Ministry Online: A Necessary Norm, Not an Exceptional Practice
I was delighted to see Jim Martin, SJ’s recent article in America Magazine titled, “Status Update: How Well is the Church Reaching Out to People in the Digital Age?” My delight stems from yet another affirmation of something that I’ve advocated — here and in non-digital venues — for some years now. Namely, the pastoral and theological presence of ministers of the Church online is not simply a curious exception to the “real-time” norm, but must become a second-nature presumption in a digital age. If we are called to preach the Gospel at all times and meet people where they are, then we must go to the asynchronous (and increasingly “faster-than real-time”) internet and the virtual spaces where so many of today’s people spend their time. We must venture into the web, offering a Christian voice in a largely consumer-driven virtual-world.
Fr. Jim makes a good point right out of the gates: while most Catholic (and by extension, other Christian communities) organizations have a website, few update their internet presence with any reasonable regularity.
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.
He moves to address some of the most common retorts the skeptical offer those who, like me and Fr. Jim and others, insist that this web presence is not optional. The first is the classic “I have no time” argument. Guess what? Everybody has 24-hours in a day. I regularly get asked “where do you find the time?” concerning my blogging, writing, speaking, studying, etc., to which I have to respond “you have to make the time.” Plain and simple. The same is said to those who want to be more physically active, go to the gym, start a new hobby and so on (remember that New Year’s resolution?). You cannot “find” time, you must make this or that thing (including internet ministry) a priority and therefore preserve the time. In other words, discipline.
Martin addresses what he (and the “kids these days”) call the “haters,” those vitriolic and largely anonymous bloggers and commenters out there who border on libel and see their mission as the orthodoxy police as ordained from on high. Such folks are often incredibly unqualified to make the remarks they spew, but nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that dialogue and web presence means that you have to be savvy in responding to all sorts of readers. How one handles such instances — often with the need to develop some tough skin — is very important.
He goes on:
Does the church seriously want to reach young people? I mean people who are really young—not just under 50, but under 25—young men and women in college or high school. The church longs to reach the young, but is it willing to speak not only in the language of young people, but in the modes they use? Or does the church expect them to come to it and speak, as it were, in its own language?
Jesus, after all, asked his followers to go to the ends of the earth, not just to places where they felt comfortable. And Jesus did not sit around in Capernaum waiting for people to come to him. Sometimes people came to the house where he was staying; more often, he went to them. And more important, Jesus spoke in a language that people understood and used media that people found accessible.
The conclusion Martin draws is clear: if Jesus were alive today (something I pondered in an article about the theological concept of Koinonia in the Digital Age back in a 2010 issue of the journal Review for Religious) he would likely be found online, because his mission was to reach out to others, especially those on the margins. I can assure you that the increasingly aging population at your parish’s daily mass does not qualify as the marginal in this context and you do not need to blog or tweet for them. But the unchurched and the young are online and if you’re not willing to go out to reach them, as Jesus would have it, then who will?