Imagining (digital) parish life 10 years from now

“Please silence your cell phones and other electronic devices.” Millions of Catholics hear this mantra every week before Mass. And in response, we power down, disconnect and turn off our devices. 

But imagine a priest instead requesting parishioners to “please, take out your cell phones, and turn them on.” You would surely hear gasps as people wonder whether the priest had misspoken or if their hearing aids need new batteries. 

Yet this petition is increasingly being made at parishes all across the country. St. Mary’s Catholic Center, the campus parish at Texas A&M University, provides one example. One weekend last September, at the end of each Mass, the presiding priest asked all parishioners to whip out their cell phones and turn them on. He then asked them to text message some basic information to a number associated with the parish, including their name, phone number and email address. 

Within a couple of minutes, thousands of parishioners beamed their info to a registration database, establishing a digital connection between the parish and its parishioners (those without cell phones were still able to fill out traditional registration cards). 

Later, parishioners were sent an email inviting them to complete their registration on the parish website. There, each parishioner could create a unique account through a tool called flockNote (www.flocknote.com). This tool allows each person to choose which parish groups and ministries they wish to receive updates from. The parish’s college students became especially excited about the option to choose how they would receive these messages. Email? Twitter? Facebook? Text messages? Each person decided how the parish connected with him or her, not the other way around. 

As new media increasingly dominate our world through blogs, social media, podcasting, interactive websites and text messaging, among other tools, parishes can’t afford to sit out this digital revolution. 

Statistics show how new media tools have already shifted the ways we communicate. For instance, Facebook, the largest online social network, has over 500 million users. In the last 24 hours alone, people have viewed more than 2 billion videos on YouTube. And last year, Americans sent 1.8 trillion text messages, an average of almost 6,000 per person. 

Existing in a culture that has dramatically embraced new media, parishes find themselves at a major crossroad. The large majority of parishioners have made the digital world their new habitat. The question is, will parishes take up residence, too? 

Increased narcissism and shortened attention spans are just a couple of the well-documented dangers of new media. Today’s technologies, for all of their positive effects, still pose serious risks to Catholics and parishes. Over the coming years, parishes will be forced to confront many of these issues and respond prudently to each one. 

Upon opening our Internet browser, we’re quickly swept into a torrent of articles, videos, downloads, pictures and emails. And we explore this content without regularly centering our attention. 

With the dominance of new media’s scattered, unfocused nature, how can parishes encourage undistracted prayer? 

One way is to urge practices like lectio divina, contemplative prayer and Eucharistic adoration as antidotes to digital distraction. Parishioners may see these devotions as inefficient, unproductive and pointless through the lens of electronic culture. But parishes must respond by showing how they instead form the basis of a full and peaceful life. 

Shallow relationships 

In today’s always-on, always-connected world, we have contact with more people than ever before. But despite our numerous connections, new media tends to cultivate relationships that are a mile wide and an inch deep. Relationships become reduced to sentence-long Facebook comments and 140-character Twitter tweets. How should parishes respond to this online shallowness? 

One way is a renewed emphasis on communal gatherings like small faith-sharing groups and service-oriented ministries, each of which provide depth unavailable online. Parishes should ultimately remind their flocks, as did Pope John Paul II, that electronically mediated relationships can never take the place of direct human contact. 

In his classic book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman observed how our electronic culture treats all serious topics as entertainment — including religion. New media encourage this dynamic, providing so much content that it’s easy to look elsewhere if we aren’t instantly amused. 

It’s no surprise then, that with so many Catholics using new media, this attitude has already crept into parishes.  

In the face of this entertainment culture, parishes must remind that they are not meant to be consumed, but to be joined — not to be rated, but to be served.

Positive benefits 

Despite its negative effects, new media hold an incredible potential for good. Many parish leaders have already recognized this — like those at St. Mary’s — and are busy creating interactive websites, joining social networks and experimenting with new technologies. More than one recent pope has called these new tools “gifts from God,” and there are many reasons why. 

Many pastors only see parishioners once a week at best. And for most Catholics, religion has become primarily a Sunday-only activity. But what if spiritual conversation continued into the rest of the week? 

New media make this possible more than ever. In terms of formation, parishes can use these tools to become perpetual catechists. They can provide downloadable homilies on their websites. They can use their Facebook profiles to instruct parishioners and others outside the parish. And they can use parish blogs to highlight Catholic articles from around the Internet.

New media’s evangelistic potential is even greater. Parishes have no better way to reach vast numbers of people than through new media. By creating an attractive website and joining a couple of social networks, parishes can easily, cheaply and quickly reach numerous people who would otherwise never darken the doors of a church. 

Increased dialogue 

Envision a priest discussing his Sunday homily through Twitter. Picture parishioners recalling a parish event through Facebook. Or imagine an inactive Catholic posting inquisitive religious questions on a parish’s YouTube video. Each of these things are already happening now, and will become even more common in the coming years. 

One trait that helps drive these conversations is new media’s anonymity. Many people feel uncomfortable chatting with a priest in person, but are willing to ask questions through a blog, Facebook comment or Twitter tweet. 

This same anonymity, however, also invites detractors. But instead of worrying about controversial dialogue, parishes should assume it will occur and then decide how to respond with prudence. What parishes can’t afford to do is let fear prevent any discussion from taking place. 

Whether in the first century, 15th century, or 21st century, the goal of each parish remains the same: to make saints. Any new technology, including new media, should be assessed in light of that mission. 

Brandon Vogt, 24, is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at The Thin Veil (www.thinveil.net) and is author of “The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops who Tweet” (OSV).

Digital ministry (sidebar)

Studies show that young adults lag behind other demographics in just about every religious activity: attending Mass, reading the Bible, and praying daily among other measures. Parishes have great difficulty reaching them. 

Yet these same young adults are typically the most savvy with new media. Inviting these “digital natives” to instruct the parish’s “digital immigrants” can be a prime way to engage, connect with, and evangelize them. Young people who are experts at e-mail, Facebook, and blogging can teach older parishioners who are just breaking into the computer world. Similarly, pastors can institute a Digital Ministry Commission in their parish, inviting young people to become leaders on the team. 

Each of these measures can draw young people deeper into parish life, paving the way for a relationship with Christ.