By Zachary Guiliano

Two bright spots in the 2017 Mission Statistics released this autumn by the Church of England’s central office were an uptick in Christmas attendance and the broadening digital reach of church communications.

The communications team at Church House expanded its monthly digital outreach in 2017 to over 1.4 million and its focused seasonal campaigns for Christmas and Lent to 4 million. These and other efforts, like redesigns of the church’s website, garnered five gold medals at the 2018 Digital Impact Awards, beating established entertainment companies like Warner Bros. and the global beverage conglomerate Diageo, as well as a variety of charities, NGOs, and other nonprofits.

“The Church is now digitally savvy,” said the judges, “and explores new technologies — like Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant — with ease.”

The church seeks to build on those successes. #FollowTheStar is undoubtedly the centerpiece effort, announced Oct. 5 and launched with a splash at Lambeth Palace on Nov. 13. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, obviously enjoyed himself as he pushed a giant red button, bathing the palace in blue light and giant stars.

“Christmas is going to be all kinds of things to all kinds of people,” he said at the event. “For some it’s a wonderful time — family, noise, friends, and fun. For others it’s isolated, for others there are arguments, it just varies widely. #FollowTheStar is celebrating the fact that at the center of Christmas is Jesus — who brings joy, healing hope and love, whatever situation you are in — and inviting others to share in that love. Perhaps for anyone who is a Christian, you might think this Christmas about inviting someone to come to church with you and find out a little more about Jesus. Church and a meal would be even better.”

The church has invested in various kinds of branded material, including #FollowTheStar posters, Christmas cards, bookmarks, banners, and much else, paired with a 12 Days of Christmas devotional booklet written by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chaplain, the Rev. Isabelle Harmley. The booklet is available for bulk ordering, but will also be available for free through an email campaign and via Android and iOS apps.

Response has been considerable: at the beginning of December, Church House Publishing’s website included a note that “phenomenal demand” for the booklet had already led to depleted stock, but new copies would be available the next week.

The campaign attracted national attention, including coverage on the BBC on several occasions in late November and a mention from MPs of both parties in the House of Commons on Nov. 29.

Various bishops and their communications teams are cooperating with the campaign. The Diocese of St. Albans produced a humorous video featuring a beleaguered rookie vicar organizing a children’s Nativity play. Within 48 hours, its tweet had drawn 33,000 impressions and about 3,000 watched the full video.

As part of the campaign, Church House has upgraded old tools and provided suggestions to help churches promote Christmas services. A Church Near You, a parish-finding site used by millions each year, especially on Christmas Eve, has been updated to take account of #FollowTheStar efforts. Those who update their site pages for Christmas services will see their parish bumped up in searches, which encourages participation for busy vicars looking to fill pews.

Parishes were invited to display stars prominently on or near their buildings for a “night of the stars” on Dec. 21.

Several other efforts have included the production of a variety of Advent calendar resources, focused on families and the visual heritage of the church. One available on the church’s site involves simple craft activities and prayers for parents and children, with a new one unlocked each day.

A more sophisticated project is aimed at adults. Theologian Jane Williams has published a set of seasonal reflections with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) as The Art of Advent: A Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany as the Archbishop of York’s Advent Book 2018. The production quality is high, and it is available for £7.99.

Portions are being released online each day on Abp. John Sentamu’s website and social media accounts, and the book has been included in an abbreviated version for free in A Good Advent. This app, released by the Bishop of London and SPCK, includes Bishop Sarah Mullaly’s booklet on Advent, as well as Williams’s reflections, discussion questions, prayers, and biblical readings (including audio) for daily content.

The success of these various ventures will surely receive scrutiny in the coming year, given the commitment of resources and time. But there should be little doubt that the Church of England has awakened to the potential for creative methods of outreach this Christmas.

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