5 Ways Catholic Leaders Win at Social Media

Art Bamford | Oct 21, 2014

Recently Fast Company featured an article titled “Blogging Nuns, Tweeting Monks, And The Catholic Church’s Digital Revolution” that examines a “movement sweeping the Catholic world: monks, nuns, everyday people of faith, and, most famously, the Pope (@Pontifex) himself, are embracing digital media.”

This is just one of a number of articles we have seen on this topic since Pope Francis’ installation in 2013. People are increasingly taking notice of how Roman Catholic leaders have responded to, and are using, social media and digital technology, particularly in how they engage young people.

What is it about recent Catholic social media strategies that have been so effective in reaching out? We thought it might be helpful to identify a few key things that Protestant Christians might learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters. Here are some pointers from watching @Pontifex and associates:[1]

1. Have Fun

Catholic leaders have responded to new media and technology with a kind of playful irreverence that has been fun to follow, and attractive to folks outside the church.[2] While it is important that church leaders take technology seriously, and think critically about the role it plays in our lives, it is also important that we do not take it too seriously. Catholic leaders have done a great job defying expectations that they would ignore or dismiss digital technology simply by playing around with it, the way we all do after buying a new device.

2. Have Hope

In recent press coverage on media, Catholic leaders begin responding to journalists’ questions by affirming new devices and apps as potential channels through which the gospel may reach a new audience.[3] These leaders often add an appropriate warning about potential negative effects, but their first response is hopeful optimism about sharing the gospel in new ways.

3. Have Patience

Apart from some general guidelines on how to use digital media, like these (which are worth checking out) from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Vatican has been slow to initiate formal, substantial changes to their theology, liturgy, or church buildings. Practically every Christian leader has felt an increasing sense of urgency about the Church’s need to respond and adapt to digital media in recent years. For the most part, the Roman Catholic Church has done an admirable job of continuing to set its own agenda. Catholic leaders have prioritized their concerns based on the mission of the Church rather than the demands of popular culture.[4]

4. Have Humility

Despite all the trolling and negativity that happens online, Catholic leaders jumped in on social media without much concern for how they might be perceived or received. That eagerness to connect has resonated with young people, and provided a healthy, much-needed boost to the Church’s reputation.[5] Some Protestant organizations have approached social media in a top-down way, like a publisher or television network, aiming to produce content the same way as before and send it out through a different channel. That model for producing digital content often registers as marketing and is seen as inauthentic by many young people. Catholic leaders have made strong connections online as people rather than as organizations or celebrity platforms.[6]

5. Have Hobbies

A lot of press coverage we’ve seen profiles quirky clergy sharing their passions and hobbies outside of the church online. Unlike many of our older types of media, which are good for getting messages out from one source to a big audience, social media is more well-suited for connecting one to one. Being a part of online communities centered around a hobby can be a great way to meet people, develop friendships, and (eventually) discuss your faith. A lot of folks wrongly assume that religion is a kind of hobby, or that Christians don’t have other interests outside of church. Catholic leaders have done a great job dispelling that myth by building new friendships through shared interests online. They have allowed strangers a glimpse into how their vocations, hobbies, and beliefs fit together as a holistic, meaning-filled and joyful life.

[1] See QJ Schultze, Christianity and the mass media in America: Toward a democratic accommodation (MSU Press, 2012) for an overview of how the two traditions have differed with regards to media and technology; also SM Hoover & SS Kim, Digital Media and the Protestant Establishment: Insights from “The New Media Project” in Finding Religion in the Media (2012), is an excellent overview of more recent trends in Protestant approaches to digital media.

Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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