Be nice if the CofE could do some proper brand advertising

It concerns me that the Church of England for whom I work sometimes equates the transfer of text based information with communication. A word written or read out loud is not the same as a word received.

The written or spoken word in a religious context is often a kind of legal transaction which establishes the terms of membership. The words are a statement of what we are signed up to. We are connected in a formal sense but it requires creative expression to bring the meaning to life. I wish we could be more like the advertisers, or at least learn from them.growing-younger-header.png.576x260_q100

In fact, I spoke too soon! Birmingham diocese has grasped the advertising thing with both hands in this message – “we’re growing younger”. In an unconventional move the diocese wants to install significant numbers of young people in positions of leadership.

Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.
Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.  An accessible and creative brand. A live product demonstration.

It has been said that St Francis of Assisi urged his followers to preach the Gospel, “use words if you have to”, but maybe he never said those words, I don’t know. The point is that it’s the stories that make the communication – every colourful detail of how we live our lives becomes our sermon.

We are compelled to tell our story by whatever means we have at our disposal. It is no use saying that words are better than pictures or any other medium for that matter.

What matters is the connection. The famous theme at the start of EM Forsters Howards End is “only connect”. That’s just it – THE CONNECTION. We live in fragments searching for a connection and in the end that’s what we strive to achieve.

Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds
Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds positioning banking as part of your life story and values. It takes no time at all to read.

I think it is fair to say that we live in a time where the captured image is the medium of choice when it comes to communicating stories; from films to magazines, to websites.  The power of the photograph to connect with people is extremely powerful.  But we must remember that according to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. I understand from this that the words on the printed page can be spoken, and that the voice may convey images, and that the images can embody the stories.

Pictures have always been engaging and in our busy, mobile world pictures are now also extremely convenient.  An image can communicate an idea far more quickly than a paragraph of text. It is this convenience in our speeded up world that is the important thing to remember. This surge of interest in photography is not to diminish the power of words at all, it is simply to say that in our busy lives we need to keep it short. In fact pictures can assume tremendous power when accompanied by a few words of text. Poetry is a wonderful form. This leads me on the Twitter.

Twitter is a social media channel that restricts posts to 140 characters with the option of accompanying image, as you may know. The two most striking observations we can make is firstly that brevity (both in expressing and reading) is important and secondly that the message does not persist, by which I mean that it is designed to be visible only for a short time.

iPhone 6
The on-screen image is the message of this iPhone ad. Design and creativity.

So, the way we consume messages today is in the fleeting moments available to us.

As a society we are expected to be in sync with the conversations going on around us as they happen. These fragments of conversation are connected to other fragments of conversation and eventually coalesce into coherent ideas. We must be alert to the conversation.

The ideas are forming collectively with many voices participating. There is a flow and a rhythm to the dialogue which can be a beautiful thing. The connectedness of these conversations is a step towards being connected as humans and so here lies a wonderful prospect.

Yes I love photography and I love advertising because those who excel in these arts have understood that communication is about connection and  relationship not simply the transfer of information.

A perfectly formed circle. The social responsibility network

Another enlightening day with the CofE this time with the Social Responsibility Network, SRN, at Church House in London. A grand entrance just round the back of Westminster Abbey with lots of marble and polished brass. Doors with numbers and important looking inscriptions. It reminded me of my first day at the BBC at Broadcasting House more than 30 years ago, those mysterious corridors with important things going on behind slightly ajar doors.

Room number five was the setting for our meeting, a medium sized conference room. The group was sitting in a large circle. Forgive me, but pretty well all the meetings at the Church of England have taken place sitting in a large circle. I thought at first it was to achieve equality but I’m beginning the think it is in fact to maintain the maximum distance between participants. I was a late-comer on account of being a Northerner and so had to get the entire circle to shuffle outwards by a small but disruptive adjustment calculated by Pi.

The group was made up of Church of England officers, a title I don’t altogether warm to. The social responsibility officers are there to make sure the parishes take proper care of their poor, as all Christians are called to do. Exactly how this is done will be resolved when the cows come home but in the meantime we were there to bond and behave as one.

There seems to me to be four disconnected groups of people – ones who talk about mission, those who decide how it’s to be done, those who deliver mission and then finally the beneficiaries. This list is in ascending order of importance but is often transposed. Wouldn’t it be good if we could merge them a little bit or at least have a drink together?

The conversation at one point sailed dangerously towards those organisational promontories called power and decision making – do we do our mission top down or bottom up? How does the Church of England maintain one big glorious national identity while at the same time being a myriad of independently minded parishes?

Let me put on my old BBC producer hat for a moment. I would say that the only way to produce meaningful content is to get as close as possible to the stories. BBC journalism is constructed around the presence of reporters in each of the communities. To properly understand people you have to live with them, or even be one of them. I heard the term journalism of attachment mentioned once by Martin Bell. The Church of England has as its glorious strength a presence in every community – this in much the same way as the BBC aspires through its local reporters. The link between national and local is critically, critically important.

The BBC needs these local connections as does the Church of England. The role of the BIG organisation is to equip and protect those ground troops in order be present in people’s lives. The organisation at the centre pulls together the global picture and helps put the stories into a broader context – to be able to explain what’s going on. To help people in their small corners see the big picture; to help those with power work for the greater good and to call them to account. We need both the BBC and the Church of England at both national and local level. I believe.

The concept of the BBC is possibly more important than its organisation. The BBC – the most creative producer of high quality television and radio on the planet. The BBC stands for truth, creativity, inclusivity and exceptional quality. It is independent and not swayed by commercial pressures (wish). It is bound by the licence fee in a contact with its viewers to be inclusive, and without the BBC the world would be a less secure and more uncertain place. Gosh.

How am I going to end this blog post? Well, I think there is a challenge to connect the Church of England in a single identity clearly expressed. What’s it for and why do we need it? There is lots of talk about structure but I think the concept of the Church of England is more important. The people and the languages they use carry the message of the Church of England and importantly the Gospel message. If we really do have a presence in every community then we will have a diverse membership and a diverse leadership. We will be fluent in a range of lingos and celebrate difference. We will bring people together while affirming independence. The way we talk will be inclusive and respectful and we will demonstrate love by welcoming and serving all members of our communities. Our theology will formed with a local accent.

I am now in a packed train carriage practically sitting on the the lap of the bloke next to me. There are people standing in the aisles spilling coffee. Maybe that’s a better image than a perfectly formed circle.

Inclusive Church (or the Oceans 11 model)

Yesterday I went to a conference on inclusive church held at All Saints in Keighley – many thanks to Bob Callaghan, David Austin, Jonathan Pritchard, Elizabeth Millwain and others. So what do I now think about inclusive church?

My ideal model of church would be an Oceans 11 church. Oceans 11 is a crime thriller staring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. A bunch of misfits who would otherwise not have anything to do with each other find themselves all mutually dependent. They each have their own particular talents – a safe cracker, security specialist, structural engineer, electronics expert and a getaway driver. Danny Ocean wants to score the biggest heist in history. A shared mission.

I’m jesting of course, not suggesting church and criminality are necessarily linked but I do find some inspiration here. In Christ’s deepest hour of need his closest ally was the criminal with whom he was crucified – the criminal who was redeemed.

The organised and brazen Hatton Garden robbery was a crime which grabbed the attention of the world’s press for obvious reasons. The crooks hatch a technically demanding plan to break into a seemingly secure bank vault over the Easter holidays. The comparison with Oceans 11 is clear to see with the newspapers characterising the criminals as Mr Ginger, Mr Strong and so on. Whatever else you can say about it the story will be remembered.

The really great thing about the Church of England is that it is open to all sorts, and it should be easy to break into. On Sunday morning services across the land bring together people who otherwise may have little in common – social workers, city bankers, doctors, factory workers, children, retired people and maybe repentant bank robbers. Ideally we will set aside any prejudice or thought for power or status and celebrate our equality as children of God.

The aim of the Inclusive Church Conference was to think about the ways in which we can welcome people into the church and accept them for who they are (not what they are). What does making people feel accepted really mean in terms of our attitude and practical accommodation? How do we value what they bring? Disability, sexuality, mental health, ethnicity – all these and other considerations can make demands on the way we organise and conduct church. We were introduced to the concept of radical welcome which involved valuing the contribution and identity of people beyond simply being tolerant.

There is no question that including all people is at the heart of Christian theology. The rag bag of people Jesus associated with and embraced should inspire us to value all people and especially those whom we find challenging. To hold such a conference suggests there is work to be done, which of course there is.

The Church of England will do really well if it has a really strong sense of purpose and mission, if it values diversity of experience and rises to the challenge of working with the outsiders. The cost will be to embrace those who are difficulty to work with, a commitment to reconciliation and some serious risk taking.

Jesus didn’t break into a secure vault, he broke out of one – on Easter morning.

A church without a plan is a muddle – specially on social media

I’m putting together a few ideas about social media for a session with some of our local churches later in the month, so here’s where my mind is drifting. I am convinced social media presents an opportunity for the Church of England to portray itself as relevant, exciting and with a really quite wonderful part in our communities. However there is a risk that without self confidence and a clear message it could make for more of a muddle.

Creating a coherent web and social media presence for any organisation requires a plan and strong sense of purpose. The bones of a communication strategy consist of knowing the audience, having a clear expression of your own identity and a single minded message. Is the church ready for that? I hope so.

Vast numbers of people are now congregating on-line to shop, discuss, show off, celebrate and organise themselves. For most businesses and other organisations having a mobile friendly interactive website with integrated social media accounts is now absolutely essential. Over the Christmas season it has been astonishing how huge e.commerce has been. To be almost permanently on-line is now what you might call normal behaviour for many of us.

But the communications environment is now so very cluttered that the trick is not just to be present but also to be discoverable, to be noticed. It’s very easy to be a producer and publisher of content these days but let’s not be complacent – who’s going to notice our little drip in the ocean? Our on-line presence needs to stand out and be crystal clear in what it is saying.

To be discoverable means that we must be present not just on social media but in a range of media and in a strikingly creative way. At every turn and at every glance we must have an unmistakable, distinctive presence. We must be unshakably confident in who we are, what we stand for and what we look like. This is our brand.

Identity is weakened it it’s not consistent. A church that doesn’t have consistency across all its brand touch points is heading for confusion and disengagement. Every single person helps to form the identity of the organisation and so everyone must internalise the live out the values and mission of the church.

There is a temptation to believe that to appeal to the world we must try to be like the world with which we are trying to connect, but that works against being distinctive. What could be worse that being a chameleon in a crowded place (unless you work for Mi5) – let’s go for bright red not camouflage green.

What makes the Church of England distinctive is its extraordinary history and more importantly the message that we are loved and saved by God’s grace though Jesus Christ. It seems to me that we must be confident about the things that set the church apart – the really big differences. There is a temptation to talk only about the things that we have in common with our audience and to craft our image in a way that we think will be least offensive to our visitors, but there comes a point when we need to assert difference.

Here lies the biggest challenge for the CofE, not so much in using social media but in being confident and bold in the messages it puts out. There are encouraging signs of boldness from Archbishop Welby with some big statements on social justice. Can our local churches be equally bold when it comes to challenging local decision makers and drawing attention to local needs?  But whatever we say we must anchor the message in our single most important proposition, the reason we are who we are; unafraid to talk about the person of Christ.

So the Church of England is grappling with what it means to do business on-line. The church is not flogging goods (though it might), but more importantly telling life changing stories which is well suited the the medium. Nevertheless, the practical drive for the church to embrace on-line technology is in fact about selling something – getting people to buy into the real church and not some figment of the public imagination.

I’m looking forward to seeing some bold, creative and challenging messages from the church on-line.

CofE communications. Why are we doing it?

Just has a couple of days talking about communications in the new CofE diocese and separately at the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds.  Here I’m capturing a few personal thought about the value of telling stories within an organisational structure and how important it is to work with traditional media.

At the CofE I was encouraged that we very quickly got onto the question of desired impact of our communications. If we are evaluating a piece of creative communication the big question is always who is it aimed at and what do you want the impact be? What change in the way the audience thinks or behaves do we want to see? That is the real point and power of communications. Unless something changes as a result of our communication then what’s the point? Bound up in this question of impact is a question about the overall purpose of the communication effort.

Is there one big, huge, hairy reason we want to do this communications thing?

For me, the Church of England is in an extraordinary position regarding communications, like no other organisation I know of. The fact that every square inch of the country is in a parish, and therefore within this great network presents mind blowing opportunity. More than any other organisation it is in a position to understand the realities of life in our communities and to witness the impact of Christian faith in people’s experience.

I have worked in newsrooms at the BBC and the organisation is rightly proud of its commitment to regional news. The BBC has reporters who mostly live within a couple of hours journey of where a story might break. They will not only deliver headlines on a daily basis but will also follow stories over extended periods offering analysis and understanding. But there is a real anxiety about resourcing. Where do stories come from, who processes them and what is their relationship with the consumers?

When you think about it the traditional media is at risk of becoming isolated and disconnected from the world they are trying to report. I met a camera crew recently doing a piece about a project in a poor part of Leeds, Woodhouse in fact. The crew turned up in an expensive black Audi car and they all wore lovely Berghaus ski jackets. The news presenter was tanned and wore a long black executive coat and was fiddling with an iPad. I didn’t feel comfortable.

In another situation I spoke to one senior correspondent who was saddened that he was servicing so many outlets that he didn’t have time to find out what was going on! The script was written in London and then read out by him in Brussels, so the concept of “being there” wasn’t fully realised.

Journalists would reasonably argue that their professional skills are essential if the integrity of reporting is to be maintained. This is true of course but the integrity of the reporting is also put at risk if there are stories and voices that go unheard. Over time imbalances in our ability to access stories can lead to a screwed view of the world which becomes self fulfilling.

The church, far from being other worldly, has a membership which if joined together and with their communities can be rooted in big reality. There are very few places where people of different backgrounds and generations can come together in the way they do in the Church of England. My own church in affluent Ilkley has a real mix of people from homeless to filthy rich, there are all ages and at least a tiny amount ethnic diversity.

But hold on, let me take my tinted spectacles off and start again. The church, I confess, has a long way to go to get real diversity into many if its congregations but there are signs of hope. If we can show the church as it could be as well as how it is now we may have a vision that can take off. It could be brilliant.

Bringing people together, using the diocese to encourage people to visit different parts of the region, sharing resources and ideas across social boundaries is exciting. Most of all I would like to see parishioners participating in telling stories, particularly those stories that the press and media will find difficult to break into.

If the church diocese can design a communications network that encourages people to tell stories and, importantly, can share those stories and invite reflection and analysis then I think it will be very powerful. This is not about the Church of England competing with the traditional media but it is an opportunity for the media to gain better access to community life. There is a huge and important role for professional journalists to process, analyse and comment but they do need the full array of raw materials.

My vision for the Church of England comms team (and those of some of our community centres like Woodhouse), would be about giving a voice to those who are falling through the communication cracks.  We would preach less and listen more.

The church should not just be an organisation that does communication but be, quite fundamentally, a communications organisation – bringing people together in relationship with each other and with God. Isn’t that the highest act of communication we could imagine?

Grace is at the heart of Christian faith

Some words from Justin Welby

“The longer you go on, the more I realise the infinite and amazing and wonderful diversity of human beings and what they do. Grace is at the heart of Christian faith and not law. The church isn’t principally about rules. It’s about a relationship with Jesus Christ, and he shapes people’s behaviour. The street pastors, helping people at 3am on a Saturday morning who are drunk out of their minds, are not going to give them a lecture about drink. They’re just going to help them to get home. The church is not a place where good people go. It’s a place where bad people go to meet God. It’s a refuge for sinners.”

What have the Catholics ever done for Keighley?

Today spent touring around Catholic churches in Keighley. Working with four schools we have funding to tell the story of the Catholics in Keighley which promises to be an excellent project.

We’ll be looking at the extreme poverty and persecution experienced by early mill workers and some of the heroic figures. There’s Fr Russell who championed the cause of the poor and Henry Butterfield who converted to Catholicism and donated land. Then there’s the amazing Pugin chapel of St Anne’s. I’ve yet to visit St Anne’s but below a picture of the wonderful interior St Joseph’s church.

Keighley in spite of its sometimes iffy reputation is a wonderfully beautiful place with some amazing history – certainly never dull.

The plan is to create a collaborative website for the four schools, a series of short films and hopefully an exhibition at Cliffe Castle Museum next year. We hope that the wider communty will be involved too. See all pictures

this way to get in. a reflection on the Gracespace website

I did say that I would reflect on the Gracespace website – the Bradford Fresh Expressions group.

Take a look at the Gracespace website here

Let me first say that I love what they are doing and it fills me with hope that such a group exists.  I just wish there were more groups like this and that they were easier to get involved with.

One of the great things about boring old church buildings and congregations is that it’s easy to wander in and observe.  A strength of many churches is that when you visit people totally ignore you.  This absence of interest in you means that you can see what’s going on in an unthreatening way and engage at your own pace.  Much better than being put on a church rota five minutes after showing up.  Gracespace looks like a family to which you may have to join by adoption.  Wonderful once you’re in.

Gracespace appears to be a group of friends who meet to explore ideas of faith and creativity together. Their values are around food, friendship, creative expression and exploring together. The core values are explained on a dedicated page.

The website speaks the language of brand which makes it accessible to those outside the church. Symbols and visual shortcuts to establishing values and identity. The coffee cup is such a familiar symbol for people meeting, talking and doing business. I have such an icon on my laptop.

The cafe – itself a symbol of the new business environment and networking – it is a space which can also accommodate elements of a sacred space. To reflect, to pray, receive  sustenance, to congregate, to be creative. Is the coffee cup a contemporary chalice?  Is the website an extension of that space?

The design of the website is from a generic WordPress template (i think)  which has been adapted by adding the name Grace Space and the categories of content.

Templates are used often because they are inexpensive design options which give the website a professional feel. But templates are more than an economical option. In a sense the template has become a brand choice – like wearing Nike or Timberland. Instantly you know what sort of group this is and some of the values to which they subscribe. The design is the clothing and to a large extent the message. Churches sometimes look like they are wearing an old cardigan made by an elderly aunt and using morse code to communicate. This one doesn’t mind adopting the language of Neros or Starbucks.

It is significant that Grace Space has chosen to go down this branding route. Many churches would rather shun these template choices, but don’t have the resources to design their own. As a compromise they might opt for a Christian supplier of templates like 123church or Church Edit. The look and feel of many church orientated templates perhaps reflects the desire of some christians to ignore the visual language understood by the rest of the world.

The challenge for Gracespace in its communication will be to express itself clearly and not get absorbed by the style it has adopted or any bagage associated with the template.  With the absence of a building, a set service or other regular, authentic signature pieces there may be a risk that  it becomes fuzzy in its identity.

There may also be a question about who the website is aimed at?

While many fresh young minded people will be attracted by the look and feel of the website it is not clear how best for strangers to engage. This is probably a word of mouth church, friends of friends are welcome. The church meets at a few locations and as a consequence is a moving target.

As an outreach the website doesn’t provide an easy way for strangers to engage. I really would like to see a big red button on the front page saying, this way to get in.