March 17, 2010 // Uncategorized

Summit looks at how parishes can use technology to engage Catholics

By Jim Gauger Catholic News Service
VILLANOVA, Pa. (CNS) — Desktop and laptop computers will be artifacts in the Smithsonian in three years, replaced by mobile computing devices known as “smartphones,” a keynote speaker predicted at a technology summit for parishes.

Steve Hewitt, editor of Christian Computing Magazine and Christian Video Magazine, called it the “personal computing age” led by those under 40.

“They don’t care about network TV; they care about what other people have to say,” he told the 200 people attending the summit on the campus of Villanova University. “They prefer text messaging to any other type of communication.”

To connect with this crowd, he suggested Catholic parishes use Webinars, social networking, blogging and texting. He also said “video testimonies” of people’s stories of faith can become a powerful presence on YouTube, a video sharing site.

Hewitt and another keynote speaker, Sister Susan Wolf, a Sister of Notre Dame who is an Internet and social media strategist and consultant, addressed technology’s effect on people’s daily lives in separate sessions at an all-day summit sponsored by the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova’s business school Feb. 25.

“Parishes are having a hard time attracting and keeping young people,” said Charles Zech, the center’s director. “Young people communicate through social networks like Facebook. We need to meet people where they are.”

The center promoted the summit as a way for parishes to follow up on the theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Communications Day 2010: “The priest and pastoral ministry in a digital world: New media at the service of the Word.”

Original plans called for having an audience of 100 at the summit, but an estimated 200 participated. That number included groups from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, along with parish representatives from New Jersey, New York and Delaware.

“I have a study that says that 40 percent of people who move to a new city check out the church’s Web site before visiting the church,” Zech explained. “That’s the first impression — the Web site. This study is for all religions, not just Catholic. You have to have an attractive Web site and communicate through technology.”

With many people now comfortable with using their computer for various daily activities — from paying bills to shopping — he suggested parish Web sites could provide a way for parishioners to make contributions electronically, establish prayer lists and give links to Web sites for their archdiocese or diocese and the Vatican.

Zech said it is important to “keep folks attracted to the parishes between Sundays. It’s important to put up attractive Web sites to keep in touch with the parishioners. Frankly, the biggest benefit is to the young members. Kids grow up with technology as part of their lives.”

In her presentation Sister Susan said she wants “to empower ministry leaders, Catholic organizations and religious communities to use the Internet and social media more effectively for the mission of making disciples of all nations.”

She cited statistics showing that “less than 30 percent of Catholics are in church on Sunday” and that many more Catholics are online on a daily basis.

Using humor, Sister Susan took the audience through her own long, sometimes difficult path to learning about the digital world. She offered her ABCs of technology: access to information, building relationships and communication — and spoke about how it all relates to Catholic ministry.

“We need to provide access to our resources,” Sister Susan said. “We need to build relationships so people can be with their faith peers and give support. And we need to be communicating the good news of Jesus Christ.”

She gave 10 tips for how parishes can proceed with technology:

— Be clear about your mission; be committed to delivering real content.

— Address specific audiences; know who you are relating to whether they are teenagers, new residents or the homebound.

— Fit technology to the audience; for example, making the Sunday homily available on the parish Web site.

— Do your homework, be thorough and compare Web sites.

— Offer people proper training.

— Learn from your mistakes.

— Think big, be inclusive.

— Start smart; think about where you can make inroads.

— Get feedback.

— Form your teams carefully; don’t do it alone but bring in people who enjoy a challenge and want to be a part of the project.

“Use your imagination,” Sister Susan emphasized. “Repurpose content (for a Web site) that you already have. Ask yourself, ‘How can we do this online?’ You are empowering people to participate. Technology is all about people.”

Bridging the gap between the church and the digital world can be difficult, Sister Susan said. “Be innovative, but realistic.”

She also had this advice for developing Catholic ministry on the Internet: “Do it with joy and have fun with it.”

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