Having scooped up a Digital Impact Award for last year’s Christmas campaign, the Church of England’s Digital team are working with soul[food] for 2017’s #GodWithUs campaign. It looks set to be a fruitful partnership, but soul[food] is for life, not just for Christmas. So what is it, and how does it work? Read on to find out more…
For Christians, the question: “How can we get people into church?” sometimes feels like both our raison d'être and our eternal struggle. However, statistics show that perhaps this isn’t the struggle at all: 85% of the population will visit a church over the course of a year [i]. However, only 2% of the population call themselves regular church attenders[ii], so who are the other shadowy, occasional 83%? The clue is undoubtedly in the title: occasional. For these infrequent wedding guests or Christmas Day visitors then, maybe the question should actually be: “They’re in church – now what?!?”
This is where soul[food] comes in. Revd Rhiannon King, Director of Mission for Church of England – Birmingham and one of the originators of the initiative, explains: “We wanted to provide a very easy way for people who only come to church occasionally to follow up their experience. Often when people come for things like weddings and Christmas, they leave in droves, never to be seen again. Even the most savvy and welcoming church cannot follow them all up. So we made a small, attractive, pocket-sized card that tells you how to receive thoughtful but light-touch messages to your phone on the theme of the service you’ve attended. It’s really easy and completely free for the user, which is important.”
So how does it work?
- soul[food] cards are handed out or left in pews at the appropriate service (‘Christmas’ for Christmas, ‘grief’ for funerals etc.) Alternatively, a church can use a slide or poster if they don’t want to use the cards.
- Instructions on the card (or slide) tell visitors how to receive 7 days of bite-sized thoughts related to the service direct to their phone, via text or email.
- After 7 days, subscribers are offered a more in-depth 21 day journey called ‘Lifesteps’, connecting faith and life.
- Subscribers are also sent links to the soul[food] website where there are opportunities to continue the journey, resources that explore Christianity and information on how to find a local church.
What do the messages say?
The thoughts are ‘bite-sized’ but rich in meaning. They are purposefully light-touch because of the intended audience, but that doesn’t mean they are lightweight. They communicate substantial concepts: life out of death, hope in grief, celebration, relationships, despair. Here’s an example from the Easter version:
‘An egg shell, abandoned, cracked open by new life; a symbol of Easter: its emptiness is a sign of hope. Take time today to celebrate new life in the things you see’
Is it effective?
As with any initiative, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For soul[food], the pudding looks pretty appetising right now. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, both from committed Christian subscribers to those who consider themselves sceptics. In fact, of those who described themselves as either just ‘curious’ or ‘sceptical’ about Christianity (i.e. the target audience):
- 86% said that the messages left them wanting more
- 67% said the messages made them want to explore more
- 61% said they see things differently as a result of the messages[iii]
From a qualitative point of view, it’s hard to argue with feedback like this from ‘sceptical’ folk:
“Great idea, really changed my look on some things...”
“I found the messages comforting at a time when I needed comfort. They made me thoughtful about my spirituality. I have kept the messages to look at again. I would be interested in trying more...”
“What a lovely way to bring Christianity to people who are not committed religiously. It's made me more positive about the church.”
Of course, it’s not all positive. ‘The messages were nice before you mentioned God… ’ one sceptic remarked. Other than this, however, all the negative feedback has been from people who described themselves as ‘committed Christians’ – so presumably people with a regular diet of religious content, rather than the target audience who at this point may only be able to stomach spiritual amuse-bouches.
That said, the volume of committed Christians who have engaged with soul[ food] cards has been a happy surprise for the creators: “Although our primary target is always non-believers, we know that Christians are picking them up and finding them encouraging – which is never a bad thing!” says Revd King. “They can still pass them on to friends. Often people want to try things out themselves before recommending to non-believing friends, which is entirely understandable. So we don’t mind!”
There have been sticking points for churches involved in initial pilots of the initiative too, as Revd King admits: “The pilots in Birmingham and St Albans Dioceses went really well, but some vicars were concerned that the cards weren’t necessarily feeding people back to their particular church. Some wanted to do their own version of soul[food] cards that would do that. But occasional visitors are very often visiting churches that are miles away from where they live, so being fed back to the church where they’ve picked up the card isn’t necessarily the best thing. Also, designing and printing your own cards as one parish church is expensive. It works out much cheaper for us as we’re printing in bulk; half a million at a time. I’d also say that the initial contact is aimed at people who are not necessarily at the point of wanting to commit to a church community at this stage of their journey. Maybe they’ve never even had spiritual things on their radar before. Later down the line, we do point subscribers in the direction of A Church Near You so they can find a local church if they want to take it one step further, however.”
Reaching people in those shadowlands between having an inkling of interest in spiritual things and becoming a fully signed-up member of a local congregation is a notoriously difficult for churches, but this is the space that soul[food] occupies. That’s why it’s an ideal initiative to get involved with at Christmas; when our churches are full of occasional visitors. Hopefully, soul[food] can give them a little more to chew on before their next visit…
[ii] Anglican Church attendance only: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/3331683/2015statisticsformission.pdf
[iii] From pilot survey of 397 soul[food] subscribers