Online church has become more commonplace in recent years, with onsite churches closed during lockdowns in the current global COVID-19 pandemic. After the lifting of restrictions, some churches have moved to a hybrid model of church; where churchgoers gather both online and in a church building. We designed a questionnaire to find out people’s experiences of online, onsite and hybrid church, find out which parts of each type of church experience work and do not work so well. All information collected was anonymous. The questionnaire was open to anyone known to inclusive church or partner organisations who shared the questionnaire. We noted the number of people who responded to each option for closed questions, and looked for patterns and themes in free text questions.
In total, there were 73 responses. Whilst most respondents identified themselves as female (49; 67%), there were respondents of all genders. There was also a wide variety of denominations represented. Church of England was the most popular denomination (46; 63%). Nearly everyone had attended online church (72; 99%). Most respondents have attended during the length of the pandemic of 1-2 years (55; 75%). Respondents’ experiences of online church were overall positive. 53 respondents (73% ) rated their experience as varying degrees of positive, and 29 respondents (40%) rated their experience as a positive or very positive.
Experiences of online church
Accessibility was reported to be the top reason why online church works, with feeling a sense of community through online church, and the ease of accessing online church as other key findings. Some respondents expressed frustration in the delay to make church accessible to those unable to attend onsite church, and concern the provision would end after the pandemic. The degree to which respondents’ felt part of an online community was more variable, with overall mixed experiences reported. Amongst this mixed picture, 17 participants (23%) stated they very much felt a part of an online community. When online church does not work, there appears to be issues with translating the content and activities onto an online format, limitations with technology and inaccessible materials. Sometimes online church can feel less participatory, and that churchgoers can feel like spectators or observers rather than partaking in worship. Where online church felt more participatory, people were creative in replicating interactive gathering spaces (Zoom breakout rooms were mentioned as particularly useful). A small proportion of answers indicate online church either does not work for some people (e.g., accessibility reasons) or personal preference to be in church face-to-face.
Experiences of onsite church
One third of respondents (25) reported finding onsite church inaccessible to varying degrees. Although many respondents reported finding onsite church accessible (48, 66%), many responses flagged something that does not work for them in onsite church. Inaccessible aspects of the church, service, or worship was the most reported finding, with inaccessibility faced by disabled, neurodivergent and D/deaf people, as well as the timing of the service (for example, clashing with paid work or caring commitments) . Some respondents found the group dynamics in some churches difficult, including feeling like an outsider and pressure to take part in activities. The aspect of onsite church which appears to work for most people is the community and fellowship of meeting in a face-to-face environment. Interactive activities in services like singing, sharing food and communion were also mentioned as positives of onsite church. However when asked what works about onsite church, there were some responses which indicate that for some people, onsite church is a less positive experience.
Experiences of hybrid church
Most respondents (43; 59%) have tried hybrid church. Of those who have tried hybrid church, the fact that people can gather both in the building and online was reported as positive by the most respondents. Hybrid church was also seen as more accessible, flexible and inclusive by many. The main issue respondents have faced doing hybrid church are technological issues, including the equipment being expensive, equipment not always working well or poor quality output. In spite of the flexibility of hybrid church as positive, some felt it might cause a ‘split community’ or feel joining from online gives a lesser experience.
Experiences of leading worship or events online
Roughly 50% of respondents had either lead worship or other events held online. Those who had lead worship or other events had a variety of roles and levels of responsibility, varying from leading prayers, whole services, readings to other church related gatherings (e.g., meetings, quiz nights, training). A mixture of experiences were reported; one recurring difficulty that some faced was finding it difficult to present without an audience. The mixed experiences of leading worship and events echo the mixed experiences of online and hybrid church mentioned earlier.
Improvements to church experiences
Out of all three format options (online church, onsite church and hybrid church), online church was endorsed the least times, with the majority of responses being in favour of either onsite or hybrid church. In regards to improving both online and onsite experiences of church, the format of the service and technological issues were the top aspects endorsed as needing improvement. This mainly centred around getting technology working and being used properly. Some respondents also wanted more consultation in their churches, and others were keen to improve the accessibility of both their church buildings and the church service and social environment.
Overall, online church is seen as accessible when the content is accessible and the format allows for participation which fits each churchgoers needs and preferences. A sense of community is deemed important in all three modes of church; the format and content of the service, as well as technology used in online and hybrid services, appear to influence how people gather, to what degree people can participate in the service and people’s experiences. Experiences of feeling a part of, and taking part in, online communities appears to be more mixed. Accessibility requirements are important in all modes of church, and disabled and neurodivergent people are one group who can benefit from the more flexible access that online and hybrid modes of church can offer. However, some attitudes to providing this can be less positive, and should be seen as ‘another way to access and do church’; ‘for when two or three gather in my name, there I am with them’ (Matthew 18:20, NIV).
This summary was written by Krysia Waldock, who has helped enormously with the shaping of the consultation and the gathering of the findings. Krysia is a PhD candidate at University of Kent and a member of the planning team for the IC/St Martin-in-the-Fields Conference on Disability and Church.