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
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
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
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
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
’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
’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
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.