Lessons For A Post Covid Church From Cambridge University

Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash

Cambridge University made headlines worldwide recently when it announced the cancellation of all face to face lectures for the 2020 to 2021 academic year.

A friend forwarded to me an email[1] yesterday encouraging me to check out this video, helping me process a growing parallel between the delivery of higher education and the revolution that’s currently happening online within the church.

Last week the Cambridge Union debated, “Does the Coronavirus mean the end of education as we know it?” He had sent it to his teenagers to watch to help them think into their future, which will be bleak for so many. 

I was of course interested as part of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Centre, who did not make headlines when they changed the autumn residential to an online format weeks before. But I also watched the video presentations and short question time afterwards as a church leader determined to not content to let the future shape us, but to shape that very future. 

I made good notes on the talks, available below with a few things in bold that really summed it up or challenged me, but I encourage you to watch yourself (skip to 9:40 to kick off). 

It’s a fascinating clash between the past and the future; with the institutional past trying to defend against an unwelcome future, or at best proposing an unhappy, unwilling and unequal marriage with it.  

The first two speakers, from Princeton and Cambridge equate in my mind to the more traditional, institution focused way of thinking. That this too shall pass, of course people will always want to come. Alan Hirsch often reminds us that those who make a living from the status quo are the least likely to want to change it, and I found it interesting that The Vice Chancellor’s salary last year was £475,000. His appeal consistently was for a hybrid with online and traditional methods going forward. 

US economist Alex Tabborak really opened my eyes to the online possibilities, not just as a means to get through the current crisis but as the future ‘new wineskin’ that the church has not been pouring anything like enough into. What if this is the way we disciple nations? (Listen to what he said about translation!)

By the grace of God our little church network just pulled together in a couple of weeks a 24 hour online evangelistic experience called TODAY.

Facebook figures for the campaign within that 24 hours (It’s still climbing)

  • – 260,000 post reach
  • – 128,000 video views 
  • – 57,000 engagements             

Now Facebook counts anything over 3 seconds as a view, which those who want to play down these numbers always state. It’s true we don’t know how long someone watched for. But we do know there were many hundreds of shares/ Watch Parties. 

TODAY also encouraged many people from our church who have never done so before to go on Facebook and post their own short testimony and tag/dare a few more to do so. This is ‘equipping the saints’ – many of whom are emboldened in these days if only leaders will see it (and maybe even catch up with them). These are people who have never preached in any of our services in buildings and most near would, but they shared their story and we’re hearing how they connected and began conversations with interested non-believers, enquiring about church, Alpha Courses and so on. Many of those who watched have in turn gone on and shared these posts with others who in turn have shared them – one I just spoke with has engaged with six separate people who wanted to know more about their Jesus story.  

My big prayer for TODAY was that we’d grab those that we hear are ‘Googling God’ more than ever now in their twenties, and that people would be captivated long enough by the content to hear a story and the gospel (about 20 minutes). It ran for 24 hours but in short compelling blocks, that’s why we kept running that format. The interesting figure then for me though less spectacular than Facebook, is YouTube. 

YouTube are a lot pickier and don’t register quick views like Facebook. It only counts if a user initiates, i.e. an individual intentionally clicks on the post and watches for at least 30 seconds in a logically sequential way. They’re tighter on repeats too and don’t count you again if you come back 4 or 5 times. 

We had up to 450 watching at any one time, 60% male, with most watches by far in the 25-34 age group. There were 8,300 video playbacks, 5000 unique views, 458 chats – with an average watch time of… 16 minutes! 

What’s that telling us, church leader? The Ivy church building down the road as I write could not contain more than a few hundred people max. Even less in the future? That’s why we have moved and hired other spaces. But Jesus did not say ‘Go into all the world and invite them to meet me in a building,’ – it was ‘Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.’

Right now my son Joel is studying economics at University (well he would be…) and he told me Tabborak’s YouTube channel is his first go-to if he actually wants to understand any aspect of the subject. He also explained to me that Tabborak speaks of knowledge as the ultimate increasing ‘return to capital’ – it will always become more valuable.

Tabborak spoke of online as the preferred future for learning because it is cheaper and better. Check out why he says that – I find it quite compelling, and I’m not just talking about tuition fees and living costs for them, the implications for discipleship here are huge. It’s all about reach, more and more people can be connected online than we ever can in buildings.

My concerns for online have often focused on how available such options are for the poor in the majority world, yet he spoke of the increasing availability and global connectivity now which will only mean more access for more people, and let’s face it not many will get a bursary to Cambridge.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, it’s certainly pushed me and our church to go out further than we ever had before without having to apologise knowing it’s not ‘real church.’ And dare I ask even those of us who love preaching to people sat in rows how effective has that been in disciple making?

It’s not like this is actually new, if we’re honest – we just prefer the old wineskins.

Way back in 2001, before I even came to Ivy when I was leading a denominational church I was rocked by something I read where David Yonggi Cho said and Rick Warren seemed to agree way back then that future church was online. Cho said in South Korea buildings could no longer contain the numbers of people wanting to engage and be discipled, so rather than spend more to build more buildings they switched to a different model.

We are so jammed that we have no way to keep growing except by going to cyberspace.” Cho said (remember when people called it cyberspace?) 

Warren said, “Even if we had all the buildings we needed, one question is whether or not the next generation wants to worship in huge buildings.”

In a post-Covid world, that question for us is even more pressing. It applies to buildings small, medium or large. I have heard of churches in the USA now opening (it’ll be a way off for us) but seeing only 20% of people coming back. What are the implications of that?

We all need to trust the Lord as our provider – but when the vast majority of churches were already declining, those that were building focused, either paying off huge mortgages for new builds or painting the Forth Bridge in old ones, while reliant on physical visitors putting money on silver plates, may soon be selling the plates.

Those who never taught faithfully and biblically on stewardship and those who never found ways to encourage electronic giving will already be feeling the pinch, desperately longing for people to ‘come back’ quicker than the airlines and shops, while face an equally uncertain future. 

The Great Commission sent us into all the world – what about the world wide web? (Yes , I still call it that!)

Tabborak’s model helped me envisage quality Christian content and imaginative churches going ahead of the curve, seizing the moment with faith rather than look back to what use to be. This includes gaming and virtual reality and I’m delighted that an Ivy member has been working on such a project already and is getting ready to make it available. I’ve seen the prototype and it’s literally a game changing idea. 

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening was a revelation. For her there’s no point trying to shut the stable door now, the horse is off to the races. Of course a few of the top elites will and can carry on regardless, but most others must change or die – and not only for their own sake. Her passion is for social mobility and as such online learning future is not only preferable but long overdue if we want to equip people for the future. She told of one million disillusioned young people who will soon step into the job market in the UK with little hope for 60% of finding work. This has to challenge the inertia of such institutions. It certainly made me sit up and take notice.

By the way you must read or watch what she says about what employers are now looking for. This is something academics hate to admit because they employ each other, but bosses know from bitter experience that more and higher qualifications do not relate at all to actually being useful on the job.

The three things young people need if they are going to be employable in the C21st are not taught in a lecture; Resilience, Teamwork, and Motivation. 

She said that educationalists must step up and meet these challenges. What about the church

So much to think and pray about for us all and I always look for the Both/And but if you’re in church leadership why not as I did watch or read through the notes below and ask your teams,

  • What’s working?
  • What won’t work even if we work it harder? (Don’t flog a dead horse, dismount!)
  • What do we have to work on now, so the church not only has a future in the post Covid world, but purveys the hope for that future?’


NOTES: Cambridge University ‘Does Corona virus spell the end for Traditional Education?’ 

Shirley Tilghman (Princeton) 

Is this the end for higher education? No. It does not mean the end, for the major institutions though many will be shattered. There has been a seismic impact. One way or another though, we will come out of this and life will resume. Possibly even stronger. Why? 

  1. Historical Humility. Resilient institutions have survived so much! 
  2. Current model has been successful to help people live, learn and mature better.
  3. There will always be added value for the kudos of a Cambridge, Princeton or top end qualification over an online course. 

Many are now unhappy with online learning, mainly because we are doing a bad job of it. But we can do it better. 

When is it optimal and effective to bring people together? 

The challenge of coordinating together to defeat the virus has brought much research and by people new thinking bringing together. Let there be no going back to a future without collaboration. 

Stephen Troope (Cambridge)

Interestingly subject of some controversy earlier this year over his somewhat eye watering salary. 

He shares many of her views but there will be tremendous disruption, around the need for more diversity across the system. There is no single model for what a university must be. Now is a good time for a rethink. Uncertainty will prevail for months and years. 

Why do people come to Cambridge? To get the best teaching, to be inspired by other talented co learners, and to benefit from a unique experience of belonging. 

None of that has to change. But we must innovate new experiences. Face to face and hands on – with social distancing will continue to happen. Sitting in lectures is not the best way to learn. We must now invest in ramping up training and technology. We will be central to the future of the new world economy, producing leaders, answers via research and advice for the questions raised by the pandemic. 

Covid-19 has shone a light on the gaps between state and private education. We will see some of the most talented students fall behind without doubling down on partnerships to help those in less privileged environments. 

Alex Tabborak

The short answer to the question is ‘No.’ It’s not what will change forever but what will be accelerated. Online will accelerate. Why? 

Online education is cheaper and better

I can teach 30 to 300 in a lecture.

Or thousands online. 

And student learning is about the same in either platform. Bill Bowen looked at a statistics class and found that the online/ hybrid students did a little better. But it cost 36% to 57% less. So there’s a great increase in productivity from that. Student satisfaction is similar in a Russian study it was ¼ of the cost. 

The cost and time savings are tremendously important, because students have changed. Non traditional students. Many are continuing through life to be educated. 

I can get entertainment on demand, why can’t I get education on demand? 

Many students actually prefer videos/ online classes. People can go back and rewatch for instance to engage again. 

Online will only get better because it’s tied to the ever improving tech sector. Eg his lectures are captioned (great for the deaf) and translated into hundreds of different languages. 

If one course can be used to teach 100,000 students who are charged $500, why not invest $50 for students to produce the course = a $5 million course, taught by the best and produced by the best too. Large introductory courses could be produced in these ways for sure. When teaching in rooms is dangerous and costs are high, this is the way forward. 

David Willetts

Of course, if it’s Princeton or Cambridge, the opportunity at 18 for three years there will be fantastic and carry on. But looking at the future as a whole, globally the major expansion is still to come.  The capacity is not there for bricks and mortar to provide resource unless it is online. 

Mature students, MA or post grad for example – with a family, it’s absurd they would have to leave to learn. 

Online education can provide better pegagogy; improving data for how students are engaging with content, tracking where the learner is making progress.  

Will universities end up sidelined like the local shop because of Amazon? More likely the status of the best universities will be retained, with many more students. But they will be online. 

Justine Greeling 

A different take. Nobody is ever so certain of a trend than the day before it stops, so she’s conscious that when change comes it comes very quickly. IT is something we must welcome because it opens up education for many. 

Does Covid 19 spell the end for traditional education? Yes. 


Look at GB. We had a huge opportunity gap already, now it’s widened. 

It’s estimated that this year 1 million young people will enter the job market, but only 400,000 will get employment. We have to recognise this is the brutal backdrop for them. A generation who will think ‘I thought I already had my crisis with austerity – now this?’ 

Young people will rightly demand that we step up to help. 

How will we help those who are most disadvantaged? 

There will have to be a shift, politically and for business – who are now bound up with the state like never before. 

The other trend being fast tracked is business moving from just focusing on the bottom line. For companies, what they look at and value has shifted but educational institutions have not kept up with that change. 

Educators have been focused on academic qualifications. 

Businesses have been looking for capabilities

Two examples – from hundreds of conversations about social mobility she has undertaken; A major accounting company: found that there is zero correlation between academic attainment and their successful employees. 

But the three things they discovered three things; 

The best had all had adversity when younger and come through

Had a paper round or some kind of paid employment when young, and 

Gave examples of great teams they had been on. 

In other words they were resilient, motivated team players. 

One fund manager told her they would not take anyone on, who had a Masters in Fund management. Why? Because they could teach them about the markets, but not initiative, motivation, and what they really needed. 

He told his wife, “Our kids are not going to make it – they haven’t had any adversity!” 

So yes, if we see how cheap online can be, with employers looking for capability rather than academic capital, you are where the world was – but not where it’s going to. 

There is a skill set change, in a Zoom economy it’s getting your points across well and punchily that matters more for instance. 

We must widen participation. Getting further education is transforming, but students are doing it for a springboard into a job and as that market changes, the challenge is there for diversity of thought and it’s a positive one. 


What is being done to make education more accessible to all?

Shirley – the epidemic is exacerbating inequality. Many students cannot carry on because they have bad wifi or a room at home. 

Stephen – technology has to be part of the future, but in many parts of the world there is barely electricity (of course they don’t get to uni either). How quickly can we deliver on that is a problem. 

Alex – Online is the only way to do it. It’s not evenly distributed but increasing way faster. People all over the world want to be connected and it’s expanding, in India people have more access to wifi than piped water. 

Justine – we’d never expect kids to go home without a book. We are getting to the point where we will see that with ipads. If there are further pandemics, the digital divide will worsen, but the world will also change toward more home working. 

What about the ‘experience’ of Uni? 

Alex – is there something magical about the lecture experience? Well in 1985 he went to see a great singer live it was awesome. But 99% of the music he listens to is recorded, it’s cheaper and professional. And most live music really isn’t that great. 

Stephen– We have to avoid a false dichotomy. We must learn from online. There’s also a false dichotomy between academic and capable. You can learn well together and be in teams etc if you have been taught well. 

Alex asks Stephen and Shirley: Yes, Cambridge and Princeton are going to be fine with their thousands of students, but there are millions of students. What place for them, outside the elite? 

Stephen – there is no dichotomy, there has to be excellent online education available. A wide variety, but don’t undermine institutions because we are excited by these opportunities. 

David asks: 1) The digital revolution is bigger than using Zoom. The questions we need to answer is how do we create teamwork, community etc. 

2) This year’s leavers face an immediate crisis. We must experiment and innovate for them. To offer school and college leavers help online. Many of them will be claiming Universal Credit. What can we do to provide extra education/ help for them? 

Alex: Online communities can be great, and actually we can easily spend lots of time on them. Social media can help bond. The future is open way beyond lectures. Virtual worlds, gaming, look at gaming. They are creating universes. You could ‘build’ or research in that simulated world. See in real time what happens. Huge opportunity! 

Stephen: Students are building virtual colleges! That shows they resonate with college. But there is great isolation, mental health challenges. People need both. 

[1] Thanks Fergus Scarfe from God TV