How the Anglican Church is engaging with social media

Faced with falling congregations, the Church of England is finding digital engagement via Twitter, Facebook and blogging sites a powerful and important part of its ministry and mission.

Sister Elizabeth Pio based in Southsea, Portsmouth, is the Anglican nun behind @bethanysister -which has attracted a followership of over 1300. She uses the site as an electronic notice board, sharing spiritual insights and prayers as well as her take on current affairs and even football matches.

"We try not to make it too churchy or too preachy because that's not where people are in the everyday. We try and make it almost like a magazine," she told BBC Songs of Praise.

"It [Twitter] has affected me greatly. It's made me look at the world a little bit differently. It's made me more compassionate, more understanding of people."

But there is a darker side to the web. Sister Elizabeth like many others has been subjected to abuse, including bad language and suggestive comments. These trolls have hoped to upset and shock her but instead she has taken a philosophical view to their attacks.

Sister Elizabeth believes that abusive comments can be as helpful as positive responses.

"We simply reply thinking 'well God loves that person regardless of what they're saying they've actually made contact with us - which is good'. Whether that is abusive or kind, doesn't really matter."

Church of England web-pioneer the Right Reverend Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford is equally undeterred by the bullies. He's suffered his fair share of abuse online, but is committed to spreading the e-word.

"Anyone who 'puts it out there' will invite the abuse that characterises the instant-comment medium of the internet." he explained.

"However, we have to develop a thick skin and the ability to distinguish between what is a genuine point of objection and what is simply projected abuse. I deal with it by being a grown-up."

Bishop Baines has been running his own blog Musings of a restless bishop since 2008 and is a regular user of micro-blogging site Twitter.

"The Church is not always good at responding to a changing communications or media world. Social media means that we have to move from 'getting our message out there' to interactivity, interconnectivity and engaging in a conversation."

But he believes this is changing and that the Church is developing good social media communications. "The new world of digital media is one that we embrace." he told the BBC.

That need to engage in the conversation, rather than just broadcasting, seems to be at the root of the Church's desire to get online.

"Many churches and individual Christians have dived into the online world and made a decent splash" said Vicky Beeching, director of social media consultancy CyberSoul.

A keen blogger herself Vicky, who is also a visiting research fellow in internet ethics at Durham University, says that UK Christians could learn a few things from tech-savvy churches in the USA.

"Over there many Churches are extremely cutting-edge when it comes to technology - with purpose built facilities and concert level lighting, sound and video capabilities - and they've followed suit with online engagement."

Indeed a study by Twitter found that many of the most influential tweeters were relatively unknown individuals sending out messages of faith. The list of most retweeted people was topped by US Christian evangelists, whose messages were 30 times more likely to be retweeted than celebrities like Lady Gaga.

Figures in the Church of England have a long way to go before they can brag those kind of popstar-beating statistics. But greater engagement is the goal of many tipping their toes into the social media world.

"In the UK change is slower but it is gathering pace. I think blogging has caught on with lots of Christians as we have a faith that is very interactive." explained Vicky.

Worldwide there are over 1 billion people on Facebook, and 500 million on Twitter. In the UK more than half of the adult population regularly logs in to some form of social media with more than 40 million people having a Facebook profile.

Those numbers alone are a good reason for churches to be online.

The popular anonymous Church of England blogger behind @thechurchmouse believes social media is an important way of raising the Church's profile. Allowing interaction between the Church and ordinary members of the public which would previously have been unimaginable.

"When the Church Mouse started using Twitter he was amazed that he could casually chat with bishops online, when they had previously seemed like unattainable figures in the church hierarchy."

Mouse believes that as patterns of Church attendance fall the internet can provide a community space for many Christians.

"I think it is unlikely that people will come to Church just because they saw something they liked on Facebook or Twitter.

He added: "But a visible and positive Christian presence online can build a positive image for the Church and support wider efforts to engage with non-Church goers."

A spokesperson from the Church of England said that this sort of engagement is now an important part of the Church.

"We encourage parishes to get involved online and hold training courses to facilitate that. We are committed to engaging with users of social and digital media, including those whose view of the Church is critical.

"In those circumstances we often ask people to email us with more details so we can engage in a more personal discussion." He told the BBC.

For Sister Elizabeth it is a simple matter, the Church needs to be where the conversation is, and if that conversation is online then that's where she plans on being and no amount of trolling will deter her.

"People are on twitter, people are on Facebook. As a Church we do need to embrace it, simply because that's the case, that's where people are having conversations. That's where God wants to be."

"At the end of the day Jesus would be on Twitter. He'd be on Facebook, he'd be engaging with people where they are."