The Covid-19 pandemic has "propelled the Church into the contemporary world," says a new report from CPAS, an Anglican evangelical mission agency working with UK and Irish churches.
'Everyone Welcome Online' looks at the lockdown's impact on churches and concludes, "Last month we were the Odeon, today we are Netflix.
"In the 1950s, the Odeon was okay, but then along came consumer choice, individualism and crowded complex lifestyles. Then came TV film channels, and now Netflix, Prime and others, where you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you are on whatever you've got."
The authors, Bob Jackson and George Fisher, say, "The Government has shut our 'Odeons' down, so in response we have stumbled into 'Homespun Netflix' and it's looking promising.
"Most churches going online have discovered that far more people are accessing their services than ever came to the building. What seemed initially to be a devastating blow to churches may actually generate growth."
Bishop of Sheffield Pete Wilcox described the 26-page report as, "An astonishingly thorough and perceptive overview of online church."
The authors, who devised the popular 'Everybody Welcome' course published by Church House Publishing, include feedback from churches experiencing increased numbers of people logging in for online services, both live and recorded.
One church reported, "We've had a huge number of hits, many more than the number of people in church on a Sunday, connecting with people who would not come to a regular service."
Another said, "Our online services on our YouTube channel, through Facebook, through our website, have doubled or nearly tripled Sunday morning numbers."
The report analyses who is responding and detects groups ranging from friends and family of church members, to the housebound with links to the church, people linked by christenings, weddings or funerals, people who have moved away, occasional churchgoers and people who have the found the church through a denominational or diocesan link.
The authors encourage churches to make contact with people who are 'dropping in' to the services, suggesting, "Contact as many people as you can to say hello and how nice it was to see them connect with the church, and ask how they are and how the church can help them."
People are finding it easier to access church online because they can join in the services without feeling concerned about 'doing the wrong thing' – like standing or sitting at the 'wrong' time, they don't have to enter a strange building and meet new people, and they can access the services at a time that suits them.
One church reported: "One previously non-churchgoer said that online she felt comfortable, fully part of the service and so more welcomed than if she had been in the building unsure of how to behave."
The report advises: "Most people are not looking for high-quality presentation and high-octane performance-religion. They are looking for a familiar and comforting voice and face. It is okay to keep it simple."
It suggests how churches can make online services more welcoming to people unfamiliar with church, including making the best use of the technology available and prompting feedback.
The authors also encourage churches to be preparing for the future, when livestreaming is likely to be taking place alongside smaller group gatherings.
Specifically, they urge churches to be on the lookout for new people coming to worship in the building, who have been connecting online. On the first Sunday back, when we can all gather, the report warns of the risk of the new people arriving, "But the regulars ignore them in their delight at seeing old friends, so the newcomers leave disappointed and disillusioned."
The report's authors are keen to hear from churches about their experiences during lockdown and ask people to contact them at email@example.com
Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a former communications director for the CofE.