From a carol service guide to a ‘confession finder’ and the pope’s tweets, faith leaders are seeking to connect to flocks in new ways
If shopping online looks likely to play a bigger part in your Christmas than singing carols or eating mince pies, the Church of England has a plan to reclaim some of its territory – via your phone.
The C of E has launched a website, A Christmas Near You, with details of more than 34,000 carol services across the country. Perhaps surmising that some possible attendees will not be motivated by faith alone, it includes full details of which services offer refreshments alongside O Come, All Ye Faithful – so that you can quickly find one of the 3,000 offering mulled wine, or 4,500 offering mince pies. And you can tap in your postcode and find a service that suits you – traditional, contemporary, or child-friendly – near your home, add it to your calendar or share it with friends and family.
For people accustomed to using their phones and tablets to find the arrival time of the next bus, order sushi for home delivery, book cinema and theatre tickets and plan their next weekend break, this is not a big deal.
But for the Church of England, it is the latest stage of a digital revolution that it says is connecting it to a wider audience than ever before. In the past four years, the church has devoted significant resources to expanding and improving its websites and presence on social media, taking “steps in a paradigm shift”, according to the Rev Arun Arora, its director of communications.
The Church of England is not alone in recognising the power and reach of digital technology. “Trends in social media and apps are changing religion,” said Heidi Campbell, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University and the author of Digital Religion. “For faith organisations and communities, lack of digital literacy these days means you don’t exist.”
Pope Francis has attracted more than 10 million followers on Twitter in four years, posting messages in nine languages including Latin and Arabic and, according to a Vatican source, personally approving each tweet before it is launched. The Dalai Lama has 13.1 million followers; Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, clocks in at 98,000.
Last month the Catholic church in Edinburgh and St Andrews announced it was launching a confession finder app allowing users to locate their nearest or soonest Mass. Christians all over the world can follow daily Bible readings and prayers online via services such as Pray as You Go, an app pioneered by the Jesuits 10 years ago.
Muslims have a huge range of apps to choose from, including quotations from the Qur’an, directories of halal restaurants and other businesses, prayer times and Mecca-finding apps.
Jews can watch videos about Judaism on YouTube’s TorahChannel or play games set in biblical times. Buddhists can perhaps achieve mindfulness more easily with the assistance of a wide range of meditation apps, such as Buddhify.
The C of E is targeting Facebook users who are posting about Christmas, pushing links to A Christmas Near You to people who would not naturally search for faith content online.
Partly as a result of this targeted promotional advertising, a video featuring Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the chaplain to the House of Commons Speaker, was viewed more than 130,000 times a week after its launch. The film is one of a series of four celebrating Christmas; the final one, featuring the Gogglebox vicar Kate Bottley, was launched on Monday.
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