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As I See it

Alexa, could the Church take on a new commercial role?

Terry MurdenIt has been an eerie sort of Christmas. Quieter streets, warmish weather, even the TV specials were a bit thin on the ground, giving the impression that the BBC and ITV have surrendered to the appeal of box sets and Netflix.

Of course, there are always Christmas carols and hymns, slipped in to remind us ’tis the season to celebrate Jesus, not Noddy Holder. Now there is a new icon on the block: Alexa. I don’t have one, have no desire to own one, and admit to a certain schadenfreude when I read that many of those unwrapped on Christmas Day failed to work. Alexa is already in bother for telling one user to “Kill your foster parents”, for giving wrong answers, and spontaneously letting out a creepy laugh.

Despite this, Alexa is a growing feature of society’s shift from proper community to a device-led individualism where we all get to choose, and now instruct, our phones, laptops, and this voice-in-the-room-thingy to do our work for us. We no longer even have to write, just speak. We don’t have to go anywhere, just speak. Every answer appears on screen. Every product is delivered to our door.

The implications of all this are quite profound, and raise questions about how our existing, and age-old, infrastructure can be repurposed to give us back the social and commercial community we are in danger of losing.

In particular, and with some irony at this time of year, our churches can play a key role in a technology-driven world. Think about it: there are few locations where a church is not visible. At some crossings they stand at all four corners. They are in city centres, on housing schemes, and they still form the centrepiece of most villages.

Most are strapping buildings, built to last, immune from demolition orders. Many are things of beauty, their mere physical presence helping to lift the spirits of those who live, work and play around them.

And there’s the rub. Activity goes on ‘around’ them. Not in them. For the most part they stand empty, or near empty. Many are disused and others are on the at-risk register.

Put simply, they need a new role, or should I say, an additional role. They should remain places of worship. But congregations are ageing and dwindling. They could and should play a bigger part in secular activities. More than that, they need to be part of our commercial world, helping once again, but in a different way, to provide the glue that once bound communities.

Xmas Day shopping onlineThe ritual of attending Church on Sunday has long been replaced by leisure activities and, since reform of Sunday trading laws, by shopping. Now there are two converging trends. Sunday has ceased to be a day of prayer and rest, and online shopping is replacing the weekly trip to the high street and shopping malls.

Ahead of last year’s Scottish Budget I was chatting to IoD Scotland director David Watt about the closure of Post Offices and suggested putting them in churches for the reasons mentioned above, not least the presence of churches in every local community.

Like churches, Post Offices were always considered a focal point of a community, where people would meet and do that old-fashioned thing of talking to each other. The churches could also earn a rental or other income from such a partnership. David was taken with the idea, and I note in a column by Simon Jenkins that 35 churches in the UK are now listed as Post Offices.

It doesn’t end with Post Offices. Churches are already used for a range of social activities such as theatre and art clubs, jumble sales and mum and toddler groups. A more commercial future beckons. As the high street’s woes add to the fragmentation of society, churches are looking to become collection centres for online shoppers. They could also offer more services, from health to money advice, or be used for business workshops and start-up centres.

Yes, the union of God and Mammon may not be such a bad idea. It would help renew the Church’s place at the heart of the community, a modern community that is seeking cohesion and a need to connect with real life.

Sorry, Alexa, but you may soon become so last year.

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