01 Jun Alexa, is there a God?
Alexa When did the Church of England cease being an analogue place of worship in a digital age?
Last week, the Church of England launched an Alexa skill, enabling users to ask the Church of England for prayers, explanations of the Christian faith and where to find their nearest church for local events and services based on their location.
Daily prayer resources are central to the skill, offering a prayer for the day, as well as morning, evening and night-time prayers and a grace before meals all recorded for Alexa devices. As our editor Alastair Tancred reports, the launch is one of several innovations the church has in mind.
“We’ve been really encouraged by the response so far across print, digital, radio and TV. All points to the importance of audio in sharing faith and bringing people to faith,” the C of E’s Head of Digital told the Medianet.
“Audio is a big area for us. We’re aiming to launch on Apple and Google platforms by the end of the year. The audio content will also feed our websites and social media channels.”
Under Mr Harris’ direction the C of E is fully embracing digital technology. His Church of England Digital team was established in October 2016 to harness the considerable opportunities that digital and social media brings.
For those not fully au fait an Alexa skill, it works like an app, which users must enable, using the Alexa app on their smart phone or web browser in the same way you install or uninstall apps, or by saying: “Alexa, open the Church of England.” Skills on Alexa are voice-driven.
The first full year of the digital team has seen several key successes: the transformation of the Church’s national website, with a 20% uplift in page views; the relaunch of A Church Near You, a local church finder, which saw a 50% uplift in traffic in December 2017; a successful Christmas 2018 #GodWithUs campaign that had a reach of 6.8 million; a #LiveLent 2018 campaign that reached 3.54 million; and winning nine industry awards for its work so far.
Mr Harris has in some way had to drag his employer kicking and screaming into the digital age. The church dismally failed to emulate the online prowess of individual Christians who in many cases were much faster at embracing new technology.
As Wired.co.uk recently pointed out, a famous Time magazine cover story from 1996 was headlined “Jesus Online”, examining how the fledgling internet was already shaping faith for a new generation.
A few years later evangelical pastor John Piper moved his collection of sermons and books online, and the portal – DesiringGod.org – quickly developed into a library of 12,000 resources, including “Ask Pastor John” podcasts and “Look at the book” videos where Christians from every corner of the world can follow him annotating a Bible passage live. The website now boasts 3.5 million monthly users and has a paid staff of more than 40.
Likewise a junior staffer at an American megachurch, Life.Church in Oklahoma, created YouVersion, the only Bible app that was live on the very first day of the App Store in 2008. Today, YouVersion says the app has since been installed 321 million times.
The Prayermate app time has notched up 250,000 downloads and has about 30,000 monthly users, allowing Christians to create lists of people and things to pray about and then prompts them to pray through a selection of topics each day.
The C of E is now catching up fast thanks to Mr Harris’ digital leadership. The aim of the Alexa skill is to enable regular churchgoers and those exploring faith to connect with God in another way at a time that’s right for them.
A quarter of UK households now own a smart device and, after transforming the Church of England’s and Archbishops’ national websites last year, this fast-growing area was identified as a priority for development.
“We’re prioritising Alexa at this stage to reach as many people as quickly as possible but plan to launch on Google and Apple devices in due course. The recent Church of England Digital Labs event highlighted the importance of voice as a major area of focus and the insights from this day were really useful,” Mr Harris said.
Users must activate the Church of England skill by saying “Alexa, open the Church of England”. A full list of commands is available on our dedicated Alexa page.
One million people go to a Church of England church and more than four million attend at Christmas. The integration with A Church Near You will mean even more users are able to find a local place to worship at key events. The skill is one of the first significant faith-based skills available for smart speaker users in the UK.
The final word on all this must go to the Medianet’s James Poulter, one of the judges at the Church of England’s recently-staged Digital Labs event in his capacity as head of emerging platforms at Lego. He told Wired that while there has been some excitement among Christians over the promise of new technology, that does not mean the future will necessarily always be golden.
Christians habitually fret that every new invention could be “of the devil”, he said, but once that suspicion has dissipated, they focus entirely on trying to use it to “get more bums on seats”.
“That’s fine,” James Poulter says, “but it seems to take a lot longer for the general discussion to move to ‘How this will change faith, life and community and all the things which is much closer to the heart of the church?’, rather than the triviality of should we be livestreaming our sermons?”
All questions no doubt which Alexa would be delighted to try answering.