NEWS ANALYSIS: Can PR help the church resurrect its fortunes? - The Catholic and Protestant churches recognise the need to appeal to the young but appear reluctant to radically alter their message in order to do so

Since the mid-1960s the Roman Catholic Church has seen a decline in the number of people attending Mass, baptisms and those who enrol into the priesthood. More than two million traditionally went to church every Sunday then. Now the figure is half that.

Since the mid-1960s the Roman Catholic Church has seen a decline in

the number of people attending Mass, baptisms and those who enrol into

the priesthood. More than two million traditionally went to church every

Sunday then. Now the figure is half that.



The newly-appointed head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and

Wales, the Most Reverend Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, has blamed a culture of

consumerism for diminishing the Christian message and affecting

congregation numbers.



The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally relied on the elements of

faith and fear to maintain its flock. Not surprisingly, younger

generations have refused to tolerate this archaic approach.



The Catholic and Protestant faiths are desperate to find a way to

attract the young into their folds as they see their congregations

becoming increasingly older.



Kieran Conery, a press officer at the Catholic Media Office, says that

while the church has long recognised the need to attract younger

worshippers, a recent survey of young people’s attitudes towards

religion seems to offer no immediate solutions and, he says, a concerted

media campaign would be unlikely to improve the Church’s fortunes.



’We do not have a product to sell. We can only promote the Gospel, there

is no way of re-packaging it,’ says Conery. ’With regard to advertising,

I would say no as advertising is inherently dishonest.’



Dr Bill Beaver, head of communications for the Church of England, agrees

that religion is a relationship and therefore very difficult to mass

market.



He says that there are two principal tenets to his approach: that

churches are comfortable and welcoming to people; and that the clergy

must make time to talk to people as individuals.



He adds that while an attitude of ’anything goes’ will never be

acceptable, both the Catholic and Protestant faiths have got to become

flexible if they are to boost their dwindling congregations and their

position in modern society.



’Nobody will trust their faith to a failing organisation and more and

more churches are having their services at different times of the day

and week. The challenge is to reach out to the people and adapt to their

needs,’ says Beaver.



Sally Davis, secretary of the Association of Christians in PR, thinks

that Roman Catholicism and the Church of England are both hampered by

the baggage of history and tradition. ’I think the general public,

sadly, are not interested in church. The best PR for the church needs to

be done one-to-one in the spirit of the disciples. It is up to the

church leaders to have the heart for that,’ says Davis.



She says that inevitably people are only reached if they are

interested.



Pentecostal services are full of impromptu music and certainly appear

less formalised than their Catholic and Protestant counterparts. She

also points to the Alpha Courses - run by the Holy Trinity Brompton,

west London, which she described as ten-week foundation courses in

Christianity. These have been so successful that the Church of England

is trying them out - Dr Beaver accepts that there are things to learn

and Conery says it is an area that the Catholic Church is examining

carefully.



Mike Mathieson, of youth PR agency Cake, believes that PR and marketing

would be of little use to the Christian Churches and that Catholicism

and Protestantism suffer from being perceived as corporate brands.

According to Mathieson, this factor can prove a major turn-off to

younger generations.



’The principals behind Catholicism and the obligation to take part,

telling people what to do is very patronising,’ he says.



He rejects Murphy-O’Connor’s consumerism argument and says that perhaps

what older people might call religion, the younger generation would call

spiritualism.



’The young are increasingly concerned about what we are doing to

ourselves and our future. Prayer does not need to be done in a church,

it can be done at a concert, in a field, anywhere. The established

Church is so formalised, so repetitive. Why does it have to be like

that?’ he asks.



’Spiritualism’ in many forms is undoubtedly growing in popularity but is

still at odds with what most churches view as worship.



For the majority of church organisations in the UK, PR is restricted to

basic media relations. The belief seems to be that the message should

sell itself and any strategic interference is inappropriate.



’It may sound trite but our aim is to preach the gospel. From a

communications point of view our strategy is to train more people as

communications officers to deal with the local media and newspapers

sensitively rather than campaigns whose effectiveness is not measurable,

could be costly and may be damaging to our credibility,’ says

Conery.



With this view, the church remains unlikely to adopt radical

communications strategies to reverse public indifference for fear of

cheapening its image in the eyes of existing followers. As long as that

remains the case PR is unlikely to become an effective tool for the

church in the face of dwindling numbers.



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