Church of England

The Church of England's investment in social media is a major embarrassment


Quite often when I attend a variety of events and conferences, I’ll end up in conversation with total strangers from all sorts of backgrounds talking about this blog. It’s now got to the point where I’m not sure whether I’m more surprised if people have heard about it or not. After nearly ten years, His Grace’s reputation has travelled far and wide both here and abroad.  When you have a site that receives well over a million views a year, has plenty of high profile followers and is often referenced in the mainstream media, not only recognition, but also a degree of influence is inevitable.

If Archbishop Cranmer’s weekly readership was equated to a physical congregation then we would be in megachurch territory. Such a state of affairs is entirely down to the power of social media. This blog does not pay to advertise itself or have rich patrons to fund it and guarantee exposure. It is a labour of love but also a demonstration of the power of the internet to propagate messages and ideas that can potentially alter politics and society in a meaningful way.

It looks like the Church of England is finally beginning to wake up to these possibilities through the power of social media too. Justin Welby is clearly comfortable using Facebook, Twitter and his own blog to get his thoughts and messages out to the wider world. Thanks to the decision of a few ill-advised cinemas executives, a fairly tame advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer went viral in a matter of hours almost entirely through word of mouth. The welcome result has been that tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are talking about the Christian faith in the run up to Christmas who might not have otherwise given it much thought.

Let’s not forget though, that #JustPray required a perfect storm that is impossible to generate artificially. It was also designed to be a standard advert shown through the usual channels. Yes, the someone in the Church of England had the vision to use the power of paid advertising to get a small message of hope out to the masses and putting out a press release after it has been pulled, but there’s no evidence of a savvy social media strategy to go alongside that. Putting the advert up on YouTube was probably never considered to be much more than a secondary resource to the main campaign.

When it comes to mission, the C of E is still heavily locked into its parish system. That is where the vast majority of the funding and effort is focused. It’s antiquated, inflexible and poorly targeted. This is not just my opinion but that of the Resourcing the Future Task Force commissioned by the Archbishop’s Council. There is one glaring fact that further highlights this horribly outdated resourcing methodology: as stated in a paper written for General Synod by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in February, the amount the C of E is centrally investing in reaching out into the digital and social media world is exactly £0. That’s right, not even a penny.

If the Church of England was only interested in reaching in elderly people and technophobes who have no idea about the internet is then that would be both tragic and pathetic. The good news of Jesus Christ has never been meant for the few and if the C of E seriously cares about its future then it needs to be where people are at. Find a church that is reaching out to the culture of the moment and you’ll find one that is full of life. There’s plenty of evidence that out of all the age groups, as you might expect, young adults are the heaviest consumers of social media. Young adult Christians are also the age group most likely to talk about their faith with friends and family. If we want to find the most enthusiastic and switched on evangelists to find new and effective ways to share the gospel, these are the ones to invest in and resource.

The Archbishop’s Task Group on evangelism admits that the church needs to engage more with young people in the work of evangelism, and learn from them. It needs more people like Dan Rackham, a church community worker from Liverpool who makes weekly YouTube videos often featuring events at his church and projects he runs. His remake of this year’s John Lewis advert giving it a distinctly Christian flavour has been featured on YouTube’s Most Popular feed and racked up a healthy 81,000 views in two weeks.

This is the future of much effective mission and the sooner the Church of England realises it the better. It’s quite happy to pay for vicars to look after a few parishes with single digit congregations but for the same costs it could be resourcing  young vloggers, bloggers and other internet pioneers who could be reaching audiences thousands of times bigger. It also needs to wean itself off the belief that Christian ministry is most effective if it has a dog collar attached to it. Vicars are rarely the best people to do this stuff and it’s quite possible to stifle creative talent by trying to force those with a passion to serve the church into ill-fitting boxes. Certainly encourage a love and understanding of theology, but don’t insist that people should go off to study for three years when they’re ready to get on with the work at hand right now.

The future holds so much potential for the Church. There’s an army of young believers full of faith and vision with a burning desire to change the world and see God’s kingdom come. If the Church of England truly cares about putting the re-evangelisation this nation at the top of its priorities, as Justin Welby has demanded then there’s no better place to start than by fixing the embarrassment that is its non-existent social media budget and investing in those who already know how to spread the yeast of the Kingdom of Heaven into the dough that is the digital universe.

  • Martin

    Actually Christmas is nothing without Calvary. And how could she know, there’s the Bible. If the CoE* immersed itself in the Bible it would do better.

    *and those other churches that have abandoned simple biblical Christianity.

  • len

    The internet can reach places that are just too dangerous or just impossible for evangelists to set foot upon and this makes it a useful tool for the purposes of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The internet is a neutral tool and can be used for good or for bad so let Christians use it to spread Light to an ever darkening world.

  • David

    The article is absolutely right. I am indeed surprised that the C of E isn’t already using social media to preach the gospel. It is obviously an effective conduit for ideas, because it succeeds. The short video clip illustrates powerfully how the classic Christmas story can be projected using what is now commonplace technology. It is a beautiful little clip. I would also like to see something a little more “muscular”.

    Let us hope that the younger, more IT savvy members of the C of E are encouraged by the hierarchy to seize the opportunities and reach out to their generation, leaving us more mature ones to continue doing the traditional thing, and thereby serving the need of all the generations.
    So speaking as a conservative Evangelical Anglican I’d say,
    “why hasn’t this already been done ?” and more importantly,
    ” Let’s get to it now !”

  • CliveM

    I’m not sure organisations like the CofE can run a successful social media campaign. Social media tends towards the instant, edgy, responsive and slightly out of control. The CofE will want oversight, committees, reporting and accountability.

    Anything edgy would get strangled at birth and you will simply be left with the bland.

  • IanCad

    What a wonderful piece of film editing.
    Thank you Gillan.

    • Thanks Ian, glad you enjoyed our remake of the John Lewis ad. Lots of fun and quite a challenge pulling the video together. But lots of friends from church helped out and the young people were great actors.

  • preacher

    Engaging with people about the gospel is vital & the use of social media & any form of available technology should be welcomed & used, Wesley preached in the open air without any sound amplification, but that was not through choice, but necessity. But the methods used to reach people are only the tip of the iceberg, & thought must be given to the follow up & teaching that follow when interest is shown.
    There are many fellowships today who have totally abandoned the preaching of the gospel to focus on the more spectacular & less demanding ” Signs & Wonders ” side of things, which turn out to be a non challenging, comfortable spiritual placebo for many, but devoid of the saving grace that is the truth & meat of the Christian gospel. They offer short term fellowship but long term ruin, being built upon sand rather than the firm foundation of the full gospel.
    The idea is a good start, but it needs a lot more thought, finance & back up to make it work, otherwise it will just end up like the John Lewis ad as just another option on the religious shop shelf.

  • Dan Rackham

    Gillan, really glad you enjoyed our remake of the John Lewis Christmas Advert. It was lots of fun filming it and I’ve been quite amazed at the response it’s had. And delighted that it’s been a great help with a number of churches showing it in Christmas services and people sharing it with friends online.

    • David

      Well done I say.
      Each generation must present again, the same gospel but in the way that will best communicate with that generation. Paul preached in the agora, John Wesley at the market cross; so maybe now, the preachers to the present and rising generations must use whatever digital media best works. I hope it provokes more useful “communication”.

      • bmudmai

        Your comment about ‘the same gospel but in the way that will best communicate with that generation’ just makes me think of a wonderful Lutheran satire video:

        • David

          That was perfectly hilarious !

        • chiefofsinners

          Awesome. CofE, just employ whoever made this video.

  • Ros Clarke

    Whilst I agree with a lot of what you say, I think there are already some really good social media initiatives in the Church of England. The ‘Our CofE’ twitter account has been a really great way of showing the diversity of ministry and experience across the national church. ChurchLive, broadcasting weekly services from different churches using Periscope, is a brilliant idea, letting people ask questions live during the services. The Gabriel Collective is a new scheme, run by the Church of England, to gather 50 or more young (15-25 year old) vloggers and resource them with equipment and training. Last year the Diocese of Lichfield appointed me as Online Pastor, to use social media as a way of reaching out and ministering to young people across the diocese. It’s not reaching millions and I don’t suppose it ever will, but it is having a positive, pastoral impact on the small community that’s already forming on Facebook, as well as on Twitter, Youtube and Instagram. Last week we launched a new online chat show, TGI Monday. And so on.

    As another one of your commenters pointed out, the best social media campaigns are often a bit edgy and a bit subversive. Perhaps the Church of England centrally isn’t best placed to use social media to spread the gospel, but individual churches and Christians who have the vision are. If the CofE truly wants to be a Christian presence in every community, obviously that needs to include the online community.

  • There’s an army of young believers full of faith and vision with a burning desire to change the world

    You say they wish to change the world. Would they kindly tell us what the world will look like after they have changed it? Once they have articulated their vision, we can either give them our conditional support or restrain them in straitjackets.

    Forgive my caution but experience tells us the Church of England is not to be trusted. While turning out cute little videos that bring tears to eyes and lumps to throats, it gives its wholehearted support to the mass immigration which has already made England less free and more fearful and will eventually reduce both the English and Christianity to minorities in a Muslim land.

    The Church of England betrays the English: a good theme for the church’s next cute little video.

    • bmudmai

      And many of these young ‘warriors’ will support homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, universalism, binge drinking, sexual promiscuity etc.

    • Tutanekai

      Yes, how dare they put a little girl of colour in their clip! A glaring example of anti-English race bias and politically motivated inclusivity designed to convey a subliminal message that little white English girls aren’t good enough in Multiracial Britain, eh?

      Or maybe not …

      • @ Tutanekai—The anti-white bias will be corrected in the C of E’s betrayal video, which will show a little white girl being gang-raped by Muslims. The soundtrack will be the Archbishop of Canterbury declaiming ad nauseam, ‘Diversity is a gift, not a threat.’

        • Inspector General

          JR. One has picked up that a similar occurrence that happened in Rotherham also happened in Rotterdam, but in the latter, it was suppressed by the powers that be there. Heard of this, by chance…

          • @ IG—Gatestone has Rotterdam on 25 per cent Muslim. The article, from January 2014, makes sobering reading.

          • Inspector General

            Oh Lord!

      • Martin

        Nice bit of PC work there.

      • Inspector General

        Now, what you have there is the living embodiment of the recording of the state of the empire, as has happened over 150 years, by photographer or film maker. It has been going on that long.

        The gifted artiste travels to a place where the white man is rarely seen, in this case, a school in central London. Recordings are made, images taken. His work will come up while the family has dinner. A family who is as white as a white cotton bed sheet that has seen a ghost…

  • bmudmai

    I would agree l but I would say a word of caution, I do not think apologetics and the more proselytising side of evangelism works particularly well online. Discussions and debates over social media rarely ever work (I should know, had plenty).

    However, saying that, there is room to be active on social media, promoting the positive narrative of the Gospel and sharing faith that way. Plus things like the Lichfield diocese online pastor is an excellent idea. (IM confessions, how about that for an idea for the more Catholic?).

  • Inspector General

    I say Scott, you’ve been coming out with some marvellous stuff, the last few months, what!

    Just shows you what an intelligent fellow can achieve when he leaves that godless socialist rot out of it. Better we be brothers in Christ, the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. That’s the way it is. Always was. Always will be. No point whining over it.

    Anyway, carry on as you are, and well done, sir!

  • Thanks for a thought provoking post Gillan. I’m not a vicar (as yet) but I am a curate. I think you make some good points, but from my position I’m not sure I entirely agree with you.

    I think the parish system is actually not ready for the scrap heap just yet: in a world where people are becoming more and more virtual, and more and more disconnected, I think it’s increasingly important to connect people in a certain place e.g. a parish. Geography really does matter, where we live matters, and I believe loosing connections with our geography, with our town/city, actually harms us.

    Our parish does have an online presence (one of the things I did since I arrived here was to start up social media accounts), but it’s less about engaging people virtually and more about presenting opportunities to join the ‘real life’ community. In other words, our online presence is very much tied into our parish community.

    I’m not convinced that an internet community is a true community in the Biblical sense of the word, and I don’t think the CofE should be investing heavily in it (although probably they should be spending more than £0).

    The other thing is, the job of a priest is very different to the job of an internet pioneer. I think what the church should be doing is actually investing more in full-time stipendiary clergy with good training, who will then be able to resource and equip people like Dan Rackham to make videos and be an online presence. But I’m not convinced the church centrally should be investing more in ‘internet pioneers’ or the like.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, keep them coming!

  • Russell Brown

    Until the Church of England accepts (in full) the Westminster confession and accepts that ALL is done in the “Name of Jesus” and that there is no magic in rituals I will refrain, sadly and remain non denominational.