It seems you can hardly pick up a newspaper nowadays without someone having a pop at the Church of England (CofE).
It used to be tales of scandal that filled the column inches - sidesmen, vicars and even bishops involved in conduct unbecoming. Today, more worryingly, the papers tend to focus on the seeming irrelevance of it all.
The introduction to a recent article by Ruth Gledhill from the Times summed it up perfectly:
“The Church of England has admitted that the country has become a nation that knows almost nothing about Christianity and that there is no point any more attempting to convert anyone.”
The supposed source of the “story” was a news release from the CofE press office announcing its new Pilgrim discipleship course. The release referred to the fact that the course offers an approach of “participation, not persuasion”, which is perfectly reasonable given that it is designed for those who have already made a step of faith as a result of the Alpha course.
The words, though, were taken out of context, and the impression given that the Church had made what would have been a quite extraordinary decision to pull the plug on mission and wave the white flag of surrender.
This disconnect between the Church and the media is of little concern, no doubt, to most journalists, but it has very worrying implications for the Church. It is particularly troubling for those, like me, with a foot in both camps.
So, given that the open season on all matters CofE shows no sign of closing, what’s the answer? How should the Church, and we as its members, respond?
It is tempting to say we should develop thicker skins and ride out the storm. Society is where it is. The Church has held sway for centuries, and this is payback time. Let’s face it, the contempt levelled at it by the media is nothing compared to the persecution suffered by Christians elsewhere in the world. And surely it will blow over eventually? Surely even the Sunday Times will tire of of the need to mention Richard Dawkins every single week, won't it?
The answer to both of these questions, I would hope, is yes. But in the meantime there is a much more positive strategy that the Church could adopt - a strategy that for once makes changes in society work for us, rather than against us.
I am actually more of a marketing consultant than a journalist these days, and as such I am always advising clients to stop worrying so much about what the traditional media - newspapers, radio and television - are saying about them. Chances are, journalists are not particularly interested in you unless they have some sort of personal attachment. When they are likely to be interested, it will be when you would prefer to avoid the glare of publicity.
Instead, organisations must become publishers and broadcasters themselves. They need to be confident in who they are and what they represent, and get their message out there in their own time and in their own way. Increasingly, Google and the other major search engines are rewarding organisations that regularly produce quality content that people are interested in. The Church of England is no different.
In fact social media plays to the Church’s strengths. It is all about sharing and reaching out - things we should be good at. Just as the Bible is full of stories being used to help convey messages, engaging narrative is at the heart of successful marketing today. Video is perhaps the most powerful medium for story-telling, but webinars, e-books, blogs, infographics, cartoons and games have a part to play as well.
A particularly striking quote in the Times article above was one by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. Mr Sanderson, who presumably had not bothered to check what the real story was, is reported to have said:
“Young people today are living in a way the Church does not acknowledge, accept or fit in with. They feel completely detached from church. They do not feel guilty about not going to church. They feel no need to study religion.”
It is sadly true that many young people are growing up with no real grasp of what Christianity is. But to label them as “completely detached” is a gross exaggeration. They can and do respond, but they need to be engaged, and the way to do that is to provide accessible, relevant content to inspire and to challenge them, to stimulate reflection and debate.
The battle for young hearts and minds is increasingly being waged on the Internet - particularly YouTube - and the Church of England needs to be there as well.
This is meant as encouragement, not criticism. There are dioceses and specific churches that are making more of an effort at content marketing than others. But my experience is that other demonominations and other religious faiths are committing far more time and resources to it than we are.
We journalists are a cynical lot and the Christian faith will always be prone to sniping from the media. But if the Church gets its marketing right, people will start responding and seats will fill up again, and we should be able to laugh at stories of the “Church gives up converting” variety and see them for the mischievous tittle-tattle that they are.
Ember has produced work for the church planting charity 2020Birmingham.org