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More marketing is not the answer for the Church

27 July 2018

Social media has some surprising lessons for the C of E, argues Richard Nicholl


EVERY year seems to bring a new marketing scheme for the Church of England to shore up its ailing numbers: the Thy Kingdom Come prayer drive (News, 18 May); the Just Pray cinema ad (News, 27 November 2015); and countless initiatives with patchy take-up and only an occasional relevance for diminishing congregations.

None of them has worked. An 81-year-old is eight times as likely to be a churchgoer as an 18-year-old. Far from expanding our numbers, it will be a miracle — in a literal sense — if we maintain them.

Perhaps, instead of big campaigns, the Church should look to those institutions which are successful without marketing. People’s brains are not simplistic electronics that can be hacked with the right combination of words and images.

In a lonely world, maybe it can learn more from companies such as Facebook or Amazon, who need not advertise at all, than from Saatchi and Saatchi. To put it another way, Facebook became one of the most powerful companies in the world because of two things: first, the product is well designed for the audience to which it is aiming, i.e. everyone; second, everyone else is on it (cf. Google Plus, Bebo, and Myspace).

LET us take these in reverse order. First, it is critical that Christians actually go to church. This may sound pat, but, aside from the obvious problems of keeping the lights on, the Church needs an agglomeration effect to bring in others and stave off apostasy. It is not enough for us to sound off on Twitter about how much we love St Augustine: we must go to church, every week, preferably without fail — or even more than once a week, as used to happen a generation ago, when people routinely attended two or more services a week.

I am no exemplar in this, but it has become too easy for Christians to write off their obligation to attend. We cannot. It is existential. Just as “everyone else” is on Facebook, “everyone else” should be at church. We believers have an obligation to the Church and to one another; shirking that obligation in the belief that church will always be there is sheer hubris.

Second, the Church’s part is no less important. It must, above all, be somewhere that people feel obliged to go, but do not resent attending. That is not the same as wanting to go. The people who want to go to church early on Sunday morning are a rare breed, and we should protect them (or ordain them). Indeed, attending church entails spending time with people who are different from us, some of whom might rub us up the wrong way — in contrast to social-media platforms, where we surround ourselves with like-minded people who do not offend us. The Church’s diversity is counter-cultural and, at times, difficult; but it is also its glory.

But, having said that, church should not be an objectionable place to be. After all, not many people actually like Facebook, but the interface is smooth, and the system works well. Our product is the word of God — we need only clear away the obstacles in front of it so that all can see it clearly. His are the words of eternal life; why do we think we need to distract people from them, or wrap them up in pretty bows?

That means well-conducted liturgy, in regular style and familiar rhythms; intelligent preaching, borrowed from the Church Fathers and the great reformers; sermons that are clear, comprehensible and brief; congregations that sing the hymns properly and loudly, even if a little out of tune; services that start and finish at the same time every week; and it means newcomers’ being offered a biscuit and a cup of tea at the end, but being introduced to the churchwarden, too.

It means regularity, routine, familiarity, and community: the very things that are so lacking in the secular world. It might also mean that programmes which provide services to the community are promoted alongside services, demonstrating that churches are open and active at all times, not only on Sundays.

It also means the avoidance of the most fatal emotion that anyone can feel in church: embarrassment. The Church’s obsession with gimmicks, technological and liturgical, shuts out five people with a normal cringe reflex for every one eccentric that it attracts. We should never feel embarrassed about the gospel.

A LETTER sent by the Archbishops could make important individuals in each church sit up and listen, but the truth is that any revival in the Church is dependent on an effort among those we already have, both lay and ordained, to observe the obligations that we know full well we have. Get up. Come. Stay. Bring a friend. Bring your children. Abide by your oaths. Stop talking nonsense. Do what you know in your heart that you have to do.

If we are to stop the rot in the Church, and one day — God willing — allow it to grow again, we have to stop being lazy, and show people in the secular world what they are missing. Let us make the house of God ready, that we may give them — and, one day, him — a warm welcome.

Richard Nicholl is a graduate student at the University of St Andrews and a freelance writer. He blogs at partlypolitical.com.

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