Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

A Book Review of “The Invisible Church”, by Steve Aisthorpe

Some time ago I came across a book from 2016 that piqued my interest – The Invisible Church by Dr. Steve Aisthorpe.

After twelve years out in the Far East, he returned to the village in the Highlands of Scotland where his Christian faith had first developed – and found to his surprise that a lot of people that he knew had stopped attending church. Had they lost their faith? No; when he met them in person, he found that “their Christian faith continued to be the mainspring of their lives.” This was a puzzling situation, and set him on a path that led to conducting three studies on “churchless” or “non-congregational” Christians in Scotland.

The results of these studies form the basis for The Invisible Church. It’s an interesting book because, as the author explains towards the start, few previous studies have actually reached out to people who stopped joining in with the activities of their local churches and asked them why they made this choice, or what their beliefs and practices look like afterwards.


How Were the Studies Carried Out?

If you’re interested in the details, fairly short summaries of Dr. Aisthorpe’s studies are available for free on this Church of Scotland webpage: Resourcing Mission – Mission Research. Here is the briefest of outlines:

  • “Faith Beyond the Congregations”, 2013 – Contact was made with churchless Christians using methods like newspaper articles and social media. Of those who responded, 30 were selected for interview, with this 30 comprising an even male-female split and a variety of experiences of church. The aim of this study was preliminary, with the objective being to identify the right questions to ask in subsequent studies.
  • “Investigating the Invisible Church”, 2014 – Using a random survey technique to identify churchless Christians in an unbiased way, a 76-question survey was carried out in the Highlands and Islands (including the Orkneys and Hebrides), which generated 423 usable completed surveys. The goal was to see if the findings from the first study could be generalised.
  • “Faith in Scotland”, 2015 – The aim of this study was to look at differences between rural and urban areas. 815 telephone interviews with churchless Christians were carried out in total.

The term Christian means different things to different people: at one end of the spectrum are people for whom their faith is central to everything they do, and who try and live it out; at the other end are those for whom Christian has less practical impact and is closer to being a cultural label. In order to try and make some kind of distinction between different groups in the Investigating the Invisible Church survey, a number of questions were included to locate respondents on the “Hoge Intrinsic Religiosity Scale”. The summary report on this study linked to above explains that “It would be inappropriate and incorrect to apply labels such as “nominal”, “committed” or “devout” to groups within the sample according to their scores on this scale. However, it is noticeable that what might be called “high scorers” … show significant differences in their responses … compared with “low scorers”.” At a minimum I take this to mean that there are statistically significant differences in opinion between those who broadly-speaking come across as more religious and those who come across as less religious.


Some of The Interesting Results

I suppose I should give a spoiler alert here in case you’ve got this book in your “To Be Read” pile! Here are six things that stood out to me, or that I think might be of interest to others, with some quotations from the book:

  • Consumerism was only rarely the cause of leaving. Leavers had often been members of local churches for a long time: half of those who responded to the 2014 survey had attended regularly for more than ten years, and about half of this half (i.e. a quarter overall) had attended for more than twenty years. This survey also found that most people disengaged gradually (57%) rather than suddenly (22%), though there might have been an incident at church that acted as a ‘final straw’. For a fifth of people a life crisis unrelated to church (e.g. marriage breakdown or ill health) had proved to be the tipping point, with this being particularly the case for those who had been regular attenders for over twenty years. And for one sixth they had trouble finding a new church where they belonged after moving house.

“The data indicates that choices to switch, leave or not engage with a church congregation are more of a ‘wrench’ than a ‘flit’. Those who are motivated primarily by simple, rational, consumerist preferences are the exception rather than the norm.” (p36)

  • Disengagement did not actually imply a desire to avoid meeting up with other Christians – just not in the settings currently offered by local churches. Leavers were often active in starting to meet with others in informal groups.

“Ironically, some of the most common reasons given for their reluctant departure from congregational life relate to the frustration and disappointment of not finding there the very qualities extolled in the New Testament as the touchstones of Christian fellowship. Interviewees spoke of a lack of love, a coldness and superficiality… Most interviewees described how, having ceased church-going, they had formed friendships or linked into informal groups which had Christian fellowship as an important part of their purpose.” (p43)

  • A quarter of Churchless Christians had felt that they didn’t fit in when they had been part of a church. However, a large fraction of Churchless Christians felt connected to the church considered in a wider sense (the world-wide church), with this being particularly the case for those who were older or scored higher on the Hoge scale (i.e. those appearing more religious).

“… Regardless of age, previous experience of church, score on the Hoge scale, and gender, about a quarter agreed with the statement ‘I used to go to church but felt that I didn’t fit in.

However, this lack of ‘belongingness’ in local congregations does not translate into a sense of alienation from the wider Church. Half of respondents indicated that they felt part of the worldwide Christian community. … Unsurprisingly, of those with higher than average scores on the Hoge scale a significantly higher proportion agreed with this statement [‘I feel part of the worldwide Christian community’] (66 per cent) compared with those who scored less than average … 34 per cent …” (p84)

  • Some Churchless Christians were open to the possibility of becoming part of a recognised church congregation again. For Scotland as a whole, 1 in 7 Churchless Christians for whom faith was very important would have liked to attend, but were prevented from attending due to health issues. Others would be willing to try other expressions of church, were they available in their area. For those in this latter category,

“On the whole, these people would appreciate more informal expressions of church and, crucially, opportunities to ask questions and explore doubts. In the Highlands and Islands, for example, 8 per cent of all those who identified themselves as Christians but not church-goers said that they would welcome the opportunity ‘to join a small group of Christians who meet in homes and discuss faith and life together.'” (p34)

  • However, a majority of Churchless Christians are “contentedly non-congregational”. Some pointed to specific benefits. The second quotation below might be particularly surprising.

“One married couple described how their disengagement from church had led to a deepening of their relationship with one another and a deepening of their devotional life…” (p46)

“… research in Northern Scotland found that just under a third of non-congregational Christians agreed with the statement, ‘Not being involved in a traditional church congregation frees me to pursue what I believe is my Christian calling.'” (p34)

  • This next one might also be a surprise. Some of the Churchless Christians Dr. Aisthorpe interviewed had never been part of a church congregation – and of these, some had used their initiative to set up their own groups to explore faith.

“These were often men and women who had discovered the Christian faith either through an evangelistic course (e.g. Christianity Explored or Alpha) or through a visit to a Christian community (e.g. Iona, Taize), but had not engaged with a church congregation since. They spoke of the contrast they found between the lively, interactive and hospitable setting in which they had discovered the Christian faith and their experience of local congregations. In each case, these people have initiated or become part of a small informal group …” (p32)

Although one of the studies was designed to examine the differences between urban and rural areas, there was relatively little about this in the book and I think this is one of its biggest limitations. I would have really liked to see a chapter specifically on this subject. The options available church-wise in a small village and a major city can be very different, and even after reading through the book twice, I’m still not sure how much is more reflective of a rural/low-population density context.


A Few Personal Reflections

One of the challenges I’ve found in writing a blog this year has been taking my personal experiences and setting them into a wider context. It isn’t always easy to generalise, and where a subject is one I care a lot about, it is highly tempting to generalise too readily.

“Fitting in at church” is a subject I care about. As I’ve said elsewhere, I became a Christian at university some fifteen or so years ago. While I haven’t looked back since, I’ve often found it difficult to fit in at church; for a while in my late twenties I largely stopped attending on a Sunday, and even now (pandemic aside) I rarely attend every week – though I rarely miss a midweek homegroup. In short, from my own experience I know that you can indeed be a “churchless” Christian for a time. This isn’t to say this situation is ideal; only that, depending on personal circumstances, it can be a practical reality.

The book itself is largely positive about the faith of churchless Christians in Scotland, and I hope that in the previous section I’ve fairly reflected both this positive tone and some of the conclusions of the author. Bringing in the ideas in the previous two paragraphs now: reading Dr. Aisthorpe’s research, and finding it in sympathy with my own experiences, the temptation for me is to get a bit carried away and be over-excited about what the state of the “churchless Christian” population in Scotland, or by extrapolation the UK as a whole, might be like. This is a temptation the author recognises themselves, and at the end of a chapter critiquing stereotypes of Churchless Christians (e.g. that they are “backsliders” or “Christian in name only”), addresses as follows:

“One person who commented on a draft of this chapter taught me a new word in the process. He suggested that I might be in danger of ‘enantiodromia’…. the tendency to replace one thing with its opposite. In this case, his concern was that I might replace one set of stereotypes and prejudices with a romanticised or rose-tinted picture of those who leave church. He has a point. In attempting to simplify complex data, I am guilty of ‘generalising.’ However, the observations I have shared reflect the dominant themes and patterns.” (p54)

The overall impression I get is that, while the picture of Churchless Christians in Scotland is far from uniform, there really is more authentic Christian faith than might be anticipated.

Looking at the positive traits mentioned in the previous section which some Churchless Christians display – from willingness to meet together to learn, to using initiative in setting up informal groups, to concern for living out one’s calling in the world (including with a “mission” focus in some cases) – makes the separation from other Christians in local congregations all the more regrettable. The later chapters of the book go into the reasons that people disengage from church in detail. I thought about discussing some of them here, but I think this post is long enough. It’s a thought-provoking book that I enjoyed reading, and would particularly recommend to those interested in thinking about the current state of the church in the UK and “why it is as it is”.


Having read this book, I’m interested in whether it resonates with the situation in England, particularly in the South where I live – or for that matter elsewhere. I would be interested to hear any thoughts you have on the Churchless Christian “Scene”. I would also welcome any recommendations of books / research you might know of – can anyone point me in a helpful direction?

Until the next post!


Summary of Books and Links

The Invisible Church, Steve Aisthorpe, Saint Andrew Press, 2016.

Resourcing Mission – Mission Research Joint research by the Church of Scotland and partner organisations.

art, Bible Study, Culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Animating “Jonah”

In the autumn the church I attend decided to make a pre-recorded “program” for the children to watch with their parents on a Sunday morning. Recently, I was asked if I would like to contribute and produce some artwork to illustrate the story of Jonah. I like having an opportunity to use my skills, and jumped at the chance.

The story was told in three parts over successive Sundays, finishing last weekend. My contribution was a series of still images and short animations. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on these, and a couple of people have suggested that I do a write-up of the animation process in a blog post, so today I’ll do just that.


Telling the Story – Requirements

Before starting on illustrations, I had a virtual meeting with the church children’s worker to discuss what would be needed. They had adapted the narrative in the Bible into a script; I would do the artwork for the story, another person would record a voiceover, and a final person would edit the video and audio together and add sound effects. So overall four people were involved and it was a real team effort. (Referring to “another person” seems a bit cold and distant! I haven’t used their names on the blog to respect their privacy.)

To tell the story, quite a lot of animations were needed in total. Illustrating/animating is time-consuming, so there was a need to be efficient: to choose art and animation styles that were simple and quick to do, and where possible to re-use the same assets in multiple scenes.

The Sunday morning children’s program is aimed at younger children, with a typical age of something like 1-7 (though adults who’ve seen it have enjoyed it too!). I haven’t much experience of making things for this age group, so I had a think about what the requirements of this audience are and came up with the following:

  • Some of the children are really young, so the artwork needs to be simple to interpret: obvious, somewhat exaggerated facial expressions on characters; keep scenes visually free of clutter.
  • The artwork needs to be attractive to this audience: use bright, bold colours and simple shapes; use humour in animations.
  • Assume that it’s being watched by someone who can’t read: as far as possible tell the story using changes in colour (e.g. from red for bad, to blue for good), changes in shape (e.g. from spikey for bad/wicked/dangerous, to soft and rounded for good/friendly/wholesome), changes in facial expression and so on.

The Final Result

Here’s my contribution to the final result – i.e. the “animation” part, without the voiceover or sound effects. I’ve added in a text overlay to give a broad-brushstrokes description of what is going on in case the story is unfamiliar.

The animation is in a simple 2-D style, it’s bright and colourful, and hopefully the scenes are easy to understand.

Here’s how it was made.


The Technical Bit

I used three programs: Illustrator, Character Animator and After Effects. This diagram shows the basic workflow:

A simple flowchart showing the workflow I used for animating a scene of Jonah.

It looks a little complicated, but it’s really not too bad. I used Illustrator to make all the graphics – character models, props, scenery, and the sky – and Character Animator to animate the human characters (facial expressions, body movements and walking). I used After Effects to do the rest of the animating (waves moving in the sea, the motion of the boat, the worm eating a plant etc), to create special effects (e.g. bubbles coming out of Jonah’s mouth when he’s underwater), and to combine all the different bits together. I then added a bit of camera motion, such as moving the camera in for close-ups of Jonah’s facial expressions. And finally each scene was exported as a video file.

Here’s a bit more detail on two parts of the process: animating the character of Jonah, and putting a scene together.

1. The Character of Jonah

The character file that I made for Jonah in Illustrator shows him in three views: front on, left profile and right profile. The front view was used whenever he was standing still, and the left and right profiles were used when he was walking across the screen.

Illustrator works in layers. An image is built up by stacking layers on top of each other, starting with whatever is furthest back and moving forwards. So, as an example, the eye layers have to be on top of the head layer (or all you’d see is a scary eyeless head!) Bottom left below is an exploded view to show how this works. For each view, it was necessary to make a separate expression for every emotion that would be needed in the story. The six expressions needed for Jonah when front on are shown below top right.

Left profile, head on, and right profile.
On the left is the finished character. On the right the layers that make up the character have been separated out.
A range of expressions for Jonah. It’s amazing how much can be done just by changing the mouth shape and eyebrow angle!

When the designing was finished, I imported the Illustrator file into Character Animator. It is designed with characters like Jonah in mind, and the amount of set-up needed to turn artwork into something ready to animate is pretty small. The things that need to be specified are things like –

  • where the arms should connect to the body
  • how bendy the arms should be (wobbly cartoon arms anyone?)
  • which points should be fixed in place when the character is standing still (e.g. the feet)
  • setting up particular expressions to play when keys are pressed on the keyboard

Set-up complete, Character Animator automatically calculates a starting walk cycle from the character artwork. As the name suggests, a walk cycle is the series of movements that take place when someone walks – left leg up, left leg down, foot flat on ground, heel up, and so on. It saves a huge amount of time to use a program that creates a walk cycle for you. Once Jonah was moving, there was then a bit of back and forth between Illustrator and Character Animator to make everything look good, but this wasn’t too arduous.

The animating itself used a series of passes, each of which added something to the final result:

  • 1st pass – Overall positioning. Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to walk Jonah left and right, and walk on/off screen, or stop pressing keys to let him stand still.
  • 2nd pass – Eye gaze and head movement. Using a webcam, my head motion and eye movement were tracked and mapped onto Jonah’s head, upper body and eyes.
  • 3rd pass – Facial expressions. Key presses were logged to register changes in Jonah’s facial expression, to express his different moods.
  • 4th pass – Moving the hands/arms to give Jonah gestures like scratching his head, mopping his brow and leaning in a relaxed fashion.

Here’s a short scene showing this. Going from left to right each copy of Jonah has an extra pass included:

Animation build-up through passes.

(The facial expression for Jonah when he walks to the left is a “default” grumpy expression for Jonah when he’s walking.)

2. Putting a Scene Together

The background, scenery and props were made in Illustrator using a similar method to creating the artwork for Jonah, and then imported into After Effects. Just as artwork in Illustrator is built up in layers, a scene in After Effects is also built up in layers from background to foreground, with each object in the scene (the sky, a tree, a boat, a wave etc.) on a separate layer. Here’s an example of how a scene was constructed:

Some objects, such as the sky, or a beach, didn’t need to move. Others did, like the waves in the sea. I animated each of these separately using “keyframe animation”: I specified where where the object needed to be at key times, and allowed the computer to calculate a path for the object that took it between those key positions. For instance, for a wave, the keyframe information was along these lines: “Start here“; “Two seconds later be further right and up a bit“; “Two seconds after that be further right and down a bit“; “Two seconds after that be further right and up a bit“; and so on.

As well as position, all sorts of other things can be keyframed to produce different effects –

  • The height of an object can be changed to give it a squashed or stretched look. Keyframing a rapid series of stretches and squashes gives a cartoon “Boi-oing” effect. This was used on the signs that land near Jonah towards the start.
  • The colour and brightness of an object can be keyframed. This was used to change the appearance of the waves when the storm sets in.
  • The shape of an object can be distorted. This was used on the fish (whale) to flap its fins and tail, and open and close its mouth.
  • The transparency of a layer can be keyframed to give a “see-through” effect, or make something disappear. When Jonah is in the sea and has his head above water, the wave layer in the foreground is completely opaque. As he sinks, this layer becomes partially transparent so that we can “see” him underwater.
  • The scale of an entire scene can be keyframed, to give a zooming in/out effect. This was used for close-ups, such as seeing changes in Jonah’s facial expression, or the worm eating the bush.

With a combination of keyframed effects operating on screen simultaneously, the result can be quite an interesting, realistic scene.


That’s a Wrap

That’s a quick run-through of the 2-D animation process I used. I hope you found it interesting. If you have any questions, do leave them in the comments below.

Church culture, Life, Mental Health, Uncategorized

“Church” – it’s an intimidating place to go to for the first time, you know?

So there I was on the street corner. Looking around I couldn’t see anyone I knew. Or anyone at all. Good. That’s what I’d been after. I’d been here before, but there had been people about.

I’d been working up the courage to go into a place like this for some time. Seizing the opportunity while the coast was clear, I moved quickly across the short garden-y-bit and ducked inside.

Where was I going that I feared to be seen? The area where I lived at this time had a mixed reputation. Some nice shops and restaurants. A small supermarket. Lots of pubs. A few “adult” shops with boarded windows…

But it wasn’t any of these. It was ten in the morning and I was … … going into the small Anglican church at the end of my road.

Gasp!

Why all the secrecy?

My upbringing actually had a lot of “church” in it. My parents took me with them on Sundays when I was a younger child, and the school I went to as an older child had its own high-church Anglican chapel, complete with resident chaplain and compulsory weekly services. But I didn’t enjoy going, and was glad to leave it behind.

I still thought of myself as a Christian. However, despite all the time I’d spent listening to sermons, my understanding of Christianity wasn’t at all good. This became clear to me during my first year of university, at which point I started investigating Christianity for myself. And pretty soon I actually wanted to go to church.

I was really self-conscious about it. I feared people I knew seeing me, and thinking less of me or mocking me. I’d experienced plenty of not-fitting-in and mockery in my childhood and early teens. I had hated it, and dreaded being treated that way again.

So, when I started going to church, I did it in secret. I would note down what time services were, and go out for a walk nearby before service time. If there was no-one around and I was feeling brave I would go inside. And sit on my own and leave again quite quickly afterwards – hoping of course that no-one would be there to see me leave.

Eventually (and to my advantage) this system broke down. A year after my one and only foray to the small church described in the introduction, I had settled into a pattern of going to my college chapel on a Sunday evening. One Sunday I went along and to my shock a friend I knew quite well was there with their mother, who happened to be down visiting that weekend. They spoke to me after the service and my friend invited me to come along with them to their church the following week. Which I duly did, and from then on I started attending a Church of England church in the normal fashion, instead of hiding out in the chapel.

If you had a Christian friend, why didn’t you go with them to church from the get-go?

From the first year of university onwards, I had several friends who were Christians. They actually made a big impact on me, though they wouldn’t have known it at the time. How? They went to church – get this – on a Wednesday evening. Not just on a Sunday, which I could understand; but why would anyone go on a weekday evening? I had no idea, I was just so surprised. (It was for a mid-week Bible study, in case you’re wondering what the answer is. I didn’t know people did that!)

So when some time later I decided to go to church, why did I keep my activities secret and not just go with my friends? I mentioned above that at this point in time my understanding of Christianity wasn’t good. And that from school I had plenty of experience of not fitting in and being mocked. Both of these came into play.

At my high-church Anglican school there had been a “Confirmation” service every year. For those unfamiliar with the Anglican system, “Confirmation” is basically a ceremony where adolescents or adults who have been baptised as infants declare that they are going to live as Christians, after which time they are allowed to take part in eating the bread and wine during Communion / Mass / the Eucharist (hopefully at least one of these terms is familiar.) At least, that is how Confirmation functioned at my school.

But … I had never been confirmed. Even though I had wanted to take part, to put myself forward would have meant expressing something which seemed intensely personal. This meant exposing myself to potential ridicule, and I just couldn’t do it.

So at university I reasoned as follows. I think of myself as a Christian. If I went to church with my friends, things would be fine – until it was time for Communion. But then I wouldn’t be able to take part. Other people my age at the church (my friends included) would find out that I hadn’t been Confirmed. They’d say I wasn’t a proper Christian at all, and be unkind to me.

I know now that my understanding of Christianity, and my expectations of what churches are like and how adult Christians (or in fact people in general) normally treat each other were all way off. But at the time all I had to go on were my experiences of religion and how people treat one another from childhood. So I had negative expectations, and I didn’t go to church with my friends but went in secret instead.

In the end, in my third year of university I did “solve” the Confirmation problem. The college chapel offered Confirmation classes. I got the courage to e-mail the chaplain and sign up. I went to the classes at lunchtimes and then got confirmed in the big university church. Without telling anyone I knew (except my parents… to whom I gave only short notice the week before, in the hope they wouldn’t decide to come!) Thereafter, I felt comfortable with going to church with my friends and family.

At which point, it quickly turned out that proper Christianity was nothing like what I had been brought up with, or what I expected, and all my worries about Confirmation had been completely needless …

Final thoughts

Because of my prior life experiences, I found that starting to go to church on my own as an adult was very difficult. So I’m highly conscious of the fact that for many people the idea of going church is imposing or threatening.

In my case the view of church I had was like something out of an ITV adaptation of Miss Marple – old-fashioned in style; sermons that were often dry and irrelevant; people who didn’t want to be there, and went through the motions “because it was the done thing”; or people who claimed to have a faith, but didn’t live like it touched their lives at all. I didn’t associate church with anything life-giving. But since then I’ve found that my early experiences weren’t reflective of what Christianity is really all about, or what church or Christian people can be like.

While there is much that is bad about the coronavirus and the lockdown situation, one positive to come out of it is that a lot of churches are now live-streaming their services. I’m excited by this. It means that people can now see what churches are like, and encounter ordinary Christian people for whom their faith does make a difference in their day-to-day lives, and hear what Christianity is actually all about – without a social barrier getting in the way. There’s real potential here for changing perceptions and overcoming misconceptions.

That’s a positive note to end on. Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Digital potential, part 1 – the sum is far greater than the individual parts

Our survey says…

Last autumn I took it upon myself to do a (totally unofficial) survey of how technology is used by the different churches in my town and the surrounding villages. I used Google to draw up a list of all the churches in the area, then working outwards I went through the websites of these churches one by one, making a note of things like

  • Do they actually have a website?
  • How well does it work? Is it frequently updated?
  • How well does the site describe services, facilities and activities?
  • Does the site have things for particular interest groups (e.g. 20s-30s, marriage-prep, Alpha)?
  • How well does the site use media (audio, video), and does the church use social media?
  • Does the website gives examples of where church members can get involved in using technology, and are these supporting roles (e.g. operating AV equipment) or creative (video production, animation, graphical design etc.)?
  • Does the church use only its own resources, or point people to carefully chosen external resources?
  • How well is the church website digitally integrated into the Christian community in the Aylesbury area (e.g. by advertising events at other churches)?
  • How well is the church website integrated into the wider community, for example by linking to groups from outside the church that use its facilities during the week (e.g. NHS support groups, fitness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous)?

This survey had some obvious limitations. It only provided a snapshot of a church’s digital footprint at one moment in time, it only included items that churches chose to externally advertise (so intra-church WhatsApp groups got overlooked) and so on. Despite this, I thought it was a worthwhile activity to try. Modern technology has already changed the world, and a good question to ask is whether the church (as a whole) is making the best use of it. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, this is a question I felt I could have a reasonable go at assessing. As a by-product, I gained a good overview of the Christian groups in the area and how they are involved in their wider communities. Which is no bad thing.

Here is some of what I found out.

And the winner of “Best Website” goes to…

Okay, I’m not really going to rank church websites in order of greatness. But some are better than others. Overall, churches with a larger congregation or from a more modern denomination (e.g. Vineyard, New Frontiers) had a better web presence. In comparison, smaller, more established congregations were weaker in this area. This was true of churches in the town as well as in the surrounding villages.

The obvious reason I can think of for this is that making and maintaining a website takes resources (a lot of time, some money) and a degree of expertise. Also, technology (particularly social media) skews towards the skill set of younger people, and there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation whereby tech-savvy people are pulled towards a church that is already tech-savvy…

Some of the best use of technology was actually by churches set up to cover the new housing estates. With hindsight this is hardly surprising, as taking into account their target audience (and in some cases lack of a building) they have had to innovate and engage with modern methods of communication in order to succeed.

The stopping point

Some websites were very basic, giving little more detail than services times, contact details and information that certain types of activity existed during the week. Others were much more fully-featured with libraries of recorded sermons (though some of these seemed to be pretty erratic selections), information on volunteering opportunities, pages describing social action and supported missionaries, and so on.

There was a point at which even the best websites ran out: creative content and resource curation. Some churches had music they had recorded, book reviews, or an introductory video. However, creative content of this sort was always pretty limited. Also, there was generally little attempt to link to external resources, even from within the same denomination. There’s an obvious reason for these things – creating content takes time (it takes me a day to write something as long as a blog post), and so does updating websites. Blogs and “news” sections in particular were often rather like zombies – they’re dead, they’ve clearly been dead for a long time, but they get trapped in an archive as no-one can bear to finish them off.

Everything community

When it came to “community” I was particularly interested in three things: how well churches cooperated with each other, how well churches catered for special interest groups, and how well churches seemed to be integrated with the wider community.

For the first of these, the short answer is: when it comes to technology, most churches hardly seem to interact with each other at all. For one church to link to events or resources at another did happen, but it was actually quite rare – even within a denomination.

Some special interest groups were well catered for. Most churches had a children’s programme, though the extent of it varied. Likewise, there was often provision made for senior citizens, men’s and women’s ministry, and mother-and-baby groups. This was often the point at which official programmes ran out. This isn’t really surprising, as most churches are of a similar size (more than fifty, max a few hundred), have a quorum of children and the elderly to care for, and both too few people in other special interest groups and too little time for running anything else.

When it comes to integration with the wider community, the visibility of this on websites varies greatly. Some churches have a wide programme of social action going on and are keen to talk about it. At the other end of the spectrum, some seem reluctant even to mention the public-service organisations (NHS support groups, disabled clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous etc.) that use their buildings during the week. And few indeed mention those that operate at other churches.

Drawing the threads together and making suggestions

In one sense my survey is now way out of date. As a result of the coronavirus lockdown, churches have been adopting new technology across the board in order to keep functioning. The church I go to now has an active social media group for the whole church, Zoom services on a Sunday, and even Zoom homegroups during the week. However, running in the background there is a strong undercurrent of “this situation is temporary, then we’ll be able to get back to meeting together in person.” Which naturally leads to the question: if the lockdown ends soon, will the new technology be jettisoned as quickly as it has arrived?

I think its an open question. Lockdown is a developing situation, and even the best guess is unlikely to be totally right. The thing that concerns me is not so much whether my particular church keeps this or that specific bit of technology going, but rather that in the desire for the familiarity of physical community the church (in the broader sense) might simply return to what it was doing before without giving the wider role of technology much thought.

Over the last few years I have been thinking that it would be a good idea if churches worked together more. Here are a few ways in which greater cooperation in the digital sphere would be useful:

  • Currently each church reinvents the same wheel. Is there any margin in the idea that churches work together on shared webspace, freeing up resources for doing extra things rather than duplicating the same functionality? As an example: the evidence suggests that no church can support a “church blog”. But if churches worked together, maybe they could?
  • Currently, larger churches have better technological capability, i.e. in a sense there is “digital poverty/inequality.” Is there a way in which more tech-savvy, larger churches can partner with smaller churches in the same area (even crossing denominational bounds)?
  • Digital roles tend to be support rather than explicitly creative, and creative work tends to be limited to introductory videos and youth work. Is there a way in which like-minded individuals from across the churches can be teamed up to make something more significant in the adult space?

Perhaps some of these things are already going on. In which case, do leave a comment below!

Phew. This post has got rather long. Hopefully there is something to get you thinking. One final suggestion:

Somebody please come up with a way for Christians in the same part of town to get to know each other! Currently people living a street away drive to different parts of town for church and don’t know each other exist. This is bonkers!!

See you in the next post!