What Alpha taught Al

Posted by Craig Borlase on 11 September 2017

Al Gordon, Rector of Hackney and former Global Vice President of Alpha International, has learned a thing or two about communication, especially having refreshed the presentation of Alpha in 2014.

“Alpha had already made a huge impact but we are aware that demographics change and that each generation needs to explore and understand the Gospel in a fresh way. Often organisations make the mistake of focusing on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of their message, at the expense of the ‘why’ and the ‘who.’” The ‘why’ was easy enough, for as Al says, “Alpha wants to see as many people as possible explore the meaning of life.” But the ‘who’ was another matter…

1. Aim Straight

Charged with making Alpha work better for twentysomethings, Al and his team decided not to try and tailor their communication to appeal to every one of the myriad subgroups within the age range. Instead they created everything with just one person in mind; a 24-year-old, urban, secular, independent-thinking, digital native. “If you throw 100 balls at 100 people at the same time, nobody catches anything. But throw a ball to the furthest, hardest to reach person from you, and if you can get the ball to them, there’s a good chance you'll be able to communicate to everyone else between you and them.

 2. Embrace Change (Or Die)

“When we find something that works the temptation is to double down on success,” says Al. “Short term it’s a brilliant thing to do, but in the long term it’s death. You start running around the same track and soon things wear thin. You have to keep moving, explore the unknown.” That much was clear to Al when last autumn he took up the role of Rector of Hackney, taking on the duties at the quirky gig-venue cum parish church that is St John at Hackney. 

“It’s in the most dynamic and creative part of London, with a population growth of 20% in the last 10 years, most of whom are in their twenties. It’s full of creatives and world-view shapers, the unreached people, the ones who would love to come but who don’t know anyone who’s a Christian. We sat down and thought, how do we reach them? That’s the adventure we are on as a team.

 3. Pray

They did all the things you’d expect – created a new website, developed a new comms style that would not feel out of place when you put it in the coffee shop or when you put it next to the gig flyers – but more than anything, they prayed. “That’s the key thing,” says Al. “We often forget that’s the most important ‘how’ of all. So before Christmas we prayer-walked, prayed over every single flyer and put one through every single letter box in the parish. In the end we had over 2,300 people queuing to come to our carol services. 

 4. See The Bigger Picture

As Al was watching people leave the carol service he overheard a couple of young men in their twenties discuss it, saying: “These guys have really got their brand together”. “It was interesting because I hadn’t really made the link in my mind between the way we communicated about the service and the way we communicated during the service. But it reminded me that the church has always been interested in the visual arts, whether it’s been holding up the communion wafer to help people understand that God loves you and is drawing near to you, or the cross on the outside of the church. In a sense Christianity is the oldest and most successful brand on the planet. All of us are in the communication business. We are announcing the good news and so to care about how we communicate is to care about the kingdom of God.”

 5. Remember What It’s All About

Slick branding might seem like a shortcut to success, but churches and charities can encounter serious problems if they pursue it at the expense of building relationships with people. “Millennials are turned off by the idea of organised communication anyhow, even though ironically they're very good at it. The older generation are a bit more cynical about the ‘McDonaldisation’ of church. For all of them the same is true: that communication without relationship leads to cynicism. But communication with relationship leads to real community and change. Where you have a slick branded church without any warmth of relationship, people instinctively feel that they are being marketed to.”

So all those Alpha posters on buses weren’t the secret of Alpha’s success? “No. Most people come to Alpha because they’re invited by a friend. The poster on the bus is just a reminder. It’s not the thing that’s made them come.”

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