My conversion to the faith and the rise of the Internet and social networking occurred in roughly the same time period. So my interest in this intersection regarding how it relates to the faith has been continually of interest to me. EWTN and Catholic Answers both had websites around 1996 and the Vatican came on board around 1998. If you look at the Vatican’s site circa 1998 it’s appearance hasn’t much changed. The year 2001 mostly marks the year specifically Catholic blogs started to grow. Catholic podcasts started to appear in 2006 (the Catholic Cast by Jayson Franklin was the first one I as far as I know). Most of the growth in Catholic new media over the years were mainly individual efforts with some organizations being early adopters.
Diocesan and parish websites also started to come on the scene. The diocesan site my diocese came on board in 2002 and I slowly watched as parish websites started appearing. These Diocesan and parish websites also from the start seemed to lag behind in about every way with other websites. Sometimes I like to go to The Wayback Machine to see a snapshot of a what a web site looked like a decade ago. The sad truth is that I don’t need The Wayback Machine for most parish sites since either their design is stuck a decade ago or that was the last time it was updated. I am usually quite frustrated when looking a parish web sites in my diocese, but this problem certainly in not just local.
So I was quite interested when I received a copy of Transforming Parish Communications: Growing the Church Through New Media by Scot Landry. While there are few bright spots regarding diocese taking new media seriously, the Archdiocese of Boston I would consider to be the brightest spot. They have set standards for others to follow regarding diocesan blogs and their podcast The Good Catholic Life and other other social networking endeavors. Since Scot Landry has been involved in this he know of what he is talking about.
In this book he makes the case for using new media for communication and evangelization from primarily the diocese on down. Why time and effort should be expended using these new technologies. What I appreciated about this book is that it does not get bogged down in the technology involved. As Scot writes “For me, new media outreach is much more about communications than technology.” There is always a temptation to follow the latest buzz-word approach that might not actually be of much help. Evangelization requires communication and so we must consider the most effective ways of transmitting the Good News.
In the first chapters he takes Pope emeritus Benedict XVI example of the digital continent to explain some of these capabilities. Since Scot considers himself more of an immigrant to this digital continent instead of a early adopter he provides a valuable perspective. As a geek if I was to talk on the subject it would be all about responsive design, content management systems, and making sure passwords used for diocesan and parish sites weren’t kept just in somebodies personal files. His approach in the whole book gives a much larger perspective.
As he moves from the case for use of the new media he then moves towards the more specific regarding planning for implementation and overcoming embracing of this form of communication.
My belief is that the biggest and most inclusive reason Catholic parishes have not embraced social media is because their culture and the main activities are preoccupied with maintenance (or survival) instead of mission.
I think this statement by him applies quite generally to many parishes beyond just social media. We tend to have mission statements full of jargon and not really missionary. Getting bogged down in building maintenance instead of building the Church (hey even St. Francis got that backwards at first). What this book gives us is sound advice and a constructive plan regarding implementing this. That a parish can build up this capability and as they become more confident expanding out. He provides concrete examples regarding parishes that are making an impact why this is not beyond your average parish.
Several appendixes to the book provide specific implementation plans and a “Rate your Parish Website” checklist (available also at Catholic Tech Talk). The Archdiocese of Boston did take on a survey of parish web sites to see the current state and what needed to be done.
I found this to be a very helpful and positive book exploring what can be achieved and providing a plan regarding how it can be achieved in your own parish. Ideally a diocese should be spending effort in the new media and guiding and helping parishes to achieve the same. Still if you can get involved in helping your own parish in this regards I would strongly recommend picking up this book.
Now while the book is rant free regarding the current state of new media in the Church, I am not rant free on this topic. So I will leave with just one example regarding how a parish website is usually being handled.
Say for example a parishioner volunteered to take care of the parish bulletin. Then this parishioner started mimeographing copies and delivered copies some weeks but not others. When copies were provided they were weeks or months behind in content. Would a parish find this acceptable? Of course not, they consider it important enough that money is spent for professional printing and up-to-date content is provided. The quality of design regarding bulletins has also vastly improved as bad liturgical clipart has finally met its day.
Yet the parish web site is treated exactly in the manner of this individual produced mimeograph bulletins. We can be very thankful for the volunteer that stepped in to produce something with their time and effort. Some of these volunteers might even have the professional skills required. Yet an endeavor that requires such maintenance and fresh content should not be left to just a talented volunteer. For most parishes this means having a site created, training to maintain it, supervisory focus to provide content. The parish web site is more and more going to be the face of a parish. It can be a center-point for the new evangelization or just another missed opportunity.