‘Like it or not, Facebook is the new parish hall’

November 13, 2012 | Uncategorized

I’ve decided to share the panel presentation I gave to the U.S. bishops and Catholic journalists yesterday at “An Encounter with Social Media: Bishops and Bloggers Dialogue.” I was part of a four-person panel invited by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to speak before the start of the bishops’  fall meeting in Baltimore. My fellow panelists included Bishop Christopher Coyne, then-Auxiliary Bishop of Indianapolis; Rocco Palmo, founder of and blogger at Whispers in the Loggia; and Terry Mattingly, a blogger at GetReligion and author of the syndicated column “On Religion.” Our talks were in response to a study by the  Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on the use of new media within the Catholic Church. Here you go:

By Mary DeTurris Poust 11-11-12

The first thing in the CARA report that stood out but did not surprise me was the information in the introduction about the decrease in google searches for the word “Catholic” or anything with “Catholic” in the title, while at the same time searches for “spirituality” and “religion” were increasing. That’s something that should send up a warning flare for us in terms of our online Catholic communication because I think it reflects a virtual version of what we’re seeing in our brick and mortar churches today.

People are searching — they’re just not searching for us, not on Google, not in our local parishes, not on Sunday mornings. So the question is why? And what can we do to flip those numbers? I think that’s where the numbers in this study can affirm what many of us in social media already know – we need to be active in and perhaps aggressively using social media as a Church if we want to retain who we have, draw in newcomers, and speak to younger generations.

Just look at that sobering statistic about millennial Catholics and where they get their news: only 2 percent from print publications but 37 percent from the internet. As much as I hate to admit it, the wave of the future will not be focused on print media, at least not in big numbers. And while other numbers in the study indicate that Catholics trust and use their parish bulletins or diocesan newspapers for information, those numbers will not hold as we move further and further into a world of digital communication. So we either have to climb on board or be left behind.

First of all, the fact that 53 percent of all those surveyed don’t even know the Church has an online presence cries out for answers. We need to get the word out – and not just to the people in the pews. Yes, they need to know first and foremost, but we can’t just preach to the choir. We need to make inroads into places where we will reach Catholic adults disconnected from the Church but desperately searching for spiritual connections, people who may have been USCCB closeupraised Catholic but are now searching for terms like “spirituality” and “faith” and “prayer” on Google but without the word “Catholic” attached. A lot of that can happen in big ways on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms. We can see it happening in certain areas of the Catholic blog world and social media, but it has to become more widespread and it has to sink down to the local level. The days of the static parish website really have to be put behind us.

I think the millennials have much to teach us in terms of where we need to go and what we need to do. The study shows that young people want something “entertaining” when they go online. While that may sound superficial, it’s really not. They want to hear and see something exciting, something that will make them think, something that will fill them up, something that will feed their curiosity, and maybe even surprise the. Why would they ever go — or go back more than once — to a static website where the information never changes, other than perhaps a weekly parish bulletin.

My parish, which I love, has a website with the wrong Mass times and a parish history doesn’t go past the late 1960s. Why would someone ever return to that site, millennial or not? Our online sites, blogs, Facebook pages need to be ever-evolving, constantly updated, maybe even a little edgy, and, yes, entertaining. Otherwise, we will hear from our online visitors what we hear from real life visitors who don’t go to Church on a regular basis: “I don’t get anything out of it.”

Now, you may hear all of this and say, we don’t have the time or staff or the stamina to handle what social media entails. I’ve got good news. The American attention span is shrinking — and fast, so you really don’t have to put up long posts. In fact, the shorter the better. People want blips of information with photos, maybe even a video. And although I’m a blogger, I think in some respects the rose is off the bloom even for blogs. Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are quickly surpassing blogs and they are not just a passing fads or something reserved for only the millennials and those who come after them, they are the way of the future (until something better comes along and then we’ll have to embrace that too), and they are opportunities not just for catechesis or Catholic news but for pastoral and spiritual ministry that can reach thousands with the click of a button.

The recent hurricane and resulting devastation throughout the northeast provides a perfect example of this. Even many people without power were able to sign onto Facebook or Twitter to check on friends, seek assistance, find out what gas stations were open, and what was happening in their own neighborhoods and churches.

In my region, for example, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the New York State Catholic Conference posted that the holy day of obligation was suspended on All Saints Day so people would not put themselves in danger. They – and other Catholic organizations – were posting what churches were doing to help people, where people could get water, and shelter, food and gasoline.  People reached out with both prayers and concrete practical assistance in true Gospel fashion. It was Facebook and Twitter at its finest.

In previous generations, that kind of togetherness and support would have happened in the back of the parish church after Sunday Mass or Monday night novena among neighbors who identified themselves by their parish not by their street or section of town. But those days are gone. Today, like or not, Facebook is the new parish hall where friends gather to talk, find out how they can help each other, and seek words of encouragement in times of trouble.

I’ve seen that kind of camaraderie on my own blog and Facebook page. I don’t focus on political issues or news of the day. I focus on the spiritual journey, sharing my struggles, my spiritual “successes,” my hopes, and my fears, as well as Catholic teaching. The times I get the most comments from readers is when I make myself vulnerable before them, letting them see that I don’t have it all figured out, that we’re on this pilgrimage together. Every time I think maybe blogging and social media is more trouble than its worth, I get an email or comment that makes me realize that even if one person comes back to the Church or finds new strength to go forward or feels a little less alone, the time spent on social media is worth it.

Because of the fact that my blog, Not Strictly Spiritual, is just as the name suggests a combination of spirituality, everyday life, faith, family, food blogging, and more, I tend to connect with many non-Catholics or Catholics who are no longer practicing as well as Catholics. In other words, I get those folks searching for “spirituality” rather than “Catholicism.” And I’ve had more than one seek me out – people I never would have thought to bring into a spiritual conversation — to ask if I’d start a spiritual reading group, if I’d offer them spiritual guidance, or if I’d take them along on my next retreat. So spiritual connections can be made in this unlikely place, if only we are willing to tap into it.

I think the CARA  study offers us hope. It shows that millennials are more likely than older Catholics to identify as Catholic on their social media profile pages. That’s a great sign, as are the statistics that show that 33 percent of those surveyed would like their pastor to blog and 31 percent would like their bishop to blog. As the CARA study noted, that’s a huge opportunity for potential growth, and we can’t let it slip through our fingers.

Posting weekly columns to Facebook, posting homilies or parts of homilies, even posting a one-line quote on the feast of a saint to Twitter or a beautiful picture with a line from the day’s Gospel to Instagram is enough to begin to make inroads.

Social media, blogging, and all aspects of online communication are no longer a luxury. They are a necessity for those of us trying to spread the Good News. Just two weeks ago, I got fed up with the political divisiveness I was seeing on Facebook and decided to deactivate my account, something I’ve done at least once before. Within a few hours, I had to come back because so much of my contact with people occurs in that world now. When I signed back into my account, there was an email from a woman – a stranger — who had clipped a print article I’d written on Rome for my local daily newspaper two years ago and used it for her own pilgrimage this fall. Hers is just one of many I receive from people walking this spiritual journey – not looking for politics necessarily, or catechesis or theology. And yet now that opportunity is there now because they’ve connected in a less intimidating way for them.

They may come because they see a pretty picture of St. Peter’s Basilica or spot an inspiring quote from a saint that grabs their attention. But they stay and then find something more – stories of people living out their faith, links to resources or books by other Catholic authors, constant reminders that they’re not on this journey alone, even if we never meet face to face.

I know many people avoid social media and blogging because they fear the inevitable fights in the com box or what they perceive as a loss of privacy or increase of work, but the bottom line is that people of faith are hungry for connection, for information, for inspiration, and for spiritual guidance in our increasingly isolated and chaotic world, and if they don’t find it within our virtual walls, they will search for it elsewhere.

Copyright 2012, Mary DeTurris Poust. All Rights Reserved.

Mary DeTurris Poust blogs at www.notstrictlyspiritual.com

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