I’ve recently had a new article published in Witness (a USA-based journal). At the moment, it’s only available to members and subscribers, but I am permitted to provide a copy of it here on my blog. I’ve also included the abstract below.
I didn’t expect to go there, but analysing the data from the case study church took me back to my PhD research on contemporary conversion.
The covid-19 global pandemic radically interrupted all areas of life, including forcing churches to adapt their worship, mission, and pastoral care within new constraints of physical distancing. This article explores a case study of how one church communicated the message of faith; connected with, and cared for attenders, the wider community, and others; and experimented with different forms of worship and ministry during covid-19. Drawing on data from a questionnaire, focus groups, interviews, content analysis and participant observation, the article demonstrates the importance of amplifying a message consistent with one’s values, providing opportunities for warm connection, and continuing to make iterative change to ministry practices. Considering this alongside recent research on contemporary conversion, the paper affirms the significance of relational authenticity in engaging in Christian witness, including when the church is forced into unfamiliar and undesired realities. Churches can be encouraged by the potential fruitfulness of multiple voices communicating the significance and meaning of their faith; being honest about life’s challenges; and encouraging and resourcing engagement in spiritual practices as means of Christian witness, including in challenging times.
Taylor, L. M. (2021). “Reaching Out Online: Learning From One Church’s Embrace Of Digital Worship, Ministry And Witness.” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education, 35, 1-14.
I don’t know if you experienced and remember the sense of
hope that perhaps the world and the church might be different in the future, because
of the pandemic. Maybe we’ll discover ways to live without trashing the planet.
Maybe we’ll find new ways of being the church in our local communities. Maybe
we’ll live into new ways of caring for one another. Maybe there are things that
we learn and do that might become part of our future, rather than just being
One person I interviewed described it like this: “What might
be normal going forward might be different, but we get to build that. We get to
decide what that is.” There was a sense of determined anticipation that the future
could be different, and we could be involved in shaping that.
At the same time, there was some resignation by then (March 2021) that much had returned to an old normal. That many church members simply wanted a return to what was, rather than a turn to what could be. That’s not surprising: a return to familiarity can be comfortable and comforting.
But let’s be honest. The Church is in decline and the things that have been done over past generations are not all that will be required into the future. So dream a little dream! (Or a big dream, even.) Imagine what could be. Look back in your journal on your computer and see what new and fresh things sparked a sense of joy and anticipation. What old or ancient practices were reinstated? What new things grew? As I write this, we’re still in Alert Level 4, here in Aotearoa New Zealand. None of us want to be here. So read this in the light of the previous nine things I also wanted to say.
Look back and draw on past strength; and live into and out
of your values. Those things will help sustain you. Lean into God, in whom our
hope and strength are found. Name the challenge: it’s hard, right? Prioritise connection
and invite participation. Be “good enough”: perfection not required; perfection
not possible. Invite people (online) into your place, even if it’s a bit messy
or muddly. Keep an eye out for God at work. Get people involved, reaching out
to others. And, strengthened and empowered by all that, dream a little dream of
what might be.
There are many things that are crucial to our wellbeing as
humans. In addition to our more obvious physical needs, some scholars talk in terms
of three inherent needs: autonomy, belonging and competency. Needless to say, pandemics
impact negatively on all three! Competency relates to a sense of purpose and
mastery – having something important to do and knowing that you do it well.
Belonging relates to a sense of connection and attachment to others: more
difficult to achieve when physical distancing is mandated, and travel
restricted or prohibited. Autonomy relates to a sense of being in control,
which is obviously diminished by uncertainty around lockdowns and the wider ongoing
One way that all three can be enhanced in covid times is through the simple act of reaching out to others. In the context of the church, this can be approached informally as everyone is encouraged to care for their friends and whanau. It can be approached formally through creating pastoral care structures that ensure each person is linked to others in the church; each caring and being cared for. Or there might be an approach somewhere in the middle, where informal care is encouraged, and those with particular needs matched with someone who can check in on them. However it happens, it’s good to celebrate its significance!
Autonomy is enhanced as the caregiver makes the effort to
offer care: as they decide for themselves to act in a way that is caring towards
another. This can give them some sense of having control over their actions.
Belonging is enhanced as relationships deepen, and the caregiver sees what they
are doing as making an important contribution to the church community. Competency
is enhanced as the carer regains a sense of purpose: they are doing something
that is important and is valued.
We often see such actions in terms of the benefits for the recipients
of that care, but in reality, they also benefit the one doing the caring. There’s
reciprocity here – the benefits go both ways.
Therefore, ministers can be encouraged to name and celebrate
the importance and significance of caring beyond one’s own bubble. Of taking
the time and making the effort to reach out to others. Sounds like a win-win to
(Of course, we need to ensure that there are clear ways that
people can escalate any concerns that they may have about those they are reaching
out to. In this way, appropriate pastoral, spiritual and practical care can be
offered to those who need it.)
I’ve just submitted a journal article – the first to come out of my current research on how churches responded to covid-19. It’s based on a case study of one church (I’m calling it ABC).
In it I note the congruence between ABC’s vision and values and what they’ve done over the past 15 months. I hope it will encourage churches to live into and out of their (presumably good!) vision and values. To not try to be something online that they are not offline. And to keep the wider purpose at the centre of what they do.
Hopefully the article will make it through peer review in the next few months. (Peer review is like getting your essay marked, but you (hopefully) get a chance to fix the things that need fixing, and it gets published).
Once it’s published, I’ll be able to post a link so you can read it for yourself. Watch this space (but don’t hold your breath: these things take time!)
One of the things that I do in my not-working-for-Uni time, is provide demographics based on the Census data to local churches. It’s something I have done since forever (er, since the 1986 data was released as Supermap2 in the early 1990s).
It has taken a bit longer than usual, but I’ve now got the NZ 2018 Census data ready to be made into data on your local community.
Why do this? Because I believe it’s important for churches to be engaged and embedded in their local communities. And part of that, is understanding who makes up that community. I reckon that God was and is into local communities – God sent Jesus, after all. That was pretty local.
If you’re interested, there is a sample profile that you can download here. (Page 1 is below). Details on how to order are here.
Today (26 February) marks twelve months since the first person suffering from covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. As I re-read the media release from the 28 February 2020 (the date the case was confirmed), I was struck again by how well New Zealand has, from the outset, handled this pandemic.
This time last year,
isolation was already possible and required: a negative pressure room in the
hospital was used for the patient: a woman in her 60s, and her family members
were placed in isolation. Contact tracing was underway and close contacts were being
tested. The messaging from the Ministry of Health was reassuring; from the headline,
notifying of a “single case” to the final sentence advertising the free 24/7 covid-19
Healthline number. Medical staff were using protective equipment, and district health
boards across the country had “been preparing” for this.
In addition, however,
the “high degree of uncertainty” was noted: this was a “rapidly evolving” situation.
It was uncharted territory. While there were principles, protocols and plans to
draw on, the actual path was unknown.
The need to work
together as a team was named and affirmed: “Keeping individuals, families and
our communities safe and healthy in the current global environment requires a
team effort and that’s what we’re seeing across New Zealand.”
Of course, none of
these systems were perfect. All required (and continue to require) iterative
change as more is known about the disease, as case numbers rose, as things began
to return to a new sort of normal, and as cases continue to crop up.
Twelve months on, it is appropriate to pause and be glad of how we’ve traveled this past year. It’s also appropriate to pause and remember the 2369 people in New Zealand who have suffered from covid-19, and the 26 people who have died, along with their friends and families who continue to mourn their loss. It is appropriate to think of all those who have worked so hard to help us as a nation to come through as well as we have.
This twelve-month marker is a good opportunity to look back over
the past year and see what we have learnt and can be learning. I’m sure I’m not
alone in doing so! Many will be considering this remarkable period from various
perspectives. Me, I’m thinking primarily about how churches responded to the
As I have been trawling church websites, and listening to church
leaders, to church services and to international discussions over the past year,
my particular question has been around how churches are working to support human
wellbeing. How have they engaged in pastoral care? In what ways have they been
involved in their wider communities? What has been the shape of worship, when
gathering in person was not possible. What
changes that were made during lockdown have been retained once restrictions have
been lifted? I’m curious about what has changed and what motivated those
changes, what has remained the same or returned to normal, and what the future
might look like. I have the privilege of 5 months set aside to focus primarily
on these questions.
To date, I have primarily explored the worship services
offered during lockdowns and afterwards. In writing this, I am drawing on
analysis of those services, and the data from an online questionnaire completed
by nearly 100 church leaders in New Zealand and Australia. It is early days in
terms of my analysis and writing, but here are some things that I have observed
so far. (I’ve opted not to point to the wider literature here.)
Some churches were ready to go online, some were not, but
generally they “went” regardless.
Many online services on the 29th of
March began with words along the lines of “this is not as anyone would have expected.”
Watching the earliest services, one gets a sense of the leaders’ discomfort at
being on screen; their shock at the unfolding situation; hope, trust and eager anticipation
that they could still be the church despite distance; and a strong desire to do
their very best, while aware that today’s best had room for improvement.
Some churches were able to build on existing
innovations. For instance, one was already live streaming their services, but realised
that there was much more that they could be doing with the technology.
That leader also perceived that they had also been
prepared spiritually, noting that during 2019 they had explored the theme of
exile, considering how they would remain connected to God in the midst of great
There were various reasons why some churches did
not offer online services. Some did not have the technology or skills required
to do so. Others reported that their congregations did not want to meet online.
Some had members without internet access, or without the knowledge or ability to
access online services. In some cases, that was perceived to be true of all
members. One leader reported that their leadership, “wanted our ‘scattered’
worship to be accessible to all members, including the 25% who did not have
internet access and were probably the most vulnerable and isolated group” and
so they instead provided printed worship resources via email or into
letterboxes. Another leader reported, “We
decided to let each person go to God for guidance.”
Churches and church leaders made iterative changes to their ministries
as the weeks passed: for example, improving or streamlining the way that they
offered their online worship and offering new online gatherings, and regular reflections
or prayer times.
One church leader was initially concerned about privacy
(and they noted, laughing, “not sure how it was going to go”) and on the first
week recorded selected reflections from their sermon, rather than the full Zoom
service. In subsequent weeks, they recorded the entire service, and protected the
privacy of other participants by being the only face on screen.
Other churches sought to increase ways that
people could participate: “We eventually got the technology together to allow
people to be involved.”
Finding ways to participate was frequently seen by leaders
as important, indeed a priority. Many approaches were taken.
Prayer needs were shared in the chat or comment
Responsive prayers were led by families in their
homes, allowing multiple faces and voices to be heard and seen
Digital prayer and praise walls were created
Photos of regular attenders were shown before or
during the service
One leader reported: “Well we’ve just had our
zoom church service we did it live there were people there with their mics on
and so the responses had other voices; the prayers had other voices the
readings, and even the singing, and it was fabulous.”
Some leaders reported that meeting online
increased participation – more people were involved than would have been in
previous in-person worship.
One noted the “most common comment they received
weekly [was an appreciation that] they were able to see the service and
Covid-19 offered a unique context of solidarity in that ministers,
worship leaders and preachers were in the same situation as their
congregations. They were preaching and speaking into their own challenging
reality as much as they were speaking to others. As they did so, there was
evidence that they offered preaching and worship that was both centred on God, and
designed to bring hope, courage and peace to the listener.
For churches that drew on them, the lectionary texts
provided a ready means for this to occur. On March 29, for example, the Old
Testament text from Ezekiel 37:1-14 provided a rich metaphor of wilderness days,
disorientation, a “dusty sense of hopelessness” and a longing to return to love
and to God and to how things should be. The need for a new orientation was
noted, along with a realisation that the new normal to which we might return
will hopefully be different from the way that way things have been in the past.
In this, we see also how the language of change was used
positively: covid-19 was causing a pivot that was welcomed by many, from churches
of various denominations and sizes.
One leader noted that this was a time of “societal
disorientation” and spoke of the need to trust that a time of “new orientation”
will come. They paraphrased journalist, Rod Oram, as saying of the airline
industry: “They won’t fight the tide. The airline business will come back, but
it won’t be the same.” The underlying message here seemed to be that the same
was true of the Church: it will return, but it can be (or, perhaps, needs to be)
One church, already offering online services
before covid-19, seized the opportunity to improve their systems and platforms.
Another noted their hope that the church and
nation would “find new and different ways of being church and of being community
and of being country.”
Ministers worked hard to ensure their congregations’ pastoral,
practical and spiritual needs were met: one part time leader reported that they
“worked at least twice the amount of usual and is pretty tired.” Many sought to
reassure their congregation that they were not alone. In many congregations,
pastoral care was shared as new networks including prayer and care chains were established
or revitalised. One noted, “the world was flooded with messages of uncertainty
and turmoil, so it was important for us to bring reassurance to as many people
as possible regardless of their recent connection or disconnection to God and
church.” In some cases, such as this, care extended beyond the church, including
as community ministries were adapted, and new initiatives established.
Technology was embraced and initiatives such as daily devotions
or chats offered online during lockdown. Small groups met over Zoom for social
and spiritual purposes. The potential reach was far beyond the church’s usual geographical
bounds, extending internationally in some cases
Some churches returned to old practices and forms as quickly
as they were permitted to (or earlier), which others embraced the ongoing
changes and continue to adapt and innovate.
Evident in the media release reporting the first case were preparedness;
words of reassurance; a naming of the need for values of communality and solidarity
to be at the fore; recognition that this was an unfolding situation and that there
was ongoing need for iterative change. To greater and lesser extents, these same
characteristics are present in the data on how churches responded to COVID-19.
While no one, pre- covid-19 would have expected there would
be an immediate move to online church services, there was still some sense of spiritual
and practical preparedness in the data from churches and ministers. This was evident
in the speed with which churches were able to begin offering online worship and
ministry, however messily, and in the way that they were able to draw on past
spiritual and practical resources. It was, arguably, also evident in the appropriateness
of the lectionary text, drawn on by churches all over the world, on what was (for
most nations) the first week when services could not be held in person.
Reassurance abounded: both in words spoken in sermons and
worship and in faithful online presence. It was a reassurance that found
expression in communal life and in solidarity.
While churches can seem allergic to change, the covid-19 lockdowns
demonstrated that many (perhaps most) can change, and quickly when the
situation requires it. Many churches continued to adapt their practices, and
some continue to do so. Perhaps covid-19 has also demonstrated to the church
that we don’t need to be certain that the changes made will be perfect: rather
iterative improvements and adaptations can be made.
There is much more that could be said! Watch this space and
keep up via
The NZ Census data was released today, and the religious affiliation data makes sobering reading.
As expected, the number and proportion of people with no religion has overtaken the number and proportion of Christians. Massively.
Just 36.99% of New Zealanders state an affiliation with a Christian religion.
48.19% state that they have no religious affiliation.
A quirky 6.66% objected to state.
Maori religions 1.33%
New age etc 0.42%
I’ve started to do some comparative work with previous years’ data, plus denominational breakdowns (and match ups).
The long awaiting national census data was released yesterday, and there is much to digest. As expected, the number and proportion of people with no religion has overtaken the number and proportion of Christians. Massively.
However, as we seek to make sense of the implications, there are a few things to be aware of.
Number of Christians Interestingly, the number of people affiliated with Christianity declined by only 6.5% from 1,858,980 in 2013 to 1,738,638 in 2018. The number of people affiliated with Maori religions, including Ratana and Ringatū, increased by 18.3% from 52,947 in 2013 to 62,638 in 2018. Taking both these categories together, the decline in numbers was just under 6%.
It is also important to note that the wording of the Religion question changed dramatically from 2013 to 2018. In 2013, there was a tick box of options, replaced in 2018 by on open-ended question, inviting a thorough response (“Give as much detail as you need to name your religion, eg Presbyterian, Ratana …”). For Christians, the new wording was a perhaps difficult. The question, “What is your religion?” would, for many, be answered, “Christian” rather than specifying a particular denomination, but the examples provided presumed that a denominational affiliation was required. This change in wording is likely to account for some of the drop in denominational affiliation, and the concurrent increase in those who stated they were Christians, without necessarily further defining a specific denomination (the number of those who responded “Christian” was up 42%, from 216,177 in 2013 307,926 in 2018). (More on this next time.)
Everyone responded Another key difference in 2018 was there were no reported “no responses”. When you consider that nearly 350,000 people did not respond to the question in 2013, this is a major point of difference that needs to be factored into interpretation and analysis. I need to check for sure whether it was compulsory to answer the question in the online form, but if that was the case, as I presume it was, this would likely increase the number of people selecting the “No religion” or “Object to state” boxes (and perhaps account for some of the 4,000 “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” affiliates!) Alternative data sources, including previous census data were used to fill gaps. (Again, I am not clear if that was just for paper-based forms, or if it was also necessary/possible on online completions.)
Data quality Statistics NZ rated the religious affiliation variable data as high quality. Some 8% of responses were sourced from responses to the 2013 Census. While some of those respondents may have changed their religious affiliation, I reckon this is pretty accurate data. Although the pastafarian affiliation may be a little high!
So… Proportion of Christians is definitely way down. Actual numbers of Christians has also dropped, but less dramatically. In 2013, 350,000 people skipped the question. Not the case in 2018. I suspect that is makes the difference between the 2013 and 2018 data larger than it would have been if people had been required to state in 2013, when they would have ticked the “object” or “no religion” box, rather than choosing one of the religious affiliations.
This article recently went up online on Practical Theology.
If you can access journal articles for free through your institution, you can find it here:
If you’d otherwise need to pay, there is a link at the bottom of the abstract that you can use to access it for free.
Actor, Andrew Garfield ‘fell in love with Jesusʼ as he engaged in Ignatian spiritual practices in preparation for playing Father Rodrigues in the movie, Silence (directed by Martin Scorsese, Paramount Pictures, 2016). While the importance of spiritual practices for faith formation is well recognised, spiritual practices are generally associated with developing spiritual maturity rather than with such pre-conversion engagement. This paper considers Garfieldʼs account of meeting Jesus alongside the lived experiences of other recent converts who similarly engaged in spiritual practices before their conversions to Christianity. It argues that understanding the Christian faith as performative helps explain how Christian faith is formed and made real through such embodied acts of ritualised practice.
Access the article for free here: