“Update your website!” “Create a Facebook page!” “Post videos online!” “Engage your members during Mass!” Amid the commotion surrounding New Media, we hear from our Holy Father this year’s World Communications Day message: “Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.” Finally, a refreshing reminder to take a step back and appreciate the value in silent contemplation before we speak out loud or post content online.
A message I keep hearing at Catholic technology conferences goes something like this: “You need to have a great website with social media integration because younger generations grew up with this technology and its second nature to them. This is how they communicate.” (And then they throw in an arbitrary fact about teenagers and smart phone usage.) Basically, what this is telling churches is that younger generations will not be interested in their faith unless they can somehow participate with the church online. And I don’t believe this to be entirely true. Facebook, for example, is old news to my generation. (20-25 year olds)
A message I’m not hearing at these conferences reflects what the Pope is telling us, “Let’s spend some time in prayer and then discuss what kind of content will remind people about the sacramental importance of Holy Eucharist. What messaging can we post on our sites that will invite people to come celebrate with us?” Sure you can post videos and podcasts of last week’s homily, but does that draw people in to the sacrament? If you give your visitors too much content to look at online, they may feel like there’s no reason to show up on Sunday.
A few weeks ago there was a post on CTT about a parish that made some conscious efforts to make Mass more “engaging.” The thought being, this is where technology is taking us. If churches continue with traditional forms of communication, Catholics will leave the church in droves because they find it “boring.” On one hand, I love when priests are accessible and open to conversation. On the other hand, I’ve seen priests conforming to today’s overly-engaged society by sitting with the congregation rather than near the altar, and allowing Eucharistic Ministers to overstep their bounds and “help out” more than they should during the consecration. What’s the problem?
The illusion here is that the priest is “just one of us,” but which one of us could walk up to the altar and take his place? The Catholic faith is extremely engaging as is—the altar and tabernacle are in plain view, and we all surround one, participatory and communal table. Technology is changing our world, and the church can’t ignore that. Then again, we can’t downplay the sacrament of Holy Orders just so parishioners “feel less left out.” If your members seem bored during Mass, maybe it’s time to simply ask them why they feel that way.
Pope Benedict also tells us, “Learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak.” Instead of pushing out blog posts and tweets just for the sake of pushing out content, let’s listen to our communities first, and then put together a strategic plan to appropriately speak to them in the digital realm. If they’re looking for place to talk about last week’s homily or an upcoming election, let’s give them a safe environment online to facilitate that conversation. There are various private online solutions, as well as public.
It’s absolutely true that your parish should be open to where the Internet is taking us. But I think we need to find a better balance when integrating technology into our faith communities, and I love that the Pope is reminding us to appreciate silence in a world full of meaningless banter. If we conform to technology trends too much, I think we start to lose sight of why we should be evangelizing online in the first place. There may be over 800 million users on Facebook, but there are 1.1 billion Catholics. We’re already a part of the most engaged social network in the world.