CHRISTIANS are being urged to pray for the media on Sunday. It comes at a time when the media, and the way in which churches engage with them, are changing fast.
The call comes from Christians in Media, which brings together about 650 practitioners involved in a wide range of media-related posts. These span broadcast TV, online blogging, local radio, web development, and many more manifestations of media in the 21st century.
The group’s appeal comes as the pandemic is having a massive impact on the media themselves — and on the churches who have turned to online services. In a way, we are all “in media” now.
Trusted news has been in demand. As the March lockdown took hold, people sought out reliable information about the coronavirus. The media regulator Ofcom reported that people looked to the BBC for news and information about Covid-19: more than eight in ten people said that they turned to the BBC at the beginning of the lockdown — well ahead of other broadcasters, social media, and other sources.
The need for “at home” entertainment has driven another main feature of the pandemic. Ofcom reported a steep uptake of subscription services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the newly-launched Disney+ service. An estimated 12 million adults paid for a new subscription service during lockdown, and about three million subscribed to an “on-demand” video service for the first time.
Another feature is the popularity of YouTube; its viewing figures have increased sharply, and how its output is watched has changed. YouTube’s managing director in the UK, Ben McOwen Wilson, said that the online platform was increasingly in people’s living rooms — not just on their phone or tablet.
YouTube successes include the fitness coach Joe Wicks, who has 2.56 million followers; online productions from the National Theatre; and full-length Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Ofcom says that YouTube was watched by 75 per cent of all adults online in the first two months of lockdown.
SOME of that screen-faced audience were congregations. The Church of England reported this month that its churches were providing more than 17,000 online services and events (News, 16 October). Facebook and Zoom have also been key ways in which congregations have kept in touch during the pandemic.
The move online has transformed how — and when — people view church services: now, worshippers watch the services and sermons whenever it suits their schedules, and churches report many more people viewing online than previously attended in person.
The pandemic has “propelled the Church into the contemporary world”, the Anglican Evangelical mission agency CPAS declared in a report in May.
The agency said: “Last month, we were the Odeon; today, we are Netflix. In the 1950s, the Odeon was OK, but then along came consumer choice, individualism, and crowded complex lifestyles. Then came TV film channels, and now Netflix, Prime, and others, where you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you are, on whatever you’ve got.”
Local media developments during Covid-19 include a “revolutionary” step at St Margaret’s, Rainham, in Kent, which has employed a full-time journalist to report on community and church news at a time when many local news outlets are closing or cutting back.
The Vicar, the Revd Nathan Ward, explained: “For thousands of years, it is stories which have kept communities together. Sadly, in recent years, local journalism has been under increasing pressures, which reduce the amount of truly ‘local content’. As a church, we want to step into this gap and employ a community journalist — an appointment which I believe is revolutionary.”
Even the humble parish magazine was affected by Covid-19. About two-thirds of parish magazines surveyed by the subscription service Parish Pump went digital; many are now both printed and digital; and many are attracting new readers.
THE pandemic has led to parish clergy developing innovative ways of communicating their message. They include the Vicar of St Saviour’s, Wendell Park, in west London, the Revd Chris Lee, who has more than 150,000 followers from around the world on Instagram (Press, 26 June). His 60-second online sermons have received national media attention. His church website explains that Mr Lee “uses his social-media platforms to communicate the goodness of Jesus Christ and has been asked to help the Church of England think about the best ways to use the social media space”.
The Vicar of St Peter’s, Notting Hill, in west London, the Revd Pat Allerton, became known as “the portable priest” after he visited residential streets in London delivering a prayer and a hymn through a speaker from his car (Press, 12 June).
The Independent reported in April: “Every day, the vicar provides the 10-minute service from a different spot, stating that he is making sure to practise social distancing. He regards the travel he is conducting as essential.” His appeal to local residents was simple, and low-tech: “Come to your window or your doorway and join in the singing, be part of your neighbourhood and community for that brief moment.”
In contrast to churches engaging with the changing media landscape in innovative ways, in September, Richard Rohr, the American author, spiritual writer, and Franciscan friar advised his followers: “I recommend for your spiritual practice for the next four months that you impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to — hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions.
“It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.”
The Revd Peter Crumpler is the SSM Officer for St Albans archdeaconry, and a former director of communications at Church House, Westminster.