It’s an odd feeling to find myself even in partial disagreement with my friend Amy Welborn, and I am now doubting myself, but I will press on nonetheless. Amy is writing this week about technology and today she writes about the Church, evangelization, and technology.
To be sure, there’s much I agree with. Like her, I believe that parish and diocesan websites are vitally important and need to be done better. Parish websites, first and above all, need to make it easy for people to get the information they came for, usually the Mass times, including the holy day of obligation Mass times. They also need to be kept up to date. The worst failing of parish web sites is out of date content and the second worst is the failure to put new content up. I have held that every parish needs someone whose primary job is to go to every meeting possible and otherwise to badger the staff for stuff to put on the web site (and in the bulletin).
I also agree on the generally poor state of diocesan web sites, which usually (not always) do well at collecting information on diocesan office phone numbers and the like. What they do poorly is collect and collate information of a diocesan-wide interest, like, say, all the parish adult faith formation or other major parish events in a searchable database. Of course, the primary problem there is no mechanism exists to communicate such information from the parishes to the central offices. Likewise, the sites generally do pretty poorly at offering comprehensive and specific information on ways to get involved, to receive the sacraments, etc.
But where I part with Amy is about the value of social media to parishes and dioceses, although even here our disagreement is only partial. Amy says that if your parish priest/staff/volunteers have not yet knocked on the door of every home within the geographical boundaries of your parish to engage personally with every person living within your parish, then Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are merely a distraction.
I disagree that these two things are diametrically opposed because they’re not the same, although she can be forgiven for connecting them. That’s because many people in the church think that parish and diocesan social media accounts are evangelization tools. They are not, at least in the sense of evangelizing the non-Catholic or the non-practicing Catholic. They are primarily tools for communication with those who are already engaged with your parish, much like the bulletin. And if one of those non-Catholics were to pick up your parish bulletin and get something from it, all the better, and the same for your social media.
And yet there are those, even Bishop Robert Barron, who think that the primary mission field today is on social media. As Amy says, it is not, at least for parishes. First and foremost, they must be going out to meet the people in their homes, their neighborhoods, their parks, and schools. In the stores and restaurants and bars. Face to face, person to person. Social media are very useful and handy tools for organizing this activity and for giving people a way to connect with your parish after your encounter, but they are not themselves tools of evangelization.
Yet, as she notes, updating Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are easy. So why not use them for the way they are best used and engage in door-to-door evangelization? As long as they don’t become a substitute for that personal, face-to-face interaction that is necessary.
Amy also hits on another key point. As the noise level on social media ramps up, as people find it increasingly distressing to spend more than a few minutes at a time on it, and—this is key—as the platforms themselves make it harder for the people who have expressed in your content actually to see it, they become less useful. Facebook has shifted its algorithm so much that hardly anyone is seeing your Facebook Page posts unless you’re paying to boost them, which most parishes can’t afford. Heck, I almost never see posts from the Archdiocese of Boston’s Facebook page now and I was the original administrator and creator of the thing!
But Amy also goes further to question the morality of encouraging people to engage more online. That’s a tough one. While it’s tempting to say that we should make people get together face to face and discourage online interaction, the irony is that without it, I wouldn’t haven’t gotten to know Amy sixteen years ago, I wouldn’t have the job I have today, Melanie wouldn’t have gotten together with three friends this past weekend, two of whom she’d never met in person before and the third only a couple of times.
So, I guess I mostly agree with Amy here and on the most important parts of what she says, but I still must tweak her final point. I think its wrong to encourage more general, unstructured online interaction of the kind that often leads to ennui, anger, or apathy, but we can and should encourage the ones that build us up, that feed us, especially if we live in situations where its hard for us to find that in person, like if you’re say, an introvert with small children who has a hard time getting out of the house to parish events. Because, as Amy says, we have to be concerned for everyone in our parish boundaries, including those for whom face-to-face interactions aren’t a selling point.
In the end, I guess I don’t I disagree with Amy all that much after all. I think what her point in response to Bishop Barron is really is that young priests don’t need training to use social media because, by and large, this is their natural medium already. The greater danger to them is that they will forget or no see the need or importance of that primary face-to-face interaction in the streets and living rooms and backyards of their parishes. In that case, I feel much better.