Brother Ivo is not – and should not be – privy to the secrets of the in-house discussions of the Church of England when it comes to the delicate financial and staffing discussions surrounding the creation of the Digital Church initiative.
He is an informed outsider.
He is also free to ask questions, raise awareness, make representations, provoke debate and draw conclusions from what is said and, equally importantly, what is not currently being said.
It is not difficult to draw agreement from the Church Institution about the need to engage with communication. It has ever been thus.
Early Churches did well not to economise on the costs of scribes to copy the early Pauline letters- they might have decided otherwise but did the right thing for us, investing in communication to the benefit of the Church of the future.
The creation of Illuminated manuscripts was costly, in training and implementation. Printing was a challenge, as was the advent of film; Brother Ivo once enjoyed a hilarious conversation with the woman who first secured access to catalogue the Vatican Film Archive, which was an unexpected treasure trove of important early material for the history of cinema. At an early stage, the 19th Century Popes recognised the importance of the new medium and engaged with it.
Social Media is older than we recall. The magisterial Archbishop Cranmer Blog recently celebrated its tenth Anniversary. It continues to be the benchmark for quality and sheer dogged determination to produce weighty and well considered material on a virtual daily basis. Those of us who have attempted to replicate such outreach know the impossibly high bar it sets. One suspects that only political prejudice has prevented the Government from honouring that blog’s founder for services to Christianity and the development of Social Media.
Amongst the other noteworthy exponents held in respectful affection by this blog are DigitalNun and Bishop Nick Baines, yet in this fast moving field we are seeing younger initiatives emerging.
The text based blog is giving way to the “vlogger” – the digital blogger who shares short film. Brother Ivo must give a brief promotion to TGI Monday and the Virtual Pastor – both coming out of Lichfield Diocese. May Lichfield show the way!
At the February Anglican General Synod we had no scheduled report dedicated to this aspect of the programme called Renewal and Reform, to the newcomers and no illustrated presentation for those new Synod members who have no real notion of what can be done, or how to conceptualise “Digital Church”.
That absence was nevertheless raised, with an early question to the Business Committee about the absence of a current budget and the fact that if that budget is not in place soon, it will be problematic to call the authorities to account quickly because the York Synod is already virtually closed to new business by reason of a continuation of the ” shared conversations”
The progressing of Renewal and Reform at that Synod focussed on spending £50 million on Ministerial Education; with the shared conversations and sexuality dominating the time on the next occasion, if there is no budget approved by July, the Issue of Digital Church may not pressed by the Church’s elected representatives until after next February.
That would not be a mistake it would be an outrage.
Canon John Spence is spearheading that initiative. Brother Ivo has confidence in him and his team. He did tell Synod that an 81 year old is 8 times more likely to attend Church than an 18 year old. Whilst discussing Evangelism we were told that most Christians have engagement with the Church before they are 25. After that, reaching the ” lost generation” becomes increasingly difficult and unlikely.
Yet our focus last time was on examining the minutiae of spending £50m to train people to be Ministers who do not currently know that they have a calling; they cannot come ” on stream” for the best part of 8 years.How many young people will have been lost by then?
That budget would have financed a sophisticated professional Digital Media outreach to the young for over ONE HUNDRED years! Such a programme could be formed up and running within a year for an annual budget of £350- £500k per year.
Brother Ivo is not against training vicars, but the contrast in terms of money and focus is arresting.
Jesus taught ” Where your money is so shall your heart be”; he spoke of the Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to their own devices whilst he stakes all on the rescue of the lost. We seem to prioritise circling the wagons and doing what we know well, rather than embracing” the scary new” and heading off in search of engagement with those who, as yet have no idea of their need of Christ.
Synod was briefly reminded, this is not a ” budget for social media” – it is a “budget for the evangelisation of the un-churched young”. Yet a year after announcing it the budget is still not allocated.
We, as a wider church, do not seem to have understood that young people no longer obtain their news, opinion, culture or affirmation other than online, yet, when we were joined by young people in the pubic gallery for the debate on evangelisation, it was noticeable they were looking at their mobile devices throughout. Maybe, like Brother Ivo, they were following the parallel debate online amongst those not called by the Chair!
Yet actually doing something about this remains institutionally problematic and currently under addressed. The last Brother Ivo heard the all important budget consideration had been put back to later this month.
Canon Spence did assure us that all will be well, and that the powers that be will get this done, and Brother Ivo accepts his bona fides. No apology however should be made for flagging up the problematic delay that plainly has occurred. The Canon is a diplomat negotiating his way through the labyrinthine processes of Church House; fair enough, but do not assume that all is yet well in the development of this vital outreach.
It is important to set this strand of the Renewal and Reform agenda in its missionary context.
Currently the CofE has 58,689 Twitter followers. The KitKat chocolate bar has 310,401 twitter followers.
Strip out the CofE payroll vote and the story looks incredibly bleak.Yet ask some questions.
Both have a message; each is saying ” look at me” in a culture where every individual makes a daily choice to pay attention to a few of the myriad messages that comes his/her and to ignore the many.
When somebody invites us into their social media world it is an immense privilege. They are giving us permission to break into their world 24 hours a day and to offer our story. It is a preferential position, a great honour to be trusted to that degree. It says- “Your message / story / opinion is important to me and I allow you to tap me on the shoulder and share your thoughts in the midst of my busy day”.
Why would we not be interested in developing such relationships? Why would we not respond to that invitation by offering that person the best of our care love and intellect?
You may be sure that Kitkat employs a highly professional team to calibrate its message into simple and accessible terms. Do you sense that the Church “gets it”?
What does is it say about our attitude to mission that we are so meagrely engaged in perfecting our skills in responding and developing that outreach. Yet if the person to whom we outreach likes what we say and how we say it, will they not share it with their friends, cousins, yoga class, book club etc?
The crazy thing is how cheap and cost effective it is to make wider communication. It costs no more to communicate with 5 million people than 500 once the message has been devised and professionally executed.
Digital outreach is a highly professional industry; the Church would be mad to try and reinvent it when there are brilliant professionals out there ready to take away the stress of creative content, keeping up with new platforms, negotiating the licences for the necessary analytical software that underpins the cutting edge targeting of the best campaigns.
We cannot imagine how our message can be packaged for the unchurched young, but we can employ those who can.
There is another aspect to worry about. How many Bishops are “owning” this project? Are our leaders priming our Ministers to seek out evangelising content on the web and to share it with their congregations? There is a already a lot of good material out there, but we seem very poor at seeking it, recognising it and sharing it. We do not have to be good creators of suitable material but we can all be digital evangelists.,sharing the good news at the click of a button.
Brother Ivo closes with an industry story that needs to fire our hope and ambition.
A top advertising agency secured new business and sent the pitch document round its creative teams with the brief to find an angle to make a successful campaign. It was a rather dull prosaic product and many of the top creatives in the agency shook their heads and passed it on until it reached the team that always got the scraps off the table of the more established players. Nothing worked when they did the expected, then somebody had a mad idea.
In that moment “Compare the market” became “compare the meerkat”. The rest is marketing history.
Oh that we in the Church had a similar digital Damascene moment when we realised that our faith can be shared in new and attractive ways.
In the modern era we have the chance to reach many many more than our forebears; but do we have the imagination and drive to make it happen?
Might you, for example. share this amongst Church folk you know, might you raise the need to “click and share” so they too may appreciate the opportunities for evangelism that are slipping away every time we see something online and fail to pass it on?