A young Catholic blogger predicts the benefits and risks of social media for church communities

“Please turn off your handphones and other electronic devices.” Millions of Catholics hear this mantra every week before Mass.

But imagine a priest instead requesting parishioners to “please, take out your handphones and turn them on.” You would surely hear gasps as people wonder whether the priest had spoken wrongly.

Yet this petition is increasingly being made at many parishes in the US. St Mary’s Catholic Center, the campus parish at Texas A&M University, is one example.

One weekend last September, at the end of each Mass, the priest asked all parishioners to whip out their phones and turn them on. He then asked them to SMS some basic information to a number associated with the parish, including their name, phone number and email address.

Within a couple of minutes, thousands of parishioners beamed their info to a registration database, establishing a digital connection between the parish and its parishioners (those without handphones were still able to fill out traditional registration cards).

Later, parishioners were sent an email inviting them to complete their registration on the parish website. There, each parishioner could create a unique account through a tool called flockNote (www.flocknote.com).

This tool allows each person to choose which parish groups and ministries they wish to receive updates from. The parish’s college students became especially excited about the option to choose how they would receive these messages. Email? Twitter? Facebook? Text messages? Each person decided how the parish connected with him or her, not the other way around.

As new media increasingly dominate our world through blogs, social media, podcasting, interactive websites and text messaging, parishes can’t afford to sit out this digital revolution.

New media tools have already shifted the ways we communicate. Facebook, the largest online social network, has over 500 million users. In the last 24 hours alone, people have viewed more than 2 billion videos on YouTube. And last year, Americans sent 1.8 trillion text messages, an average of almost 6,000 per person.

Parishes at a crossroads

Most parishioners have made the digital world their new habitat. The question is, will parishes take up residence, too?

Today’s technologies, for all of their positive effects, do pose serious risks to Catholics and parishes.

Upon opening our Internet browser, we’re quickly swept into a torrent of articles, videos, downloads, pictures and emails. And we explore this content without regularly centring our attention.

How then can parishes encourage undistracted prayer?

One way is to urge practices like lectio divina, contemplative prayer and Eucharistic adoration. Parishioners may see these devotions as unproductive and pointless through the lens of electronic culture. But parishes must respond by showing how they instead form the basis of a full and peaceful life.

In today’s always-on, always-connected world, we have contact with more people than ever before. However, relationships become reduced to sentence-long Facebook comments and 140-character Twitter tweets. How should parishes respond to this online shallowness?

One way is a renewed emphasis on communal gatherings like small faith-sharing groups and service-oriented ministries, each of which provide depth unavailable online. Parishes should ultimately remind their flocks, as did Pope John Paul II, that electronically mediated relationships can never take the place of direct human contact.

In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed how our electronic culture treats all serious topics as entertainment – including religion. In the face of this, parishes must remind that they are not meant to be consumed, but to be joined – not to be rated, but to be served.

Great potential

Despite its negative effects, new media hold an incredible potential for good. Many parish leaders have already recognised this – like those at St Mary’s – and are busy creating interactive websites, joining social networks and experimenting with new technologies. More than one recent pope has called these new tools “gifts from God” and there are many reasons why.

Many priests only see parishioners once a week at best. And for most Catholics, religion has become primarily a Sunday-only activity. But what if spiritual conversation continued into the rest of the week?

New media make this possible more than ever. In terms of formation, parishes can use these tools to become perpetual catechists. They can provide downloadable homilies on their websites. They can use their Facebook profiles to instruct parishioners and others outside the parish. And they can use parish blogs to highlight Catholic articles from the Internet.

New media’s evangelistic potential is even greater. Parishes have no better way to reach vast numbers of people than through new media. By creating an attractive website and joining a couple of social networks, parishes can easily and cheaply reach numerous people who would otherwise never enter a church.

Envision a priest discussing his homily through Twitter. Picture parishioners recalling a parish event through Facebook. Or imagine an inactive Catholic posting religious questions on a parish’s YouTube video. Each of these things are already happening and will become even more common in coming years.

Whether in the first or 21st century, the goal of each parish remains the same: to make saints. Any new technology, including new media, should be assessed in light of this mission. n CNS

- By Brandon Vogt

Twenty-four-year-old Vogt is author of the book, The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops who Tweet, to be released on Aug 1.

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