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Holy tech! Churches try new ways to connect

BBC Technology 10 Oct 2019 11:11
By Caroline Bullock Technology of Business reporter
Geraint Harries, digital lead, St John the Evangelist, LancashireImage copyright Centreline Films

Geraint Harries, a technology specialist, for St John the Evangelist in Lancashire, admits that when his parish first started using social media, it didn't get it quite right.

"At first we didn't really know what social media meant for the church and fell into the trap of simply chasing the number of likes and followers on our Facebook page," he says.

But when a parishioner credited the Facebook page for her decision to return to the church, then he felt the strategy had started to work.

Weekly posts on the social media page of the church which simply asked "How can we pray for you today?" resonated with the woman going through a divorce last Christmas.

"Sometimes it can be daunting to turn up in person to a service so connecting online, more anonymously, can make it easier to take that first step into the building which happened here," he adds.

Image copyright Church of England

Its own figures show that attendance at services has gradually fallen by between 10% and 20% from 2007 and 2017.

According to the church's data, monthly reach on social media has doubled from 1.2 million in 2017 to 2.44 million in 2018.

Mr Harries runs blog writing master classes. "Attendance at our Sunday service has gone from 15 to 80 in the last few years and we're the fastest growing in the Blackburn diocese and part of this is down a strong digital presence," he says.

High on its agenda are plans to extend opening hours, and tech is helping with that challenge as well.

Thanks to an infrared digital tracker, Revesby St Lawrence in Lincolnshire discovered that hundreds of people were arriving at the venue only to find it shut. In response the church revised its opening hours.

At St Mary's in Chartham, Kent, the deployment of a high-quality CCTV system means the building can be left open.

"I was speaking to one woman whose grandson was seriously ill and had come into pray one weekday afternoon.

Specialist software

Attendance figures have an impact on the level of income a parish pays to the diocese, known as the Parish Share, so keeping an eye of the numbers is imperative, Robert says.

It explains why a growing number of churches are using specialist software. Churchsuite is a cloud-based church management system, which currently has around 1,800 churches of all sizes and denominations.

"It can back up a hunch; if the vicar thinks that a particular member of the congregation hasn't been around as much as usual, they can check the numbers on Churchsuite and if confirmed, reach out to that person.

While UK parishes have trailed the US market in using this kind of software, Mr Courtney cites legislative demands such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which have prioritised data management as driving a surge in usage.

"There's more online giving and gift aid claims to deal with now, and more opportunity in using data to anticipate how much income is coming in, which was never really the case before," adds Mr Courtney.

Indeed, the Reverend Margaret Cave of Christchurch East Greenwich has seen first-hand how more flexibility over payment has left her church less reliant on people having loose change, having trialled a contactless collection plate.

"In fact, because my curate is leaving, we set up the card reader with several donation options the other day and ended up raising £200 for his present from the congregation who were using their Apple watches to pay."

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