benefit people who can’t make it to church. And imagine the viewing figures at Christmas, when our church attendance is nearly four times that at Easter.
We must bear in mind though that the demand for online services is greatly increased by the closure of churches. How people are choosing online worship indicates why many will be glad to give it up.
In addition to the services, the worship band and choir are producing videos, reaching typically a thousand or more people each. The songs were readily available online, anyway, but what attracts viewers to our musicians and services is the connection with local and familiar people and places.
The Church is a body, and it is yearning for physical presence. That loss is measured by another statistical comparison: Easter communicants, 383 in 2019; zero in 2020.
Also published in the Church Times, 8/5/20.