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  • Writer's pictureMark Fairweather-Tall

Learning from Lockdown - a lesson from TV?

Over 27 million people tuned in to watch Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 announcement on the 23rd March. BBC1, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News and BBC News all broadcast the address from the Prime Minister that would change the way we live in unprecedented ways. Not only was the subject unusual, but it is rare these days for so many people to sit in front of their television sets at the same time to watch the same thing. The last time anywhere near that number of people did so was for the opening and closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, when just over 24 million people watched together. It used to be different, though.

At one time the whole family would gather to watch the ‘must see’ TV show together. Over 30 million people saw Den Watts serve Angie with divorce papers on Christmas Day in 1986. Close to 25 million delighted in seeing Del and Rodney finally see their luck change as they became millionaires in ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Today, though, the way we watch TV has changed. As the 1990s progressed, satellite tv brought choice well in excess of that offered by the five channels previously available and so people were less likely to be watching the same thing. By 2007 iPlayer meant that people weren’t restricted to a particular time to watch, nor did people have to remember to set the video to record as programmes were available on demand and at the touch of a button. Over the last decade names such as Netflix, Prime Video and Now TV have become both more and more familiar and more and more used. In 2015, the Collins English Dictionary announced that their Word of the Year was ‘Binge-watch’ which refers to watching one episode after another of a TV show. Things have certainly changed!

This evolution in television watching has taken over twenty years and I wonder whether there is something that we can learn from this? As we entered 2020, the typical church was still focussed around the church family coming together for the main event at a certain time on a Sunday morning, much as television was in the 80s and early 90s. Church statistics tell us, though, that there has been an increasing decline in attendance at services. Add to this the fact that fewer and fewer in the younger age groups are going to church and the picture is, to say the least, worrying.

Then on March 23rd there was a shock of seismic proportions – churches could no longer meet in their buildings. Suddenly we were forced into change and for many that has meant embracing the digital age. Within days, social media became alive with Christian content. This includes streaming of services which can be watched live or at a time that suits. For those that watch it live, there is often the opportunity to interact in ‘live chat’. People can share what they believe God is saying; people can highlight the things that are particularly speaking to them in what they are watching; people can put in their own prayer requests. No longer are we working to the ‘old model’ of ‘come along and listen to the preacher and sit quietly’; no longer is it about the person from the front offering ‘their’ prayers in ‘their’ particular way. Things have certainly changed!

Add to this the variety of content that is available. It isn’t just about the full service, but many are offering reflections during the week that are much shorter and can easily be engaged with. This is perhaps proving attractive to people who would not normally go to church as it is there at a time that suits them and at a more manageable length than a full church service.

However, it isn’t just the occasional or non-church goers that are benefiting. The conversations I am having with various ministers and churches suggest that there are many in church life who are feeling more connected than ever before. Why? Could the answer, at least in part, be down to the fact that the focus has shifted away from the gatherings in our church buildings? Is it because we are making more effort to connect with people where they are during the week? Whether it is prayer groups offered through platforms like ‘WhatsApp’, a regular phone call or Bible Studies hand delivered or conducted via Zoom, church people are connecting in new ways. We have moved from a ‘come to us’ approach to one where ‘we will go to you’.

This journey for the church has taken place not over twenty years but just a few weeks. I believe there is much to be admired about the speed with which churches have adapted to new circumstances. And early research, alongside anecdotal evidence, suggests something that might surprise us… more people are engaging than before. A Tearfund survey suggests that a quarter of adults in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began. What is particularly noteworthy is that the survey found a third of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 have watched or listened to an online religious service.

Now I wouldn’t want to suggest for one moment that when restrictions finally ease, I, and many others, won’t be delighted to be able to meet together to worship corporately. And I want to emphasise the importance of doing precisely this. I realise that the increased time people are spending in their homes gives more opportunity to engage, and this is very likely to account for some of the increased participation that we are seeing. However, I wonder if one of the lessons we are learning from lockdown is that our focus as churches has been so much on gathering at a certain time and place, that we have neglected the opportunity of engaging in more creative ways? With our buildings out of use we have been forced into new ways of connecting that often allows for greater interaction and increased flexibility of when people can join in. Is it just possible that this is something we do not want to lose? The way we watch television has changed dramatically and forever. I wonder, will the same be said of the church in 2020?

What do you think? What are you learning from Lockdown? We would love you to share your thoughts. We are holding a Zoom conversation on Monday 18thMay at 2pm. Why not join the conversation?

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