The full results of the Kirk’s Listening Project have now been published, with the pivotal move to online worship during the pandemic causing Kirk members to reflect deeply on a wide range of issues, including the future of Church, as well as the challenges and opportunities that have been raised.
The research team found that people’s experiences of faith and church during the pandemic were very diverse, with a broad range of perspectives emerging, dependent on how they and their congregation and community experienced and responded to the pandemic.
‘Encouraging and challenging in equal measure’
The Listening Project survey, which ran between November 2020 and February 2021, was borne out of a request by the Assembly Trustees to encourage everyone across the Church to reflect on their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic and share their perspectives on what the Church has been (or should be) learning during this time. All responses to the survey were anonymised.
Introducing the full report, Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, chair of the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Trustees, said:
“Following the release of the headlines of this Listening Project some weeks back, I have been eagerly awaiting this more comprehensive report. I’m so grateful for everyone who shared their own experiences and perspectives and for those who have worked to enable the rest of us to hear these many and varied voices.
The big negative is the ache, the longing to worship together, and the realisation that this could be for a while yet.
“As members of the Body of Christ it is vital that we listen to one another. We easily assume that our own experiences are typical, but a great value of a project like this is the way it highlights the enormous breadth and diversity of others’ experiences.
“It is both a gift and a responsibility to read these reflections of others and consider how they should shape our own learning and practice. As we listen to these voices from across the Church, may we also be inspired to engage in our own prayerful reflection on this time of pandemic and be creative in finding ways to listen to others.”
Reflecting on its findings, Dr Steve Aisthorpe, who coordinated the Listening Project, said:
“Perhaps the most striking thing in all we have heard is the huge breadth of experiences and the real passion expressed in many of the contributions.
“Listening to the diverse voices of those who participated in the project feels intimate and privileged. People clearly took time to reflect and share honestly and personally.
“Some themes within the total data collected were quite polarised in nature. For example, people tended to either share very positive or very negative experiences of pastoral care.
“However, many of the most prominent themes are made up of a whole range of perspectives. Nobody will read this report and not be enriched by hearing from all these people from across the Church. It is encouraging and challenging in equal measure.”
‘The longing to worship together’
Out of all of the feedback collated, the three most popular themes were around technology (87%), worship (82%) and fellowship (68%) – both positive and negative in nature.
With technology (which often overlapped with the theme of worship), opposing views were raised on how it’s been used in local congregations. Two participants, who found it beneficial during this time, praised the ability to reach across geographical areas and knock down barriers:
I feel my faith has deepened and my interest in seeking after God has grown.
“We’ve used technology to be there for each other, to share and study God’s word … I’ve felt closer to other people doing similar jobs to me across the country than ever before. We’ve networked and built community. A Bible study on Zoom works – parents don’t need babysitters.”
“I feel my faith has deepened and my interest in seeking after God has grown. I have found myself dipping into some of the Church of Scotland services and HTB [Holy Trinity Brompton] services and getting a lot from them.’”
Whilst some people highlighted concerns regarding possible exclusion for those who have no access to the Internet:
“Not everybody has access to the Internet or Zoom so one danger in the Church is that we unintentionally leave people out.”
Most participants who indicated they had no access to the Internet reported that their congregations had kept them included in other ways (mostly by telephone), but there was a minority who felt that they had been “cut off” or “detached” due to their church focussing too much on online worship and fellowship.
One of the biggest losses felt by participants during the pandemic has been the lack of in-person fellowship. One participant said:
“The big negative is the ache, the longing to worship together, and the realisation that this could be for a while yet. Very badly missing the people, being able to visit folks in my district, the social occasions. Have not been able to meet as a Kirk Session since January. Deep sadness that we cannot be at Church during Advent or at Christmas.”
Whilst other participants felt that the new styles of online fellowship had allowed them to contribute in new ways, with one person saying:
“As church services were unable to be held in church I was invited to join the worship group and together we put a morning service on line every Sunday and a mid-week reflection. The Sunday service has continued on line every evening for those still unable to attend church. This has been so rewarding in seeing people working together being guided by God and growing in their faith and confidence in sharing their faith with others.”
Overall, there was an agreement that, whilst the new forms of technology have allowed churches to grow in new and encouraging ways, in-person fellowship is still a much-valued part of people’s experience of what Church is about:
“I miss traditional worship in the C of S and if it doesn’t go back to the way it was I will probably not return. That is not to say that virtual worship has no place. But it should supplement traditional worship.”