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.