How the Church of England is extending its congregation

As the most important festival in the Christian calendar, Easter provides an occasion for the Church of England to celebrate with its congregation but for head of digital communications Adrian Harris it was also an opportunity to reconnect with a wider community.

Harris has been tasked with using digital and social media to engage with the 97 per cent of people who, while they may identify as Church of England Christian on a Census, rarely, if ever, attend a church service.

‘We have a real opportunity at both Christmas and Lent and Easter to engage with really simple campaigns,’ he explains. ‘We took people on a discipleship journey throughout Lent using digital and particularly social – Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It was about us sharing, across 40 days and 40 nights, a set of discipleness materials, such as bible readings and simple actions that could be done each day. People could engage on their way to work, on their way home or throughout the day.’

But it was more than that. The campaign shared images of churches, pictures of services and events throughout Lent, culminating with galleries of images of Good Friday and Easter Sunday celebrations. And on Easter Sunday a simple He is Risen #LiveLent message reached 120,000 people, while an image of the sun streaming through the stained glass windows of a church which was shared on Twitter Moment, which the Church uses to aggregate content, reached more than 180,000 people, including those on Facebook.

‘Our strategy was to share engaging content on the journey from Lent to Easter, and Facebook definitely gave us the most interaction,’ says Harris. ‘We’ve reached about 1.3 million people in total on Facebook throughout Lent and grown our follower base from 45,000 to 60,000 ‘Likes’.’

Harris has set himself a target of 100,000 ‘Likes’ by the end of the year. ‘The more people I can get to ‘Like’ our page, the more we can have an ongoing relationship with them,’ he says.  ‘We can bring people into a relationship with God and the Word of Jesus. That is a huge opportunity.’

Harris has already trebled the number of Facebook followers since he took up his position last October, when, by its own admission, the Church of England had merely been ‘dipping its toe in the water’ of social media. ‘Up until five years ago, the Church of England did not even have a Facebook page,’ he says. ‘It had a very one dimensional, broadcast Twitter account, but we are evolving. There has been a paradigm shift in the way the Church of England talks about and uses digital and social media. We are looking to reach people with very appropriate data and insight-driven messages from the Church.’

Harris classifies his work in three areas: digital evangelism, digital discipleship and digital campaigns. ‘These three streams drive everything we are doing here as we start to build the team,’ he explains. Christmas and Easter provide ‘digital evangelism’ opportunities for the Church.

‘People understand Christmas. They understand why it is celebrated,’ says Harris. ‘It provides us with an opportunity to target and reach people with a Christian message.’ The Christmas campaign used the hashtag #joytotheworld, and the Church of England filmed four people explaining what joy meant to them, including the Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and Reverend Kate Bottley, who also features on Gogglebox.

‘We used Facebook Ad targeting to connect with people who were using what I would call ‘soft wording’ associated with Christmas, such as Christmas trees, mince pies and mulled wine, and also those talking about God [Advent, Jesus, nativity, Christmas story]. In effect, you are tapping into people who are ‘Liking’ groups and pages that talk about these things or they are having the conversation themselves,’ explains Harris. ‘But with someone like Kate, we could target people talking about Gogglebox. We were reaching them in a very relevant way with a message from Kate, done in a very professional way.’

In the final week before Christmas, the Church of England used Google Ads and bought up keywords such as Carol Service, Midnight Mass, Christmas Church Service. In doing so, the Church of England hoped to encourage people to visit its website to find a church service that they could attend. ‘Facebook drove about half the traffic to our Christmas website, www.aChristmasnearyou.org, which had 34,000 services across the country. We stopped our Twitter advertising campaign at Christmas and reinvested into Facebook because that was driving longer periods of time on the website.’ Importantly, this translated into action: many parishes tweeted that they had experienced their biggest congregations for Christmas services.

‘The Church’s structure is unique. We are, in effect, an umbrella organisation at a national level. The way I describe my role is that I shine a light on what is going on locally, whether that is registering Christmas services and bringing them together in a national directory, or creating a great set of videos for them to share. These are the things that our dioceses have neither the funds nor the time to create, and people associate with the Church of England so we can join it all up so that it doesn’t look too random.’

The social media work around Christmas ‘provided a real confidence boost regarding the opportunities there are with a relatively small budget’, adds Harris.

One popular initiative launched by the Church of England is to post a simple prayer on its social media accounts. ‘People write in their hundreds ‘Amen’ underneath,’ says Harris. On All Soul’s Day, when Christians remember deceased relatives and friends, many wrote their memories of lost ones under the prayer. He adds: ‘When awful things happen in the world, prayers tend to do well because it is about the Church showing relevance. It is about us being in that conversation with a Christian message.’

Prayer has proved particularly effective on Instagram. ‘We have got into a routine of posting at key points of the day, such as Sunday evening, and we are really strict about this schedule so that we can reach the biggest organic audience,’ says Harris. ‘We have 2,000 followers on Instagram, sharing prayers and nice pictures of the life of the Church. Every fortnight we are changing our focus, featuring a different church or a different tradition. We have an opportunity to tell our story, and our relevance stems from all the things that we do and the breadth and depth of the Church across the country.’

The Church of England website, which currently gets 2.7 million visitors a year, is the focus of its digital campaigning; it is being overhauled and relaunched in the summer. A recent series of focus groups described it as akin to an Intranet. ‘They are right. The basics of the external facing site are not there. Our core audience is very important – our clergy, our lay people, those who are the backbone of the parishes, but what really excites me is that we have an opportunity to pivot the site around life stages and to make it story-led,’ says Harris.

‘I believe that this organisation is deeply relevant and has a role to play. It is not complicated. If someone has just been bereaved or someone comes onto the site thinking Shall I get my child christened? What does it mean?, then imagine the potential for us to meet them where they are.’

Harris and his team are ‘gutting everything we have’. He adds: ‘We are following the principles of good web design, mobile first, strong search engine and good navigation, and pivoting towards the 97 per cent. We are also filming My Church of England, a series of 90 second videos on what the Church of England means to an individual.’

One video features a young girl explaining why she got baptised at the age of 16, another a Royal Navy chaplain talking about how, when he is 2,000 miles from home, he ministers to Christians and non-Christians on board ship and lives his faith. There are also films about inter-faith initiatives and the work that the Church does in the community, for example with food banks in the North of England. ‘It will not be done with a source of pride, because that is not a word that we use, but from a place of humility and shows how we serve communities across England’ says Harris.

The Church will use its content to ‘insert ourselves into conversations around things like refugees, big emotive conversations that the Church has a voice on,’ adds Harris. ‘And when they talk in the media about these subjects, we will have a bank of content that, in humility, shows our services in communities.

‘Our strapline is A Christian presence in every community and digital and social offers us a chance to live that out.’