By John Thavis Catholic News Service
ROME (CNS) — Social networks and other interactive media challenge traditional church models of communication but offer unprecedented evangelizing opportunities, a leading U.S. Catholic communications official said.
“In some ways, we are returning to the pre-printing press means of communication — old-fashioned word of mouth. St. Paul had his stump or rock upon which he stood to broadcast the Gospel in the marketplace. We have devices that literally can put the Gospel message in the palm of people’s hands,” Helen Osman, secretary for communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a Rome conference April 27.
“We now have an opportunity to get the church’s message and story directly to Catholics — and others — without having to negotiate the filters of mainstream media. We have the opportunity to connect with young adult and youth Catholics to create relationships that will last their entire lives,” she said.
Osman spoke at a seminar for church communications officials sponsored by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. She described how being the church’s spokesperson in the digital age brought a whole new set of challenges and uncertainties.
In social media, she said, the church needs to view itself as “one participant in the dialogue among many.” The traditional one-way model of communication has been replaced by a more interactive model, in which everyone participates on the same level.
“This has enormous implications for our church, which is not accustomed to people questioning its authority or competency,” she said.
Likewise, the relationships created in social media are a series of overlapping networks. This fits well with the church’s focus on community but not as easily with its hierarchical structure, she said.
Osman said trust is important for social media users, who tend to follow sources of information they consider reliable and block others.
“The most successful approach by organizations to social media environments seems be an emphasis on openness, transparency and a willingness to dialogue,” she said.
The explosion in social media has placed new demands on those who act as spokespersons for the church and who try to present its message in a cohesive manner, Osman said.
“Most days it feels very chaotic. We find ourselves responding to one particular blog post, or a video that has ‘gone viral,’” she said. Misinformation circulates online, and one can spend a lot of time stamping out a fire created by a sloppy or malicious blogger, she said.
At the same time, the opportunities offered by new media are immense, she said. It costs the church nothing, for example, to have bloggers, Facebook fans and Twitter forward its digital messages throughout their social networks.
Osman said the USCCB’s Facebook page, launched a year ago, has grown to include nearly 14,000 fans. Comments are allowed, and although they are monitored, there’s a “fairly high tolerance of various opinions,” she said. Commenters are required to stay on topic and to practice Christian charity.
“The delicate balance is in allowing conversations without letting it get so out of hand that others ‘un-friend’ us,” she said.
Such initiatives are important because young people today often use their Facebook community as their first reference point when doing research. If the church is not there, “it perpetuates for them the concept that the faith is not relevant to their daily lives,” Osman said.