The “Social” in Social Media

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the opportunity to go back to my old church, St. Bernard, here in Wauwatosa, WI.  They have a new priest, Father Mike Barrett.  I hadn’t met Father Mike before, but I greatly enjoyed his homily and was struck in how he conducted mass.  His approach to mass got me thinking about how in general we’re approaching Social Media.  Too often as techies we focus on the technology, but really Social Media is more about engagement than it is about the underlying technology.

There’s a shift occurring in both technology and church communications.  On the technology front, church websites used to be used for marketing purposes.  Traditional websites are very much one-way communication.  A traditional website tells the world what you’re about, what’s going on in your community, and where you are, but social media seeks to actively engage the community in a discussion.  In the web world, we used to say ‘content is king’.  Now its “all about the conversation’

I am pleased to see more and more that the church is awakening to the power of the Internet and technology, but the real shift occurring is the opening up to conversations.  Like a traditional content-oriented website, the church is historically very much one-way communication.  Priests preach to us and the church bulletin pushes content at us, but engagement in conversations is typically done at the one-to-one level.  Social Media, however, is many-to-many communication.  While this is empowering, it can also be a scary thing.  Where do we draw the line?  Commenting on this blog post is easy, but again, how far do you take many-to-many communication?  In the real world, no one ‘comments’ on a homily during mass.  The thought of raising my hand and asking a clarifying question during a homily has never crossed my mind.  What topics, moderation, and how far we take conversations online is probably the core inhibitor to Social Media adoption in the Church more than an understanding of technology.

During mass this weekend, Father Mike, did a few things that struck me as good examples of engagement.  He preached while walking up and down the aisles, during the readings when a priest typically sits, he sat down in a pew not up apart from the altar, and after communion he sat down again in a pew with his congregation.  All in all, he spent more time near his congregation during mass than near the altar.   After mass, he didn’t go to the back of the church waiting for parishioners to greet him, he roamed around the church as people were milling about greeting and talking to everyone he could.  When he came up to my family and myself he knew right away that we weren’t parishioners at St Bernard and greeted us very warmly while engaging us in conversation.

The message Father Mike was trying to send in my mind was clear.  He may serve as the mediator between God and us, but he’s also one of us, he approachable and wants to engage his parishioners in conversations.  As we look to technology for new solutions, our measuring stick needs to be one of engagement.  Its the “Social” in Social Media that truly matters.

Speaking of technology (yes, I do consider myself to proudly be a geek), I can’t end a post on Catholic Tech Talk with out at least a comment on technology. Facebook and Twitter are a good start, but may not be the complete answer.  I’m both involved in and continuing to look for Parishioner Engagement systems like these.  These social media tools may be the Media-portion of the Social Media solution for parishes looking to engage their parishioners online.

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  • C Cerveny

    Wonderful message here!  Yes, social media is about being SOCIAL!  Thank you for the reminder!.

  • Brad

    I actually have thought of raising my hand during a homily but thankfully restrained myself.  The “conversation” part has been a challenge from my experience.  As a Church culture we typically do not engage in conversation.  We tell and it’s almost to the point of a fear of discussion at times.  This in turn results in the hesitation of the parish social accounts I’ve found.  Obviously the appropriate time for discussion is not the homily.  The online social accounts provide a great platform for that discussion.  

    The other reason that confusion comes up is that we need to do a better job clarifying the roles of each of the tech tools.  For example; websites are a 24/7 extension of the office, social accounts allow for meeting and evangelizing, video/photo allows one to share with people not present or keep a memory of, so forth and so on.  Too often the approach is about simple attention or announcement which is the least effective use and often a miss for businesses too.  

    What’s the answer?  My thought is a tech ministry that clearly defines purposes, goals, roles, and action plans will achieve the most effective uses.