Thursday, August 25, 2011

Interview: The Challenge of "Speaking Church"

During one of our weekly chats, Frank Santoni (@techreligious) made a comment about the importance of being able to "speak church."  I have a thing about jargon, so I wanted to know more about what he meant. The techreligious blog provides abundant, useful curated content about the intersection of religion and social media.

Meredith Gould: How did you become interested in digital media for churches and faith-based organizations? 
Frank Santoni: As a campus minister, using Facebook to engage students was a basic tool of my trade. Soon after Facebook launched in 2004, it quickly became the preferred platform for communicating with students.  We scheduled lectors and Eucharistic ministers for Mass via Facebook groups. We posted weekly "bulletin" material on our Wall. We even reached out to incoming freshman before they ever stepped foot on campus.

MG: What from your experience in campus ministry has been the most illuminating or useful in your work with churches and faith-based organizations?
FS: Two things: social media allowed us to become the ministry of presence that we wanted to be.

We never wanted to be about programs. Instead, we wanted to be present to our students, to be in their midst, providing support and guidance as they lived their life and moved along their journey. As students moved onto Facebook, it gave us an ability to "be" there with them anytime, all the time. We could be in their social space in a way that had never been available to us.

The second thing I learned is that social media offers a new means of distributing content. In other words, the message has stayed constant, but thanks to digital media, the methods of reaching people is wildly different. The good news is churchfolk tend to be pretty good at generating content. Harnessing this new distribution vehicle holds a great deal of promise for spreading the message.

MG: During one of our #chsocm chats, you talked about being able to "speak church."  What do you mean by this and how does it differ from simply using church jargon to engage church people?  
FS: To me, being able to “Speak Church” means more than my ability to translate techspeak into churchese. Speaking Church means understanding the unique ecclesial culture native to parishes and congregations and anticipating how it will shape a given project.

MG: What are some examples of ecclesial culture? Are there commonalities that extend across all Christian denominations? 
FS: I think one general quality of ecclesial culture is that its decision-making process can be tricky. Decisions aren't just made by committee, they're often made by multiple committees! And at the end of the process, you might find out that "decisions" are merely suggestions for "Father" to take or leave.

This has an impact on the pace of work, too. Once you see how things get done at most parishes, you realize why churches aren't always quick to adopt new methods or ideas. There's something good about that, but it also proves to be a high hurdle for integrating technology and social media into a church's game plan because by the time leaders arrive at a decision, the social media landscape has already evolved.

MG: In what areas does knowing eccesial cultural help you work with church leaders interested in digital media? 
FS: It helps to understand that the "bottom line" is very different. The bottom line for churches, broadly speaking, is connecting people to the mission of Jesus Christ.

Churches don't need "fans" for the same reason Coca-Cola needs fans. Communicating the value of digital media in terms of ministry instead of marketing is where I usually start.

One parish I'm working with has a vibrant, engaged community. They understand the social media provides a tool and a public space for their most engaged parishioners to bear witness to the vitality of their life together. By creating a virtual space for them to express what is already happening through their community, they hope to invite others to become a part of it.

MG: What's your best advice for church leaders who want to get started -- or move forward -- with digital media? 
FS: Just do something -- anything, but start by setting a clear goal. "Getting more people to Church on Sunday" is a worthy goal, but it isn't the only one.

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