If someone had said to me a few years ago that an ‘Instagram Influencer’ was not only a job for some people, but actually earned huge amounts of money, I think I would probably have laughed. A lot. But we live in a world where image, important as it is, is now everything.
Jesus has a lot to say about image over substance, particularly when dealing with Pharisees and the teachers of the law, who he called white -washed tombs, beautiful on the outside but dead inside. In the Sermon on the Mount he criticized their giving, praying and fasting for being all for outward show, to be publicly honoured. But that was what it was all for.
In Plymouth, where I live, the tour bus heads towards Devonport, where my church is, just before it reaches the bridge that leads into our area, it takes a right, and circles towards the Royal William Yard, an area of urban redevelopment full of expensive flats, cool bars and cafés and chain restaurants. It does the circle there and then heads back into town. Tourists don’t go to Devonport. The tourist maps stop at that same bridge.
Last weekend, my family and I went to Royal William Yard to get some lunch and have a coffee. All the staff (male and female) seemed ridiculously good-looking. With tattoos and piercings, they were the cool crowd and they attracted the cool crowd (though the food is good too).
Today, many of our churches use social media to attract people to their churches. The hashtag #trychurch is particularly popular. But if you flick through social media feeds, in amongst the inspiring Bible verses, are often pictures of beautiful and white teethed young adults and students. It fits into the narrative that church is all about having a cool image. It is aspirational marketing of the worst kind, and it is churches that are doing it!
When I looked out at church last Sunday, the congregation is small enough that I know each of them by name. There is not one person in that room who is not struggling in some way: unemployment, lack of job security, illness, addiction, family breakdown, mental health problems, poverty.
I want to think differently about how we use our social media. I want to capture what church really looks like. We are starting a new project #portraitsofDCBC. My minister in training (who has a smart camera) is going to take portraits, of individuals, of couples, of families, and we are going to tell their stories, (with permission of course). True stories. We won’t just limit this to our Sunday morning church service, but all ofour community engagement: the Toddler group we run in the local café, the arts and crafts group, the coffee morning.
We want to reflect the community, all the wrinkles and the struggles but also the joys and the beauty of our people! While we do indeed have some smiley white-toothed millennials, our community is made up of many others. We want to reflect the fact that in our church everyone is welcome, nobody is too cool or not cool enough. We are a community of real people, living real lives, and those lives are often very hard.
This may not sound like the most successful “marketing” strategy in history, but it will be authentic.