BALTIMORE, Maryland, NOV. 16, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The world of social media might seem like a fad, but it’s not going away. In fact, it’s a “digital continent,” with natives, immigrants — and in need of missionaries.
This was the reflection offered Monday, the first day of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fall general assembly, by Bishop Ron Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana.
“I often hear people, both in my work and in my circle of friends, who dismiss social media as frivolous and shallow. Who can blame them? […] The very words used by the practitioners seem to beg for ridicule,” the bishop said. “Their light-hearted twisting of the language suggests that these are the latest fad in a culture that picks up and drops fads quicker than the time it takes me to figure out my cell phone bill. I am here today to suggest that you should not allow yourselves to be fooled by its appearance. Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not, the Church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation.”
Bishop Herzog admitted such an affirmation could sound like exaggeration, but he offered some statistics as proof: “There are more than 500 million active users on Facebook. If it were a nation, only India and China would have more citizens. The American Red Cross reported that it raised more than $5 million dollars, $10 at a time, through a text messaging service. One out of eight married couples in the United States say they met through social media. It took 13 years for television to reach 50 million users. After the iPod was introduced, it took only nine months for 1 billion applications to be downloaded.”
The Louisiana prelate noted that Benedict XVI calls social media a digital continent, “with natives, immigrants, and even missionaries. He encourages Catholics, especially our priests, to approach this culture of 140 characters and virtual friendships as a great opportunity for evangelization.”
“The opportunities can be incredible,” the bishop proposed, pointing simply to the number of participants involved in the social media. “Let me give you one example. The USCCB started a community on Facebook last August. There are now 25,000 ‘fans’ associated with that community. […] Furthermore, if those 25,000 are like the average profile of a Facebook user, they have 130 friends, or contacts, on Facebook. With one click they can share the information they receive from USCCB. If only 10% of the USCCB fans share what they receive from USCCB, we are reaching 325,000 people. Multiple times a day. All it costs us is staff time.”
As big as the printing press
Bishop Herzog suggested that social media — though it’s been around for less than 10 years — “doesn’t have the makings of a fad.”
“We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago,” he said. “And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology. By the time we decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the Protestant Reformation was well under way.”
In fact, the bishop declared, “social media is creating a new culture on this digital continent.”
He noted that youth use it as their first point of reference. “The news, entertainment, their friends — are all coming to them through their mobile devices and through their social networks. The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn’t exist. The Church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way.”
Bishop Herzog admitted there are obstacles to overcome when the Church attempts to evangelize the digital continent.
He observed: “One of the greatest challenges of this culture to the Catholic Church is its egalitarianism. Anyone can create a blog; everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it.”
Nevertheless, the prelate reflected, the Church cannot abandon traditional forms of communication to invest in new media. Older generations still use newspapers and books, he noted, and financial donors still rely on those means. The Church needs to invest in both, he stated.
Finally, the prelate urged his brother bishops to “accept the fact that your staffs — and perhaps you as well — will need training and direction.”
“On the digital continent,” he said, “‘if you build it, they will come’ does not hold true. It takes careful strategizing and planning to make social media an effective and efficient communication tool, not only for your communications department, but for all of the church’s ministries.”
“We digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing,” Bishop Herzog affirmed. “We have to be enculturated. It’s more than just learning how to create a Facebook account. It’s learning how to think, live and embrace life on the digital continent.”