Why social media is so important to the Church
1 Nov 2018
The Church is boosting its engagement through social media, and is thinking seriously about how digital engagement can help to grow fellowship.
Australians have shown a declining interest in church life and its traditional models of engaging with the community, at a time when recent National Church Life Survey research reveals a growing appetite for innovation and change among churchgoers. While longstanding traditional forms of communication remain entrenched in our broader Christian community, a rapid uptake in the use of social media is connecting people with each other and with God.
So, how are churches using social media to make better connections with our community, particularly with younger generations who will lead future communications and gospel teachings?
We asked Beth Doherty, a Catholic journalist, educator and author of the 2015 book “Tweet Others as you would Wish to be Tweeted”, how she views the use of social media in the Church, its impact on the way people engage with each other, and how faith communities interact.
“I’ve been watching the Church closely since I graduated from University. My first job was with the Jesuit Magazine Eureka Street, which at the time was a paper publication with very little content available online. Since then, so much has changed. Now that magazine is completely online. There’s also been a surge in app development for mass times and church locations,” she says.
“The Church is made up of many parts, and the institutional Church is engaging actively with Twitter. The three most popular places used for forums are what I call the Holy Trinity of Social Media. These platforms remain the most used social media tools and they are Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.”
Mobile phone apps can also benefit the Church by reaching people who spend time living in a digital space. In fact, smartphones gave more than half of the Bible readership in the US access to biblical texts in 2017, according to Barna Group’s research who say the numbers have increased steadily since 2011. Social media is the fastest way to access information today, and it is used by most organisations as one of their most important communications methods.
“There are all kinds of ways that Church organisations are using social media for evangelisation. For example: Bread for Today is a daily prayer app for android and Apple devices developed by the Redemptorists. If we look at the Australian Jesuits who have been publishing for more than 120 years in print, we see they are active online and using calendar software integrations for daily prayer alerts,” says Doherty. “Many people use podcasting and YouTube to reach church audiences. The Plenary Council in 2020 is already engaging in the digital space with its advertising, and in the spirit of Laudato Si’, it’s possible that much of its collateral will be shared electronically, making it an almost paper-free event.”
“We just need to keep an eye on how we can engage in a discerning way, in a prophetic way to present something radically counter-cultural, using beautiful images. Truth, beauty and goodness are the values we want to communicate, and we need to keep that in mind when we are using social media for the Church.”
“There are big differences in working with older Church members, Bishops and priests, young parishioners and pastoral workers, young adults, and teens. It’s extraordinary to see how Year 7s can be so efficient online. There are also challenges with that for schools because kids can hide more online using Snapchat.”
If the Church wants to build awareness about God then it must understand at a Parish level that people spend more time in a digital space selectively tuning into news, communities, and events.
“I’ve noticed The Holy See is becoming more aware of what’s required in terms of digital engagement. The Vatican website hasn’t changed in design significantly over time, but it was one of the world’s first websites. There is however a need for more local church communities to develop their digital presence. It’s important to have a website that’s easy to navigate, even if it’s just a matter of being able to easily pop things online like a bulletin. Most Parish websites are poorly designed. These days you can get a free website that’s easy to navigate. Mass times need to be easy to find. The site shouldn’t be too cluttered, and it should be visually strong.”
Impact of social media on evangelisation
Pope Francis and his predecessors have endorsed the use of social media within the Church. In the 2015 World Communications Day message, he reminded us that our use of technology should never be the cause of relationship breakdown. With more than 17 million Twitter followers, his messages reach people across the globe minute-by-minute.
Catholic social teaching and inclusion will make potentially its greatest impact in the future if digital resources are embraced for their power of dissemination.“When I started working for the Australian Bishops Conference in 2009 it was a different world. We didn’t really have a social media presence beyond a website. Things have changed so much since then. These days so much of our communication takes place online. The Church’s media strategies have changed a lot. It’s easier to find information but you have to sift through it. Having a good website, email communication, and a grasp of social media is a good starting point for Churches that aren’t digitally savvy, yet you learn so much as you go. The benefits to Church and community are profound. There’s simply no turning back.”
About Beth Doherty
Beth Doherty is a Canberra-based journalist and teacher and the author of two books. She worked for the ACBC for five years in communications, and has qualifications in theology, education and media. She has worked significantly across Church-based social justice organisations, both in Australia and overseas. She is currently a Religious Education teacher and Communications Officer for a large Catholic college in Canberra’s north.