Baltimore, Md., Nov 12, 2012 / 10:49 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The rapidly developing world of social media provides new and critically important venues for Church leaders to reach out and connect with people in a digital way, according to panelists at a Nov. 11 dialogue.
The discussion, "An Encounter With Social Media: Bishops and Bloggers Dialogue,” was held on Nov. 11 in Baltimore, one day before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convened its annual fall general assembly.
The event – intended to continue a dialogue started at the Vatican’s blogger conference in April 2011 – centered on a new study, "Catholic New Media Use in the United States, 2012," which was conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Mark Gray, research associate at the center, explained that the survey found that the majority of U.S. Catholics – like the general American population – are active on social networking sites, with younger generations more likely to be involved than older ones.
Eight percent of adult Catholics who regularly use a digital device have at least one Catholic-related application, and five percent read blogs on the Church, faith or spirituality. While these percentages sound low, Gray said, they represent millions of U.S. Catholics who can be reached through digital venues.
About half of survey respondents were unaware of any significant presence of the Catholic Church online, and those who attended Mass more frequently were more likely to be aware of the Church’s online presence.
Gray explained that frequent Mass goers, young people and individuals with a high enough income to easily access digital devices make up the core audience for Catholic content in new media.
While the survey found that overall television is still the most used and trusted source of news, younger generations are turning in greater numbers to the internet and word of mouth to receive news. When it comes to obtaining Church-related information, parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers are still the most used and considered the most reliable source.
Less than half of the respondents said that they used or trusted secular news sources to get information about the Catholic faith, and the majority of those who follow Catholic blogs said that they do so to get a balance from the secular press.
Gray also identified an important entertainment dynamic in the new media. He pointed to survey results indicating that younger generations of Catholics increasingly say that a blog must entertain them in order to attract their interest and draw them back.
About one in three individuals surveyed said they would like their pastor and bishop to blog. Respondents also expressed interest in seeing websites with Church history, information about saints and answers to moral questions.
Panelists at the dialogue responded to the survey’s findings by stressing the importance of using new media to plant seeds and including digital posts on various topics to open the door to a broader audience.
They also noted the need to recognize the Church’s diversity, including the growing Hispanic community, in social media outreach.
Terry Mattingly, author of the syndicated column On Religion and the blog Get Religion, observed that much of the Catholic media is currently reaching those who already agree with the Church.
“The blogs at this point are serving as a form of continuing education and debate forum for the people who care about Catholicism the most,” he said, explaining that while this use of digital media is important, it is limited and will not draw in those who are not already looking for it.
He urged the bishops to consider offering a broad range of materials online – such as film reviews, dating advice and parenting information – and to consider how to reach non-Catholics through secular sources such as entertainment and media.
Catholic journalist and blogger Mary DeTurris Poust noted that while there has been a decrease in Google searches including the phrase “Catholic,” there has been an increase in searches related to spirituality and religion.
"People are searching,” she said. “They're just not searching for us."
Part of the response to this must be an aggressive use of social media, with a constantly updated and evolving online presence, she said, adding that it is critical to listen to millennials who say they want entertainment and excitement, because this trend is not simply a passing fad, but the future of communications.
“Today, like it or not, I think Facebook is the new parish hall,” Poust explained.
When used properly, social media outlets provide good opportunities for both catechesis and ministry, she said, pointing to recent uses of Facebook and Twitter in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to check in on other people, find information and offer assistance.
“We can’t look at that as a luxury anymore,” she said. “It’s a necessity.”