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General Synod: presentation on Digital evangelism

16 February 2018

The head of digital communications for the Church of England, Adrian Harris, updates the Synod on digital campaigns and progress

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Adrian Harris, digital officer at Church House, Westminster

Adrian Harris, digital officer at Church House, Westminster

DIGITAL EVANGELISM was the theme of a presentation introduced by the Secretary General, William Nye, who recalled the workshops and presentations last July on the “embryonic” work of the digital team at Church House, Westminster.

The Church of England’s head of digital communications, Adrian Harris, spoke of the success of the Christmas campaign #Godwithus. Its film of All Saints’, High Wycombe, had been viewed more than 300,000 times since September. The whole campaign had reached an estimated 6.8 million people.

Church House Publishing had provided printed resources, including posters and logos, and had sold 98,000 copies of the booklet. The new church-finding website A Church Near You had been viewed 200,000 times, peaking on Christmas Eve. Of those who had received campaign emails, 45 per cent had opened them.

Social media was a huge part of the future of evangelism, and of the Renewal and Reform vision, Mr Harris said. There were currently two billion people on Facebook, 330 million active users on Twitter, and 800 million on Instagram; and extensive surveys had been conducted.

Enid Barron (London) asked whether, as the Church was planning commemoration of the Armistice, the digital team would be producing resources.

Andrew Williams (Coventry) asked what could be done to encourage parishes and dioceses to implement their training and ensure that websites were up to date.

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham) asked how the team intended to capitalise on media opportunities such as the television programmes A Vicar’s Life and Broken.

Mr Harris said that a group in Church House was working on the Armistice centenary, and a range of resources would be available. “We have been encouraged how churches are picking up what they have learnt in [digital] training and put them into practice,” he said. Hereford diocese had worked closely with the digital team on A Vicar’s Life, and extracts from the filming had been posted internationally: “Things are joining up.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, asked whether the digital team could say what was being done to attract the under-18s, since this group amounted to many more digital users than Church House had currently reached. Lucy Gorman (York) asked whether there was a way to find out how to take part in digital training in or near one’s parish.

If the digital team found a pot of money, the Revd Barry Hill (Leicester) asked, what would be the dream? Mr Harris said that he wanted to do more for the 18-24 bracket, particularly those going to university. He was working with diocesan communications teams to cascade training to the parishes. His hope was to develop partnerships with organisations outside the Church to test new media, including text-messaging and digital labs. “The aim is that anything we do we do well,” Mr Harris said.

Mr Nye said that children and young people were essential. The question was how to engage with teenagers while being ethical and appropriate. It was important to connect families, schools, and young people through digital evangelism. More research was being done.

Sarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together) was impressed by the innovation, but reminded the digital team about the needs of deaf people who might not have full access, and those for whom access was denied because English was not their first language. It would be good to have an interpreter, or someone doing sign language, for some of the content.

Was there more work to be done to connect with men, the Revd George Newton (Guildford) asked.

The Revd Wyn Beynon (Worcester) asked whether the digital strategy had a theological background, to avoid buying into a “‘me, me, me’ culture” and therefore advocating a “‘me, me, me’ gospel”.

Mr Harris said that he was happy to have conversations to improve accessibility, although the new websites had an “A++” accessibility rating: the highest possible. The statistics from the Christmas campaign had been fascinating, he said. “We work with a range of people across Church House, including clergy and lay people, to ensure our work remains theological.”

The Revd Bill Braviner (Durham), of the campaign group Disability and Jesus, congratulated Church House on the quality of websites and social media, and their accessibility, but asked what work had been done or planned to ensure that accessibility of parish websites was fed in across the board.

Could A Church Near You include churches from other denominations, Dr Christopher Angus (Carlisle) asked.

Mr Harris said that a huge amount of research went into major campaigns. It was about the national Church equipping local churches.

Mr Nye said that A Church Near You lifted data from C of E parishes, and therefore some Anglican churches and other bodies licensed in the C of E were missing. He could see the point about other denominations, but suggested that the focus was on completing the network of C of E churches first. He also said that it might not be that simple, given that A Church Near You had a C of E banner.

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that when he asked confirmation candidates what had brought them to faith, social media were rarely mentioned. How would the Church invite people personally, he asked.

Brian Wilson (Southwark) requested a 15-minute video summary on digital evangelism to take to his diocese.

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) pointed out that church websites of some of the largest parishes, including some in Oxford, were of poor quality. Could a resource be provided to parishes to raise their game?

Mr Nye agreed with Dr Smith that digital evangelism was rare, but the idea that there would not be a digital aspect of the Church would be “crazy”. Others had implied that the Church had missed the boat, but that would be like saying that books were popular in the 16th century, and anyone who did not cotton on at the time should not bother printing books. “It is important that we have the digital element, but that is connected with other forms of discipleship,” he said.

Mr Harris said that, by this summer, churches would be able to change their websites into A Church Near You for free, with a small charge for the domain name.

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