The Listening Project
Major lessons and takeaways from The Church of Scotland Listening Project.
The Church of Scotland Listening Project was launched on 6 November 2020. People were encouraged to take time to reflect on their life during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were then invited to share how their experiences of faith and church had been impacted – and then to consider what the Church might be (or should be) learning at both local and national levels. Participants shared contributions in their own words via an online form or by telephone.
The period during which the project was open began more than seven months after the original UK lockdown in late March 2020. It was marked by some significant milestones in the pandemic. The COVID-related death toll in the UK totalled just over 48,000 as the project opened, reached 60,000 by early December and exceeded 100,000 by the time the project closed. New strains of the virus emerged during this time, the first vaccines were approved and a vaccination programme began. The level of restrictions varied during the project, but were significant throughout.
Between November and February 2021, a broad cross-section of people in terms of gender, generation, location, church involvement and access to technology connected with the project. Participants included those who are infrequent in their engagement as well as regular attendees at weekly worship and people with particular leadership roles and paid workers. Having received 225 contributions, the project closed in February 2021.
It really is a privilege to hear these voices from across the Church and that comes with a responsibility to respect the unique view of each person and to consider these insights prayerfully. I hope that those who read these “headlines” will be inspired to reflect on their own experiences of this challenging year and, crucially, what might be learned.
Rt Rev. John Chalmers, Chair Assembly Trustees
Making sense of the tens of thousands of words shared with the project has involved a team of volunteers, trained and supervised by experienced researchers. To avoid various kinds of bias in the analysis process, all contributions were anonymised and then scrutinised by at least three people. Although each participant’s contribution was unique, a number of recurring themes emerged. Some of the most prominent main themes are shared below, illustrated with examples of word-for-word quotations. These reflect the range of perspectives shared from a broad cross-section of people from across the Church within this particular period during the pandemic.
The reason the themes below are “headlines” is not because any one individual has decided they represent the most important things. Rather, they are a typical sample of what was “heard” when this broad sample of people were asked to pause, reflect and then share what they considered to be the most important things.
The next phase of the project will involve uploading all the data into a specialist software package, which will allow the themes identified to be cross-referenced with all the demographic details of participants. This will enable a richer and more detailed understanding of what has been learned. A full report will be launched in May, along with resources to help groups and congregations engage with the findings.
A sense of loss
An almost universal theme across participants’ experiences of faith and church during the pandemic is a sense of ‘loss’.
“Miss my church family”
“I miss the fellowship with other Christians at events and the hand of peace at communion.”
“Miss physical attendance at church especially singing hymns and being able to speak to others.”
“Really missed contact with people in Church.”
“for church to be 'removed' from my life by COVID-19 left a big void in the structure of my week.”
“Not being able to attend worship in person has been very difficult. I've missed time with like-minded people and having the opportunity to worship together as a congregation.”
“I miss the fellowship of the church. I miss being a leader in Messy church. I miss worshipping with others.”
Faith, constant or deepening
And yet, in articulating this sense of loss, many participants in the Listening Project explained how their personal Christian faith has either remained strong or deepened during (or because of) the challenges of the pandemic.
“I am (while aware of the suffering and difficulties and heartbreak) thankful to God for 2020. It's been a significant time of growth in my walk with Jesus.”
“My faith has not been shaken by the pandemic. It has probably been strengthened because I have had the time to be more reflective, think about faith in different ways and have had the time to experience a range of online worship and other opportunities. I also know that my connection with prayer has been strengthened.”
“Personally my faith in the living God is bolstered by the pandemic.”
“My faith hasn't changed. God is still with me and beside me on this new journey.”
“I feel that my faith has changed for the better during this pandemic. There will always be the sadness that we cannot get into our sanctuary but it is amazing how you can change what is really important to you in your adaptation of how you follow religion in your life.”
“For me, the most significant positive is that my faith has deepened.”
“My own faith has been strengthened as I have been praying more.”
“My faith has been rejuvenated since the start of COVID-19 and during restrictions thereof.”
Faith, a source of resilience
As well as finding faith to be resilient, many spoke of how their faith had been a source of strength for them.
“I think during the pandemic I have realised how important my faith is. Without God's strength and promises at this time I don't actually think I would have coped as well as I have.”
“Made us realise just how our faith can sustain us and that we are not alone.”
“I feel fortunate to have a faith that is rooted in love and has supported through this trying time. So although I have felt distanced from my 'normal' perception of church, I have never been more dependent on my faith to help me see that there are still many things to be thankful for in our lives.”
“Worry about work and being able to pay rent. The Lord has provided every month. A big lesson in faith to trust God in all.”
While many people spoke of their faith as a constant (or being deepened) and a support during this time, there were some who found their faith challenged, diminished or undermined.
“My faith has wavered during the pandemic.”
“Difficult to maintain faith, questioning it really.”
“Right from beginning my response was tears - of grief, loss but which led to sense of failure as others seemingly coped and sermons exhorted us to trust in God.”
Technology - The wonders and shortcomings
Another almost universal topic within the accounts of those who took part in the Listening Project is the role of technology during the pandemic. For many it has enabled connection. For some it has been a means of creativity. For some it has been a source of frustration or exclusion. For many, the profusion of online opportunities led them to explore different traditions and connect with other (sometimes geographically distant) congregations. While the overall sense is that congregations have used technology in helpful ways, that perception is not universal; some have felt cut off from their own congregation.
“COVID has forced us to shift online and, amazingly, the vast majority of our congregation from age 6 to 86 managed to stay connected through Zoom and other tools. In fact, our mid-week activities attracted much more attendance than the physical versions did before. For example, Bible study moved from twice a year (Lent & Advent) with about half a dozen in attendance to weekly with consistently more than 20 in attendance.”
“I think it will be patchy but Ministers have learnt to use and benefit from technology. Creative use has probably led to engagement with many more people. It’s great to feel part of a larger crowd! Keep developing. Keep engagement. Allow for open not closed structures. Info for all. Participation in ways which work for each and every individual. Zoom on!!!”
“Not everybody has access to internet or Zoom so one danger in the church is that we unintentionally leave people out.”
“I’ve loved the daily encouragement from our church WhatsApp prayer group: bible verses, prayers, songs, requests, answers etc.”
“I enjoy watching church services online and learning how other churches do things differently. I have enjoyed learning new technology enabling people to meet together and video sharing.”
“If we are going to try and engage with people online we can’t simply do a Sunday service with cameras and expect people to tune in. We need to decide if being online is important and, if it is, we must learn from companies and groups that do it well. Many congregations are persisting with Facebook while bemoaning a lack of young people, not realising that young people moved on two years ago. Tik Tok is now reaching a peak so what’s next?”
“on occasions I felt that that ‘church’ and worship on line didn’t reflect or ‘touch’ the reality of what I was facing personally and professionally.”
“You don’t need to attend on a Sunday to participate in worship. With IT there could have been far more interactive worship and learning.”
“It has been good to bring modern technology more to the fore while very greatly regretting the reason why this has happened. But the great number of people who cannot or are not willing to use such means MUST not be forgotten and left out.”
“I have very much enjoyed the streamed service each Sunday. I have accessed other church services online not necessarily from Church of Scotland tradition. I have been amazed at the variety and quality of what’s ‘out there’.”
“Our church has found that they have reached more people than had been coming to church and what we have been doing has reached all areas of the world. From this we have learned the importance of sharing God’s word via technology and the influence on people’s lives.”
“It has opened up the Church worldwide so it is not so circumscribed by time and place.”
“I have a great connection with a church in America, and regularly participate in their online worship. Sometimes feel more part of that church than local church. Some churches here have done well but most have not been great at widening their view of what ‘church’ is, or who their community are.”
“We could listen to the same service our children and grandchildren were watching.”
“I don’t like the on-line meetings and I feel I’m becoming more detached.”
“My mother is a loyal church member, aged 97, no internet - and has had NO contact from the church since her Elder phoned her in March to say the church was closed until further notice. She is one I know of - there must be dozens in our Congregation and hundreds across the country in the same situation. Technology gives an ‘easy fix’ for keeping in touch with many, but we need to work harder to keep those on the margins engaged and included. They are in many cases the most vulnerable at this time - often alone and isolated.”
“I could connect with technology via Zoom to a church in England (a friend is the minister) but unable to have that connection to the Parish Church. I had a more regular time online (again via Zoom) with members of the [name of Christian community] (of which I am a member). I only had intermittent contact with members of my own congregation via the phone.”
“I think we still have a lot to learn about online worship. It’s my view that we will need to end up with a variety of styles and online services. Resourcing these won’t be easy and I think GA or Presbyteries need to assist in some way, or maybe look at specific parish groupings for this purpose. Indeed the whole online idea cuts across territorial ministry.”
Flexibility, creativity, innovation
While technology has, for some individuals and congregations, been a means of adaptation and creativity, many participants spoke of the importance of flexibility, creativity and innovation more generally too. Others expressed disappointment at the lack of these qualities in their experience.
“I’ve witnessed creative methods introduced to keep in touch with the whole church.”
“We’ve learned to be more flexible in terms of worship and how we engage.”
“We’ve become more creative in how we approach different parts of church life; pastoral care, communication, enabling people to worship.”
“We’ve had to be creative in the chaos and it’s been great to use the God given created parts of our brains. We’ve had to do faith at home with our kids and loved the ways families are engaging with God.”
“Disappointed - Could do more to connect with people / communicate - slow to utilise and maximise use of technology - not innovative, not forward thinking, not creative.”
“I think everyone (within and out with the church) has had to learn how to be more creative, how to work in an online space and how to connect with a church that is not a building - never have the words to the hymn "I am the Church" been more relevant!”
“COVID has made some more adventurous church leaders try to be more imaginative in how to communicate the word of God. Church leaders who refuse to think out the box - doing church services in exactly the same way as usual - via Zoom - and live in hope of ‘things getting back to normal’ will find themselves failing to be relevant to the very people (unchurched and churched) who are looking for answers - looking for God.”
The pandemic: a catalyst for change
Many participants mentioned how their experiences during the pandemic have challenged or changed their understanding of ‘church’. They often spoke of the need for change. A hope that life beyond the pandemic does not mean a return to how things were as far as church is concerned is a recurring theme and, within this, the use of buildings is often mentioned.
“We need to rethink how we engage locally and how to start back with activities to challenge people to think about how God fits into their lives - a hymn prayer sandwich fails completely.”
“The world has changed and the church needs to change with it and adapt. Church should not and cannot return to what it was or it will die out. We must not let that happen.”
“Get out the building! consider how to use outside green spaces. Trust him. what is important - Jesus, the Bible, personal time with God, community, love and connections, sharing the gospel. A time to refocus! It’s exciting.”
“Locally we have been learning, slowly and reluctantly, that we can worship God without using the traditional forms. We have been learning that we do not exist to be a holy club – or maybe that is what I hope we have been learning.”
“Have become very much more aware that church is so much about reaching out rather than sitting listening.”
“Hoping that my local faith community doesn’t resume where we left off in March 2020 and has the courage to re-imagine church.”
“There is far more to church than the 11am service. There is an appetite for worship ‘on demand’ to fit in with 21st century lives. The church needs to be far more open technology.”
“Obviously more technical knowledge has been gained. On a more spiritual perspective perhaps we need to learn a new way of worship and not to ‘go back’ to the way we have regarded as traditional.”
“Church needs to drive forward change - too building centric - needs more pioneer and community-based Ministers to address the needs of people and where they are at as opposed to focussing upon traditional forms of worship with fellowship time thereafter.”
“We should have been learning that church really is the people, not the building! The CofS has always stated this to be true but has not always put it into practice. There has been an over reliance on ministers and an underutilisation of the gifts of all the people - even in an era when there are clearly insufficient ministers to fill every vacancy.”
“What comes to mind is that locally, and I believe nationally too, the Church has been shaken out of its complacency and inertia that ‘this is the Church and this is what we do’. There have been many examples of ‘doing things differently’. We cannot do much of ‘what we do’ in the normal way. We have also had this time to seriously examine what the Church is actually for. I hope this is the legacy of these very difficult days, in fact I am very enthusiastic in believing that a new dawn awaits. This has gone on for so long, we will never be the same again.”
“The Church needs to be more innovative and become less concerned with structure, procedures and buildings. We need to make much more use of technology, not just on a Sunday but throughout the week.”
“I think we’ve learned that we don’t need church buildings to get our message across. I’m not suggesting we knock down all our churches - maybe just the walls around them. And get out there into our community. Keep all the online messages and services going after this pandemic eases.”
“We have formed a ‘thinking ahead’ group to look at what church could and should be going forward. I think now more than ever we should be doing this both locally and nationally and really looking at innovative ways to connect with our community.”
A greater openness towards faith and church
Some participants in The Listening Project reported that they sensed or experienced a greater openness within other people towards faith.
“In the parable of the sower and the seed the first soil is that which is hardened by many walking over it for years. For decades the culture of secular materialism has been walking over the Christian faith. But COVID-19 has shown to be shaky or removed many of the ‘props of existence’ of many people, and in a way that climate change has not really affected the average person, COVID-19 has been like a plough opening up people’s minds to start thinking, i.e. opening up the soil for the good news.”
“Generally, I am excited and thrilled at what the lockdown experience has opened up as regards opportunities to share fellowship and one’s faith.”
“My overwhelming experience has been how much easier it has been to talk about church life when it has been closed. I live in a small community and several non-church goers have asked how I am coping without church as I must be missing it. That has led to conversations about my faith being more than a Sunday church service (not put as bluntly as that!) which in turn has had people relating their church experiences, good, bad or none. It has been fascinating to hear their tales which I don’t honestly think would have happened if the church had not been closed.”
Children and young people
While the Listening Project was not able to hear directly from people under the age of 16, it did engage with a number of participants in the 16-20 age range. Also, children and young people were often mentioned by other participants. Some contributions celebrated the involvement of younger people in supporting others during the pandemic. Some appreciated intergenerational opportunities. Some expressed concern for the wellbeing of young people. The need to engage effectively with young people was highlighted. Some felt their local congregation had done well in this regard; others felt disappointed in the response of the central church or local congregation.
“I have been surprised by a couple of things - the apparent low uptake of Zoom-based youth group meetings (pretty universal this, even in churches with a strong reputation for youth work e.g. [name of congregation] and say [name of congregation]).”
“We have lost contact, hopefully temporarily, with the young who were coming to Messy Church and Rhyme Time.”
“Communities have seen how churches have responded to their needs e.g. meals, activity packs for children, shopping etc. It was encouraging to learn of younger people helping with this.”
“The young have largely been forgotten - we should have been remembering them.”
“Young people are also the online generation, so an online presence is essential for the future. But it would have to be geared to a different age group.”
“I feel the church needs to re-assess how much priority it places on its young people and although I understand finances are a challenge, I feel they should not be the reason why young people are not engaged with.”
“It is possible to reach out to a worldwide audience which includes young people and provides them with an up-to-date form of worship that they can relate to, i.e. services being online and not in a dusty, cold building. The same way they learn in schools and interact with people - (social media).”
“Reaching young people has been difficu lt, even the social media platforms are not enough to keep a strong connection, that relationship and fellowship matters.”
“Some congregations have responded in a variety of imaginative ways, e.g. in one congregation Zoom prayer meetings, Zoom bible studies, Zoom encouragement slots, Zoom holiday clubs using secondary young folk to help run it for primaries (with project bags being delivered to the youngsters beforehand), Zoom services, encouragement pairing, Zoom quizzes, etc + scripts to those not on the internet.”
“Loss of children - local Sunday clubs don’t show up on Online Church, so have missed the young people of the Church.”
“During the pandemic, my daughter has been able to participate in communion because we have joined together as a church via Zoom regardless of age. I hope this is something our church and others will build upon as I think we often underestimate the strength of faith our children have.”
“It feels like children & young people have become a separate part of church and not part of main online/ face-to-face worship; this needs to change.”
The National/Central Church
Where people shared experiences or perspectives on the actions of the Church of Scotland at a national level, these were split almost equally between praise and disappointment.
“Generally I think the CoS has done well. I don’t think we got everything right, but there was lot more right than not.”
“I have been very disappointed with the Church of Scotland as their restrictions have been even more severe than that of the Scottish Government guidance.”
“Nationally - think CofS has responded v well. Social media and online use by Moderators was swift and well done. Perhaps we’ve also learned that some decisions need to be taken at pace and in ways we wouldn’t otherwise have done ... and they’ve worked. Let’s learn from rapid change.”
“This has been hard for all, but the national church has been a bit divided in the lead it has given. There has been talk of new opportunities and a chance to begin things anew, but most of the practical guidance which has come to ministers has been about how to do the traditional things safely/again, or the nearest approximation to them. That the re-opening of church buildings was driven as much by the insurance company as by mission imperatives was very disappointing.”
“I think the church locally and nationally have been learning that we can reach people even when the buildings are closed. It made the church think outside the box. I personally think the Church of Scotland has really stepped up in such a difficult time.”
“It has a been a challenging time for faith and experience of Church for everyone. The experience of COVID-19 pandemic and the Church response both local and national has been nothing short of woeful and this has been a major challenge for my faith. Shut buildings have given the impression to local people that the church is the building and it is shut.”
“I have been so disappointed that everything coming from the national church is negative. We need more money seems to be the main message. Instead of which at this time of challenge it would have been really helpful to be encouraged by the sharing of all the positive ways in which the church is contributing to supporting people during this pandemic.”
Connecting or reconnecting or disconnecting with faith and Church
Among The Listening Project’s participants, some people reported that the changes in life’s rhythms or in the way church has functioned has provided opportunities to explore faith and engage with the Church; some have found faith for the first time; some have disengaged with their local congregation at this time.
“I would not have found this type of fellowship or worship had it not been for the pandemic. My partner who would have classed himself as an atheist attended the alpha course on Zoom with me and became a Christian. We would not have attended in person due to childcare/travel/timing etc. Therefore, him becoming a Christian would either have been delayed or wouldn’t have happened altogether if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. We definitely needed it in our lives at this time- an absolute miracle!”
“When I reflect on the past 8 months, I reflect on the huge changes in our lives and the big decisions that we have made, one of them being to leave our local church, a decision which was not quick though was certainly compounded by thoughts as a result of the situation we were thrown in to.”
“My Church have been fantastic during lockdown. Managing to keep in touch with parishioners and the wider community. There have been new faces which is lovely to see.”
“I was an elder. I moved house and out my area 3 years ago and was looking for a new church but didn’t feel welcomed in my new local church. My faith started to dwindle. During the pandemic, I was invited to attend an online Alpha course. This restored my faith. I have now been attending a Bible study on Zoom.”
Community action and outreach
Many participants in The Listening Project described how the pandemic has provided impetus and opportunity for practical action in their local community. Sometimes this has been initiated by a local congregation, sometimes by other groups or organisations, sometimes in collaboration. Some contributions express disappointment at a lack in this respect. Some highlight the need for advocacy and campaigning for social change.
“Our church has established a food bank and the Guild sends out regular small gifts, cards etc to members to show we are thinking of them. 800 angels and stars have been made and will be hung around town as a small gift for the townsfolk whatever they believe.”
“Loneliness and isolation are issues. These were addressed within our community by sending out lunches to those who needed them - phone calls and offers of help. At the moment our Cafe is very important in addressing these issues.”
“We have really tried to reach out to folk and I think every area has done something to try to help others, be it with phone calls, food bank, prescriptions, just anything we can think of to keep people in touch and for the word to be shared.”
“It is significant how much effort [name of place] Parish Church has put into still being the local church and helping the community.”
“Our church hosts the local church links with homeless and vulnerable people and although they have not been able to have meetings, they have kept the link going and given our food parcels once a week from the church. Food, toiletries and household items are still being handed in by our own and other congregations.”
“Need to be advocating, challenging and speaking up with regard to social living and economic conditions and plight. Many affected by pandemic have never experienced social services or having to apply for benefits - unemployment and debt and many have an inability to see how to manage not having supportive family or friends - will have a devastating untold effect on physical and mental health.”
“The team running the [name of café] Cafe for ‘new [name of place]’, Syrian families, overseas students, has worked on online, throughout the pandemic too and people have been achieving their outcomes.”
“The churches which will thrive following this are those that loved and served their communities through the pandemic, rather than being inward looking and only taking care of the ‘members.’”
So, now what? Some suggestions for you and your congregation
Those who contributed to The Listening Project were asked to take some time to reflect on their experiences of the pandemic – especially in relation to faith and church. Why not do the same and set aside some time to think and pray?
What have been the highs and lows of this past year? What have you been learning? What do you think the Church (locally and/or nationally) has been (or should be) learning? How might you express, take note or share this? What would be your “headlines”?
How might you create “safe” opportunities for people to share their experiences of the pandemic, what they have been learning and what they think the Church is (or should be) learning?
The quotations included here are a small part of the total data. The themes expressed are the main ones, but there are others. These others are also important and need to be heard and reflected upon. In addition, there are many views and stories that have been shared with the project that do not necessarily contribute to the dominant themes, but bring their own unique value, novelty or interest. These will be included in the final report, planned for release in May, and deserve particular attention.
As well as providing a more comprehensive view of the data, it is hoped that the final report will deliver a level of detailed analysis not possible at this point in the project. By cross-referencing themes within the data with demographic information, we expect to be able to identify any ways in which people’s experiences and perspectives may vary with gender, age, location, access to technology and the kind of involvement people have with the Church.
Please use these “headlines” to inspire and guide your own prayerful reflection on what we should be learning at this time, but also please remember that these are first glimpses from what is extensive and rich data. So please anticipate and plan to engage with the full report and the resources that accompany it in due course.
Thank you most of all to the people who took the time to reflect on their experiences and share them with the project. The amazing team of volunteers who came together to form the analysis team and who scrutinized hundreds of texts deserve a special word of thanks. The project was much enriched by the work of Dr Jill Hopkinson, who trained and supported the analysis team. Finally, without a number of volunteer telephone facilitators, some people would have been unable to share their contributions, which would have been sad for them and a loss for the rest of us.
Questions about the Listening project can be directed to the Working Group by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 07966 286617
The Listening Project Working Group
Steve Aisthorpe, Lynn Hall, Catherine Skinner, Fiona Tweedie and David Williams