Churches emerging from lockdown are making it a priority to tackle loneliness and isolation, new research has found.
The survey by the Allchurches Trust found that these were the main areas of focus for two-thirds of UK churches.
Over half of the 638 church leaders surveyed from across the UK predict that loneliness and isolation will remain pressing issues for at least a year after the end of lockdown.
After loneliness and isolation, the second most common area of concern for church leaders was mental health.
But the survey also revealed that many churches have learnt lessons from the pandemic and are making significant changes to how they engage with their congregations and communities.
Sixty percent of churches said they were planning to introduce initiatives to tackle loneliness and isolation in older people, while one in five (21%) said they would do this for younger people.
Over two-thirds of churches (70%) are planning more online worship, while just over a third (35%) are introducing more online activities, and a quarter are facilitating additional online support groups. A fifth of churches said they plan to offer digital training for older members of their congregation.
The findings have been released to coincide with the launch of the charity's new grant programme, Hope Beyond, which opens for applications today.
Dr Sue Protheroe, Clinical Mental Health Lead for Lincolnshire West, said: "The detrimental effects [of Covid-19] on mental health can be identified in all ages.
"The Royal College of Psychiatrists have reported not only an increase in referrals but a significant increase in the severity of mental illness being referred for the first time.
"Our mental health services were already stretched before the pandemic and struggling to meet demand."
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, who acted as Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health prior to her consecration, said: "Even before Covid-19 hit, across the Church of England we had been rightly moving towards a greater awareness of the need to attend to our mental health.
"Then, with the onset of the pandemic, we have witnessed those who struggle with loneliness at the best of times struck by the claustrophobia of lockdown.
"There have been older people shielding, less able to socialise online than some, feeling more isolated than ever. Others have lost their jobs or have been put under severe financial pressures.
"It has been heartening to see our churches provide even greater levels of support to all of these people, and more, over these last four months – whether it be on Zoom, or socially-distanced.
"The ongoing challenge for our churches is to continue to support a culture in which everyone feels safe to share their struggles and feels able to speak openly."
Kintsugi Hope, founded by Patrick Regan, has been training hundreds of church leaders online in mental health support since the start of the pandemic.
The training has taught over 300 church leaders how to provide safe and supportive spaces for those feeling overwhelmed.
Regan spoke of the importance of churches being able to offer online support for the vulnerable as the challenges of Covid-19 remain.
"By taking the groups online, people who would normally not be able to attend - such as parents struggling with childcare, those who are chronically ill or without transport, or those who find the digital environment less threatening than face to face meetings – are getting the support they need from their local church," he said.
"It's clear from the Allchurches Trust Hope Beyond research that the need for churches to come alongside those who are struggling at this time is growing."
The Hope Beyond grant scheme has been launched to provide funds to churches and Christian charities to help them meet the changing needs within their communities.
Allchurches Trust chairman, Tim Carroll, said: "Churches are already at the heart of providing vital community support, particularly in reaching out to the most vulnerable, and their role in tackling social issues such as loneliness and isolation will be even more critical as the longer term impact of Covid-19 becomes clearer.
"Through our new Hope Beyond grants programme, we aim to support churches and Christian charities to deliver innovative, impactful projects that will enable people, organisations and communities to flourish in life after lockdown."
Apply online for Hope Beyond here.