How Well Is the Church Reaching out to People in the Digital Age?

By Martin, James | Momentum, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

How Well Is the Church Reaching out to People in the Digital Age?


Martin, James, Momentum


The industry term for the appeal of a Web site is "sticky." Visitors (or "eyeballs") stick to a site if it is interesting, lively, useful, provocative and generally appealing. Conversely, the "bounce rate" refers to how frequently initial visitors navigate away from a page to a different site. Sticky is good; bouncy is bad.

How bouncy or sticky are Catholic Web sites? More broadly, how well is the church using social and digital media in ite mission to spread the Gospel? Since "the church" can mean many things, let's narrow the topic down: How well are those who work in church organizations in this country using social and digital media?

First, the good news. These days almost every Catholic organization and diocese and most parishes have a firm Web presence. Available to both the devout and the doubtful, these sites are repositories of useful information. One can check out editorials in the diocesan newspaper, follow the pastor's blog (and read his latest homily), make donations to a favorite Catholic charily and check on Mass times. An up-to-date Web site is as much a necessity today as a weekly parish bulletin is or used to be).

More good news: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has found great success in the world of social media. It has over 29,000 "fans" on Facebook, where the conference sometimes sponsors trivia conteste and where fans use the page for lively discussions. The conference also maintains its own YouTube channel and frequently updates ite Twitter feed. Sample tweet: "Are you ready to spend some behind-the-scenes time w/Pope Benedict XVl at the Apostolic Palace? The grand tour." (Note 4 tweeters: 2 save space drop XVI).

The bad news is that more than a few Catholic sites are unimaginative, difficult to navigate, full of dead links and look like they have not been redesigned since the Clinton administration. In the print world, magazine editors are encouraged to redesign every five years. On the Web, reinvention happens more frequently. If the medium is the message, then the message is that the church is often a laggard. More lamentable than the appearance is the content: While church sites are repositories for information, they are often nothing more than that. While Mass times and donor information are important, a good Web site requires more than just raw facts. As philosophers might say, these are a necessary but not sufficient condition for stickiness.

Most good Web sites are updated daily. If they want young eyeballs, then this is done several times a day. And good Web administrators post not just text but video, podcasts, slideshows and interactive conversations. If not, he or she should not be surprised by a lack of visitors. Those who wonder whether it is really possible to update sites daily would do well to remember that there is plenty going on in our church, so it is not hard to be creative: point viewers to international church news they might not otherwise see; upload videos of Catholic speakers; link to articles from your favorite Catholic magazines (hint); point to new (or old) Catholic art; and post the latest Vatican press release.

Too Busy?

Many church employees might say: "Are you nuts? I'm too busy!" But not updating is like having a microphone in the parish that is not working. A priest or deacon could deliver homilies that would put St John Chrysostom to shame, but if no one can hear them, what is the point? Likewise, if church organizations do not maintain a fresh Web site or blog, fewer people- especially the young, who get their information digitally- are going to visit these sites and hear the church's message, or even care if the church is speaking.

Back to the good news: The official church has hit its stride in the blogosphere. Archbishop Timothy Doian of New York blogs religiously (pun r- intended). So does Cardinal Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap, of Boston, who Supplemente his blog with photos.

The blogosphere is a natural place for articulate communicators, and there are many in the church. …

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