Thursday, October 6, 2011

Church Social Media Rule: Let’s Talk

The social media phenomenon offers both challenge and opportunity for the church. Social media reaches people – millions are on Facebook and Twitter every day. The church cannot ignore them. They are interactive, however, and don’t work when conversations are one-way. They involve dialogue, something not always welcome by clergy, teachers and other leaders.

“Because I said so” doesn’t cut it in social media, a fact regretted by parents and leaders who for ages have resorted to the phrase when exasperated with the petulant “But …” and plaintive “Why?”

For oldsters, such dialogue takes getting used to. A few years ago I took a course in church social teaching. It was to be an intellectual treat – until I got into the classroom with students who sought to debate the prof. The lecturer loved the interactivity, but I groaned inwardly at each sidestep. A former teacher, I appreciated the back-and-forth that helps minds expand, but I wanted the teaching clear-cut and wanted to soak up all the renowned prof had to offer. It may have been my inner dinosaur peeking out.

The church has a solid history of such top-down didacticism. It has libraries of tomes that explore theological truths. But that is only one part of the church.

Another side of the church – the pastoral side – is open to dialogue. It has validated such conversations as far back as the Gospels (see woman conversing with Jesus at the well). On the one-on-one level, the dialogue that ensues after a “Can we talk?” encounter has been an integral part of the church for years, a comfort to worried parents, frustrated spouses, abused workers and confused children.

Perhaps social media can help the church engage more in such dialogue. It is not easy. It takes energy, especially emotional energy. Talk – or dialogue – is work.

Many business leaders boast they have a web presence, but don’t take questions and avoid interactivity, though they might send an auto-reply: “Thanks for your message.” Better they post comments on a billboard, with the honest implication that they don’t want feedback. To be genuine on social media you have to answer questions. You have to discuss. You have to accept and even embrace being challenged.

At the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we have Facebook and Twitter accounts. They offer opportunities to share, but also give rise to points of contention inherent in all dialogues. Some people agree with you, some don’t. Some want to fight. All of them, however, belong to our virtual community and so deserve respect. Some people who post ask the community to share in their sorrow, perhaps over the death of a spouse. Others muse on the feast or Scripture reading of the day, giving others a new twist on a moment in the church. Some are ready for a fight and evoke the urge to push “delete.” We try not to do that since the whole point of the virtual community is dialogue. If a virtual scrimmage breaks out, we hope all, including virtual bystanders, come away more enlightened. It is a risk worth taking. Virtual conversations grow in importance as church attendance decreases and fewer have relationships with a parish to which to tether themselves in life’s storms.

The Internet, of course, cannot replace the community at Mass, where you know strangers by the pew they choose and as their children grow. There’s nurturing warmth even in the nodding acquaintance with those with whom you pray every week.

Social media has a place in the 21st century church, though some oldsters may have to be drawn into it, collars, veils, rosaries and lapel crosses askew. Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be worthy instruments of the Gospel to nurture our faith life, though some are just warming up.


Brandon Vogt said...

Great post, Sr. Mary Ann! You hit the nail right on the head--these new media tools are grounded on dialogue.

I'm 25, and people in my generation are not looking for people to shout at them through digital megaphones. Instead they want to converse, critique, respond, and engage the content available online.

We Catholics need to recall the communal, dielectic catechesis of great teachers like Socrates and, of more importance, Jesus himself. Christ drew truth and goodness out of his followers not merely through lecture--though that was a part--but through conversation.

It's great to see the USCCB embracing this mode on both Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for all you do!

Your brother,
Brandon Vogt

Unknown said...

Sister Mary Ann, I wanted to echo Brandon in thanking you for this post, but more importantly for the role model the USCCB is offering by embracing new technology in communicating the Gospel. This weekend, those of us attending the Catholic New Media Conference were firsthand witness to a bishop who "gets" the power of these tools. Bishop Coyne, sitting among us tweeting up a storm, is using the media to its full potential. These are exciting times!

Unknown said...

Thank you Sr. Walsh for this post, a result clearly of great internal discernment both personally and on behalf of the institutional Church.

Yes dialogue takes work, and what valuable work it is! Evangelization is more about dialogue than lecturing. The reference to the woman at the well from John's Gospel is a prime example.

Sharing faith and witnessing for Christ needs that wellspring of God's Word flowing abundantly, and what better way to reach the next generations than to pass on the treasure of the faith by bathing in the intimacy of a spirit-filled dialogue. I believe then Cardinal Ratzinger called this a "dialogic awakening." May we all awake to the exchange of witness in which in the middle we find Christ.

Meredith Gould said...

I'm hoping to Almighty God and all the angels and saints that social media grooves a pathway to conversation within and between generations.

I pray, too, for more open, loving, and collaborative communications among and between ordained, religious, and laity. And, if it's not praying for too much, between Roman Catholics and other Christians.

My book about church communications came out right before people of church and faith in liturgical churches knew about -- let alone were open to -- social media.

That these media are now being embraced and that people in your position are now thinking and writing about it is beyond blessing.

In Christ,

Meredith Gould

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this call for dialogue. Many are still learning the difference between a static webpage and social media. You have explained this with relevance and realism. It is a commitment, it can be an annoyance at times, but in the end, it's all about connection.

Benelli said...

Please make the RSS feed full feeds so that we can read your posts via an RSS reader.

Thank you,


François Gloutnay said...

I will RT this post. Thank you.

Angela Sealana said...

What Brandon said. :)

P.S. I'm 23, and the veil's making a comeback!

anon said...

Sr. Mary Ann,

"Dialog" is certainly the key word. This media allows many to have a voice on topics that can be difficult to navigate. With open conversation intellectual honesty can take place.

That said... for Catholic webloggers, the virtues (especially Charity) should be of utmost importance.


Unknown said...

Sister Mary Ann,

You make so many great points. I firmly agree (and have had a few discussions myself) regarding generational barriers. Your assessment is right on in my opinion.

In terms of social media and networking initiatives to actually take off in my opinion, we need to go to the next step. We've made the case in many ways. We know the benefits. Where the disconnect is currently, we don't know what "right looks like". We need "models" presented from Dioceses to parishes. These "models" actually will obviously evolve and should be flexible, but the parishes need some direction. For example:

1. Technology/Communication Ministry. Teams of volunteers that assist in creating and executing these efforts.

2. What a good parish website really looks like and the actual purposes (i.e. 24/7 extension of the office).

3. What a good social media and networking effort looks like and how to get there.

That's the biggest piece that is missing in my opinion.

Diogenes Ruiz said...

Sr. Mary Ann Walsh - I enjoyed reading your post and agree with the points that you make. Social Media provides an expansive platform for evangelization and cyberspace is a new evangelization frontier. It starts with engagement and communication. Hopefully more faith communities will move forward and embrace the many tools that make this new outreach vehicle possible. Thanks again for a great post.

Peace and all good,
Diogenes Ruiz

Unknown said...

Great post. The church is all about spreading the word and reaching out to as many souls as possible. In 2011 social media may offer the best opportunity to do this. For some churches the task can be overwhelming, which is very understandable. Is there a social media company that has any experience with churches that may be able to offer help? Thanks and best of luck