Last year’s church closures didn’t just affect regular churchgoers or even just people of faith. One University study suggests that the lockdown restrictions which forced churches to shut their doors for many weeks has impacted people of both of all faiths and none within the community. Donna Birrell of Premier Christian News investigated the findings of the survey about the effects of church closures last year and the ongoing restrictions regarding their use. Church buildings mean a lot to their congregations, and JBKS Architects understands that, but it is certainly interesting to see how their being forced to shut those buildings has affected the wider community.
The study – According to Premier noted, “More than 5,500 people, made up of non-church members, congregations and church leaders, took part in the survey between August 2020 and March this year. It looked at the human cost of the pandemic when places of worship were closed and unable to play their usual role as crisis centres and places of comfort.” The aim of the study was to see how the lack of access to spiritual buildings and activities affected the mental health of people from all walks of life. It was led by Dr Dee Dyas who is the director of The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York.
The Social Aspect – Donna Birrell writes, “Dr Dee Dyas who led the research team, told Premier that a striking aspect of the findings was how strongly non-church members had been affected by the closure of church buildings and activities.” It is curious why non-church members had such an emotional reaction to their closure. Could it be a case of wanting what you can’t have or only appreciating something until it’s gone? Possibly, or perhaps it goes deeper than that.
Dr Dyas told Premier, “I think many people who don’t normally go to church hadn’t realised what churches meant to them until it was all taken away in a moment.” But, if these non-churchgoers didn’t use the church for their primary purpose as a house of worship, what were they missing access to? The study found that “79 per cent of those questioned for the survey identified social isolation as a key issue in their community.” Of course, many churches were hubs of community support and activity, before the pandemic at least. Many were running support groups, foodbanks, playgroups and coffee mornings for the most isolated in our communities such as those living in poverty, the elderly, young parents and children. It stands to reason that these services and facilities were greatly missed by those of faith and those of none.
The Comfort Aspect – The study suggests that a great many people wanted access to churches for personal reflection and mindfulness. People generally struggled more with their mental heath during the pandemic than before due to isolation, financial hardships, and fear of infection. If people relied on church buildings as places of quiet and mental adjustment, then their shutting at such a difficult time must have been very hard for some people. The study found that as many as “75 per cent of non-church members wanted access to churches as quiet spaces of reflection and comfort.” It just goes to show how many people relied upon churches being open for their mental wellbeing. The government were quick to reopen houses of worship for personal prayer after the first lockdown and reticent to close churches again in the other lockdowns along with restaurants and retail later, presumably because of these statistics. The church buildings are so much more than we ever realised before.
The Church as a Symbol – It is something that we should recognise, that is that churches are the primary places where people are cared for, in an overall sense, with food hampers, help, emotional support, and spiritual well-being. (At least that is the church’s purpose) It seems that whether the people in this study were people with a Christian faith or not, they believed in actions of the church and by connection the place of the church. They believed that the church was at the heart of their community and was there for them, no matter what. Church closures took away much more than the inability to attend Sunday services.
“Diana Evans, head of Places of Worship Strategy for Historic England, one of the funders of the project, said: ‘This report gives voice to the pain and sense of loss that people experienced when places of worship were locked during the pandemic. It also shows the potential of local places of worship for people of all faiths and none as the country moves towards recovery; acting as symbols of their community’s long-term survival while serving as local hubs for social care, practical support and companionship.’” This is an interesting angle on the purpose of the church building in the community. Clearly it goes beyond the songs and sermon on Sundays. They are seen as symbols of continuity through the ages and a pillars of our communities. They are, and should be, places a person can depend on in the storms in their lives, whatever their faith. If you are hungry, go to church. If you are broken, go to church. If you are lonely, go to church and if you want to volunteer your time to benefit others but don’t know how, go to church. It was a God-send for many to received food packages from the church. Many many churches became centres of food distribution on a voluntary basis, and this was applauded by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Church buildings should be places of comfort and care; symbols of our country’s history and our ensured future. Those that follow the practices of Jesus feed the hungry, care for the poor, support the hurting and struggling, heal the sick and support people at every level of society. The lockdown taught us just how important social interaction is to sanity. The statistics in this study suggest that the majority of people in our communities experienced some degree of emotional distress made worse by churches being closed or their operations restricted. JBKS architects sees it as a privilege to work with so many forward-thinking, gospel-based, community-centred churches who want to maximise their space for the benefit of all. How comforting it is to know that so many churches buck the trend of decline, and are growing apace, and forming vital part of their communities. We now have proof that churches are not dispensable, they are crucial, integral, and they matter to all.
To see some of our work with churches seeking to diversify and support multifunctionality, click here. Or get in touch with us today to see how we can help maximise your church building for God’s divine purpose.