by Pete Phillips, Centre for Digital Theology, Durham University
Over the last summer, we began some research in my job at Durham University about how people are engaging with online faith-related activities. We went to an opinion polling company and asked them to ask their online panel about whether they engaged regularly with one of the following faith-related activities:
engaging in worship online
thinking about nature online
singing in a choir online
doing yoga online
We found that people were happy to talk about faith-related activities in this rather anonymous way - indeed faith offline faired much better than So we were surprised that during the three months of the poll, online worship increased from 24-28%, and noted as well that over a quarter of those questioned said they engaged in regular prayer online - with up to half of young adults regularly praying both offline and online.
Those figures are interesting because they seem to be much higher than we would have expected from other surveys such as the British Social Standards survey or from the church attendance figures published in British Religion in Numbers. Those figures suggest that between 5% and 9% of the British population attend church regularly. Indeed, by regular, this means once a month. But the figure for the polls suggest the figure was 31% before the lockdown and around 26% for online worship during the lockdown associated with the COVID19 pandemic.
Anonymous Faith in Contemporary Society
Sociologists like Abby Day have repeatedly pointed out that people are happier to say that they are people of faith in an anonymous poll than they are to attend faith related activities. In other words, it's easier for people to explore faith anonymously than to turn up in church - after all engaging in faith activities is sometimes a risky business in contemporary UK culture. Indeed, online church's greatest bonus is that it provides so many people with a way of attending church from the comfort of their own home rather than having to enter into the new and foreboding territory of a church building.
Anonymous, secret faith may well be on the increase as society becomes more and more secularised and during pandemic more people than ever might lean ever closer towards God for comfort and assurance.
So, those 50% of young adults who say they are engaging regularly in online prayer, let's take them at their word. Let's accept that we seem to have a fair few people in our society who may be tacitly exploring faith during the lockdown - taking a peep at worship from the safety of their homes, praying online and offline for God to protect their loved ones or to find a job for themselves in difficult circumstances. Who express their faith commitment in reflecting on nature, bathing in the forest, gazing at the stars - as a sign of their increasing interest in a God beyond their personal faith. But we need to connect with them.
We should be asking what we are doing to connect with these anonymous seekers of faith, these secret followers of God.
How do we connect?
One way might be to identify ourselves with faith on social media - to talk faith, to do God, to demonstrate that faith is an important aspect of our life.
Do people know you are a Christian? Do people know you speak to God? Do people know that you go to church? Or are we too anonymous Christians as regards our social media engagement? Of course, we need to engage carefully and wisely. We live in a country which is so befuddled with old customs of keeping your faith private whereas we are called to shout it from the rooftops!
Identify with issues of faith - on social media, in the workplace, with your friends and family. Own up to the name so that The Name will own up to you.
Talk about how you live out your faith - talk about going to church, saying your prayers, reading your Bible - be open about how much faith matters to you.
Be prepared to listen to what people have to say in response.
Let the conversation develop naturally, openly...never force your faith upon someone
Be a friend not a preacher!
In our research, we noted how little social media accounts mentioned faith. It was almost as if social media was where you performed everything except faith. Perhaps as Christians we need to sensitively, peaceably, quietly shift the agenda and seed social media with a gospel of love and acceptance. Your friends may well greet this with questions of faith and openness. You may well be providing them with an opportunity to talk about their own faith online...
See this link for more on friendship and evangelism and here for some issues around the concept if it is taken in the wrong way - if you forget to talk about God, you're not doing evangelism at all.
BTW - Have you seen our MA Course in Digital Theology at Spurgeon's College. We're taking enrolments now for September 2021: Apply Here