Analysis: a new survey of clergy, ministers and faith leaders has some surprising findings about online religious practice 

By Gladys Ganiel, Queen's University Belfast

Across Ireland, church buildings now lie empty almost all the time due to Government restrictions on public gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic. But a new survey of faith leaders in Ireland reveals there has been a surprising increase in online religious practice during the pandemic. People are praying more - and faith leaders and communities are showing remarkable resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges.

I developed the survey in partnership with the Irish Council of Churches/Irish Inter-Church Meeting. It was distributed to more than 2,000 clergy, ministers and faith leaders, north and south, via direct email and there were 439 responses between May 6th and 22nd

'People still need us'

The title of the survey report, published today by the Irish Council of Churches, is "People Still Need Us". A Catholic priest wrote those words in response to an open-ended question about what faith communities should learn from ministering through the pandemic.

From RTÉ News, a report on how church services and masses have moved online due to the Covid-19 crisis

Prior to the pandemic, this priest's statement could not have been taken for granted. In the past, people often turned to religion in times of crisis. But it might have been assumed that citizens of a rapid-secularising 21st century island, still reeling from the legacy of clerical abuse scandals, would have broken this historical mould.

Yet 89% of faith leaders reported that faith had helped people cope with stress during the pandemic. While this high figure could be attributed to faith leaders’ own confirmation biases, they also provided examples of how faith had helped people cope. The respondents wrote about increased prayer and people who had previously demonstrated no interest in faith tuning in to online religious services. 

‘Frankly astonishing’

Faith leaders have been taken aback by the interest in religion. "The numbers of people we have engaged with online have been frankly astonishing", a Church of Ireland minister confessed. Other surveys have indicated that virtual viewership of religious services is similar to the numbers of people who would have attended church prior to the pandemic. In April, research commissioned by the Iona Institute found that 27% of people in the Republic had tuned in to religious services, while a Tearfund survey found the figure to be 39% in Northern Ireland.

But there are indications that online religion is appealing beyond the base of regular churchgoers. Earlier this month, RTÉ reported that companies streaming religious services had documented a ten-fold increase in traffic, revealing that half a million people across Ireland were viewing Sunday masses. There is also a steady demand for online pilgrimages and other services.

70% of faith leaders agreed they would retain aspects of their online ministries when restrictions on public gatherings are lifted

While tuning in to a religious service during an extended period of lockdown is a low bar for measuring religious practice, my survey suggests that there may be some substance behind the almost unbelievably high numbers of reported viewers.

A Baptist wrote of "people with no prior church connection making contact through online church services", while a Catholic priest said he was "taken by pleasant surprise at the demand for the online streaming of mass". Evangelicals wrote of people being "saved" or "born again" through online ministries. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today Show, Dublin-based priest Fr Michael Collins on how the Catholic Church adopted to coronavirus during Easter

Faith communities’ efforts to move religion online have certainly been impressive. If anything, the pandemic has forced faith in Ireland to embrace the digital age. Before the pandemic, 44% of faith communities did not provide online worship, but only 13% do not do so now. Before the pandemic, no one was responsible for online outreach in 31% of faith communities, a figure which is now just 7%. Meanwhile, 70% of faith leaders agreed they would retain aspects of their online ministries when restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.

While faith leaders have disproportionately taken on responsibility for new online services, the rush to move religion online has mobilised more laypeople to become involved with this aspect of ministry. There also were examples of lay people assisting leaders with pastoral care, including virtual visiting and telephone calls. As a Methodist said, it has been encouraging to ‘see lay people becoming more engaged in the discovery that the Church is not the building.’ 

‘I could keep the church heated from the shrine candles alone!’

Faith leaders’ write-in observations about increased prayer were striking because we did not ask specific questions about prayer. In the Republic, where church buildings have remained open for prayer throughout the pandemic, a priest remarked "I could keep the church heated from the shrine candles alone!" A Presbyterian reported that "numbers going online for prayer meetings have tripled" and a Catholic Religious wrote "some who had previously shown no interest in faith or hostile towards Church have requested prayers". 

82% of faith leaders who are cocooning for age or underlying health reasons have continued their ministry

This trend is in line with comparative international research from the University of Copenhagen. It found that iGoogle searches for prayer were at the highest level ever recorded in March, with searches 50% higher than the previous month before a global pandemic was declared. 

"It has been exhausting"

At the same time, faith leaders have continued in their traditional roles of burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, and facilitating the provision of social services in the wider community. These roles are of such societal importance that clergy and religious staff have been designated as "key workers" by both the Irish and UK governments. 

The survey revealed that 74% of faith communities of the largest denominations were providing social services to the wider community during the pandemic. Just 25% of faith communities had decreased their services during the pandemic. A remarkable 82% of faith leaders who are cocooning for age or underlying health reasons have continued their ministry. It is not surprising therefore that 46% said their ministry had been more stressful than usual, with 33% saying stress had been "about the same". As a Presbyterian put it, "it has been exhausting".

From RTÉ Six One News, calls for the government to lift restrictions on people attending funerals

The experiences that faith leaders rated the most stressful were comforting those bereaved by Covid-19, comforting those bereaved of other causes, conducting funerals, "feeling guilty that I am not doing enough to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic" and learning new skills for online ministry. There are added financial pressures as churches, along with other charitable organisations, experience declines in donations. It seems likely that the pandemic will result in the closure of church buildings.

Faith leaders and communities have so far played a more important and positive societal role during the pandemic than might have been expected. But whether this continues likely depends on people who have expressed a renewed interest in prayer and online religion becoming more involved in the full life of faith communities, relieving pressure on hard-working leaders and volunteers.  

The full survey can be found here.

Dr Gladys Ganiel is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ