HOW HAVE CHURCHES COPED WITH THE SPIRITUAL HIGHS AND LOWS THAT THE COVID PANDEMIC HAS EXACERBATED WITHIN NORTHERN IRELAND’S POPULATION?

When March 23rd arrived, and it was announced that everyone in the United Kingdom had to stay at home to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, churches became one of the many staples of society that disappeared in the blink of an eye. 

This was somewhat different to the many others that were forced to close. While many lamented at the closure of shops, restaurants and theatres, it was the comfort and peace that some sought in their place of worship that helped them through life’s woes. 

Now, that was gone and the Sunday morning routine of many in Northern Ireland was postponed. Livestreamed services and YouTube videos turned to drive-in services, drive-in services turned to socially-distanced services and now, two years on from the outbreak, the churches seem to have returned to full throttle. 

Only, very often the congregations have not returned with them. Facing the pandemic was a huge challenge for Northern Ireland’s churches, as many members of the clergy will testify.

One hope that many had at the beginning of the pandemic was that fear of the virus may drive many to faith. In the very early days, we could see people begin to take an interest in churches as they spent time alone in lockdown pondering life and existence. Reverend Mark McMaw, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, thinks this was short-lived:

“In the early days of lockdown in 2020, there was a temporary spiritual reliance and interest towards the church during days of physical uncertainty due to the virus”, he says. 

“However, within a matter of weeks that Christ-centred focus had waned as the new way of life was adopted.”   

He testifies to the struggle that many places of worship across Northern Ireland, and indeed the world, have faced following the pandemic.

“The biggest struggle we presently face is the return of church members to services of public worship and other church ministries. The sad reality is that nominal members have found new things to do, whilst the Church was in lockdown”, Mark says.

“We are also finding that some previously committed church members have grown apathetic to serving in the church. An enforced rest through lockdown restrictions has not brought refreshment and a renewed vigour to serve, rather it has brought a sense of lethargy.”

However,  Reverend Gareth Burke of Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church, had a slightly different experience in his church, though he was not without issues.

“The two years of the Covid business were very very difficult because people were on different pages”, he says.

“From those who couldn’t quite understand why you were stopping having services. to those, when you did restart them, their response was, “you can’t be serious, we’re not going back to meeting again’.” 

“So, the two extremes in terms of a response to what we were doing, we maintained very good unity and we’re very thankful for that.”

“Our numbers have increased since we returned which has been really, very encouraging.” 

“We’ve had new people coming in and you know, we’re very, very thankful for that but it’s very hard to sense the whole area of faith and what impact it all had on people’s faith and commitment.”

“The vast majority of people who come to our services, have a living personal faith in Christ. They’re committed Christians.”

Ultimately, it can be seen that Reverend Burke’s congregation was able to weather the COVID storm, and also add new members to it’s congregation. Many would argue that this can be attributed to the “committed Christians” within the church. These people tend to be more likely to return to a public service as they place a great deal of importance in their religious beliefs.

Reverend Burke says that, “most churches I think have a core of faithful committed people who are definite Christians, then others who kind of come along because it’s the right and proper thing to do.”

It can be testified across the board that those in the latter category, are the people who may not be returning to church as restrictions loosen.

This sentiment seems to be echoed by Pastor David Morrell of Portstewart Baptist Church. He feels that churches in the Baptist tradition were likely not hit as hard as others.

He says, “I think the difference between a Baptist Church and Presbyterian, Anglican churches is that to be a member of this church, you have to be baptised.”

“So you have to have made a commitment that you’ve decided you’re going to follow Jesus.”

He says that in many other churches it was the nominal folk that slipped aware during the pandemic, many of whom have yet to reconnect.

“I think that’s maybe where we haven’t seen the same drop off than maybe some of the Presbyterian churches, or Anglican churches, where there’d be a bigger percentage of nominal Christians.”

As restrictions come to an end, and church congregations get back on their feet, it seems to be a common theme in many churches that COVID has made more abundantly clear the divide within congregations. 

Those committed members have stayed as such, but the long periods of reflection and idle time during lockdown, may have given many nominal church attenders a taste of life without spiritual commitment, and this seems to be more appealing to many.