New generation of worshippers finds faith through surge in online church services

A surge in online worship has seen a rapid growth in congregations which Church of England leaders have heralded as a defining moment in opening up the Christian faith to a new generation of parishioners.

The onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic forced churches across the country to turn to the internet to hold services amid the repeated lockdowns which were introduced to contain the spread of the disease.

But religious leaders in the region have told The Yorkshire Post that online worship has now become a permanent feature, opening up services to a far wider audience.

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Rev Richard Battersby, who oversees the rural parish of Ainsty to the west of York, introduced the first online Sunday service the day before the first lockdown began in March 2020.

The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell delivers his sermon as he is enthroned as the 98th Archbishop of York at a service of Evensong at York Minster on October 18, 2020. The Archbishop claimed last year that the advent of online worship had led to a “digital coming of age". (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Since then, congregations have grown by up to 20 per cent, with 200 worshippers attending services both in person and online across the parish, which has a population of about 1,600 residents.

The opportunities for online worship have seen one of the parishioners, who is a United Nations worker, lead prayers while stationed in the Congo.

The Rev Battersby, who worked as a consultant in the City of London before embarking on his career in the Church, said: “Coronavirus has been such a testing time for everyone, but there have nonetheless been some real positives that have emerged from such an awful situation.

“Communities are a lot stronger and those links that have been forged throughout the past two years are reflected in the strengthening of our congregations as well.”

Research by the Church of England has revealed that more than 9,000 churches – equating to 78 per cent of places of worship – offered Church at Home online, via email, post and telephone during the first lockdown between March and July 2020.

More than 8,000 churches offered livestreamed or pre-recorded services, while more than 5,000 places of worship provided services downloadable from a website or via email.

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, claimed last year that the advent of online worship had led to a “digital coming of age”.

The Church of England’s head of digital, Amaris Cole, said: “Online services and worship have provided people with the chance to gather together, regardless of where they are in the country – or in the world – to experience the consoling message of the Christian faith at what has been a difficult and painful time for many.

“Our vision is that we continue to nurture these online communities – alongside in-person worship – as a way of reaching out to new people and building new communities of faith.”

The rapid rise in online worship has allowed the Church of England to embrace an increasingly diverse audience throughout the past two years.

Thousands of services are listed on the Church of England’s online tool, AChurchNearYou.com, which had 77m page views last year.

The Church is also offering new ways for people to worship during the week through its Daily Prayer podcast, which has reached 2.5m downloads.

Data gathered from 12,700 churches showed rural places of worship were as successful as their urban counterparts in providing remote services once the size of parishes’ pre-pandemic congregations was taken into account.