In the light of two conferences of significance for the Australian Church this week – the inaugural Catholic New Media Conference and that of the Australasian Catholic Press Association – I thought I would offer a few remarks about the role of social media within the Church’s mission.
Many Catholics, including older generations, would readily agree that the Church’s embrace of social media is important, even necessary. Consulting 2,000 Catholics last year, there was a palpable enthusiasm and agreement that the Church as a whole commit itself to this technology. However, I suspect there is not always a great degree of clarity on why this is so other than reference to motives that are ambiguous to say the least (e.g. ‘relevance’).
It is important to articulate the reasons for social media as a normal part of the Church’s mission because diocesan bishops, parish priests, parish councils, heads of religious institutes, boards of management and other forms of Church leadership need to be convinced of its value if they are going to make an investment in that direction (our own Diocese of Parramatta has employed a Social Media Coordinator, @socialmediaparra, and I am aware that other dioceses are on the way to doing the same or similar).
And it is an investment. Consider your typical dioceses with its various church agencies – adult education centres, liturgical office, youth ministries and the like. While a Facebook page or a Twitter account is not difficult to establish with appropriate disclaimers, considerable thought needs to be given to message, audience and integration of that media within the ordinary work of that agency and the diocese or parish as a whole. This often requires the training of staff in the effective use of this media and time dedicated to the maintenance and driving of its message in public space. Unfortunately in the province of the profane, ‘time is money’ and so churches and agencies need to budget for that time and work if it is to be an ongoing concern. Helpfully, budgeting for the use of such media sends a signal to stewards of church finance that ‘this things matters’.
As well, my learning from a past life as a media buyer for Mitchell & Partners is that content is expensive to generate and it is important for the Church to recognise time and resources are needed to deliver this proclamation and foster dialogue in the digital realm.
While the ‘content’ of Catholic media is perennial and freely given – the revelation of Jesus Christ made known by Scripture and Tradition and declared by Church teaching, liturgy, and the Church Fathers – it is not sufficient for Church media to tweet from Proverbs or even the Gospel alone. Social media in the Church, indeed communications more generally, consists not only in the confession of faith – that basic affirmation of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29) – it also calls for testimony that communicates the witness of Christian lives.
The reason to consider the role of social media in the Church in the context of testimony is this. Most of people’s beliefs about the world depend on the testimony of others. For instance, I have never been to South America but trust that it exists on the basis of the testimony of others who have. In fact, most of our beliefs of the world are formed on the basis of testimony because our experience of the world is inevitably limited. However, it is testimony that may draw us to travel to Rio de Janeiro if we believe in the credibility of the pilgrim that has returned from that destination.
The testimony of discipleship is what social media offers the Church’s mission. As Sherry Weddell recognises in her fine work Forming Intentional Disciples, it is not merely a curiosity but truly frightening to acknowledge that Catholics have come to regard it as normal (even deeply Catholic!) not to talk about discipleship. Indeed, for too long the cultural pressure within our parishes and communities works against the overt expression of discipleship, including an account of a personal relationship with Jesus, which can be viewed, absurdly, as Protestant rather than the foundation stone of Catholic identity (see pages 56-70). For existing and new generations of Catholic believers, social media is one vehicle that provides for Christian testimony with credibility, an opportunity to give witness to a journey travelled.
While we have come some way in past decades – moved past the prayer card, sent by email and complete with kittens, butterflies and trivial uplifting thoughts – there is some way to go to embed social media within the ordinary life of the Church’s mission and outreach. The very fact of separate conferences in Melbourne this week – one for new media and one for press – speaks to the integration that still awaits to take place in the Church’s communications effort and its self-understanding and organisation as bearer of the Word.
Of course, there is a risk that individuals and organisations, in their embrace of new media, develop an obsession with novelty which distracts rather than deepens. In a populist and throwaway culture, and given the Church’s insecurity amid current challenges and a devastating loss of public credibility, we can risk becoming eccentric faddists who are in love with anything just because it is new.
However, it is the work of those leaders in social media who are emerging in the Church to school themselves not only in algorithms of rank and filter but the theology of revelation, missiology, and ecclesiology that will underpin, extend and even challenge their work. Documents such as Dei Verbum (1965), Inter Mirifica (1963), Redemptoris Missio (1990), and Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day in 2010, 2011 and 2013 are good starting points in this direction, underscoring that the authentic development of humanity and human culture is not a technological achievement but one that stands in relation to what has been revealed, the one who, in revealing God, has revealed us to ourselves.