Thursday, October 13, 2011

Interview: The Church and New Media

Brandon Vogt (@BrandonVogt1), interviewed here, is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at The Thin Veil. He was invited with a stellar group to discuss new media with church leaders at the Vatican this past summer. His book, The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet is a collection of essays by...blogging converts, online activists, and bishops who tweet! I especially recommend reading Brandon's compelling essay, "To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and New Media." Brandon's vision and passion for communicating church and faith has regenerated my ability to feel hopeful. Thanks be to God!

Meredith Gould: Some of the "new" media explored by contributors to your book have now been around for a while.  What shaped your decision to characterize these as new versus social or online media?  How does calling them "new media" change the conversation?

Brandon Vogt: Well, both terms are notoriously vague; there's no formal delineation between the two. But when people have talked about "social media" over the past few years, they're usually referring to the Big Three--Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (though you could probably include Google+ and LinkedIn, too). We wanted to expand the focus to include tools like blogs, podcasting, text messaging, and interactive websites. 

Another reason we went with "new" instead of "social" is that it defines a clear shift between traditional modes of communication. It defines a split between traditional media like print, phone, radio, and television, and this new technology. The word "new" suggests a profound paradigm shift in the way we communicate.

MG: The "Church" in the title of your book, The Church and New Media, refers to the Roman Catholic church. From your perspective, what's the Roman church's unique contribution to current conversations about these media?
BV: A few things. First, the Catholic Church has been around longer than any institution on earth. Through her 2,000 years she has become, in the words of Pope Paul VI, an "expert in humanity." This means the Catholic Church knows the up's and down's, in's and out's of how people connect and communicate. And she brings this rich, relational understanding to the new media world.

Second, Catholicism is uniquely hierarchical. No other Christian tradition has such a dense, top-down authority structure. This brings many unique benefits as well as plenty of  unique problems. 

On the plus side, there's an established authority--a bishop's tweet on abortion holds more weight than that of a lay Catholic. On the negative side, it's often slow and difficult for the Catholic Church to adopt any new technology. Many Catholics have to wade through checks and balances and commissions and paperwork and bureaucracy to create a Facebook page for their parish. While much is the same across the Christian new media world, the Catholic Church brings some special advantages and concerns. 

Third, the Catholic Church offers unprecedented scale. Catholicism is by far the world's largest Christian tradition (about 1.2 billion people worldwide) -- we're talking one out of every six people on the planet. With that size and influence, any small move quakes the earth. Which means that if the Catholic Church embraces new media's power, she has huge, world-changing potential.

MG: As you know, the #ChSocM chat is (intentionally) open to and attracts Protestant as well as Catholic Christian participants. What would Protestant sisters and brothers in Christ discover by reading your book?
BV: Just about everything in the book is applicable not only to Catholics but also to Protestants. I would say even a secularist would learn a ton from the book. We're all using new media for the same purposes: to connect with other people, build relationships, spread our message, and grow our movement. This is as true for Catholics and Protestants as it is for Nike and Delta.

More specifically, the book focuses on four areas that transcend Christian denomination: evangelization, formation, community, and social justice. Those concerns are shared by all Christians.

a side note: I was an Evangelical for the first 22 years of my life; Catholic for just the last three. In many ways, I'm actually more familiar with the Protestant world than the Catholic one. I purposely kept my Protestant brothers and sisters in mind while producing this book.)

MG: I love that your concluding essay is titled, "To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and New Media." Given that some time has passed since writing it, what would you now add to that essay?
BV: Matthew Warner, a Catholic new media expert, recently proposed an idea I love. He said, "The Catholic Church is out of control." What he meant was that in the online arena, the Catholic Church can no longer manipulate her message into the precise form she desires. She can no longer smother it for, like sand, the tighter she grasps it the more of it she'll lose. 

Thousands of conversations concerning the Church are happening everyday through new media, conversations far beyond her governance. Some Church leaders consider that a big problem. But others, like Matt and I, see it as a tremendous opportunity.  It means that the Catholic message must be more human, more authentic, more textured, and more alluring if it's to resonate throughout the "digital continent."

If I could go back and add a section, I'd discuss what happens when the Catholic message is not managed or controlled, but unleashed and thrust into perilous online spheres.

MG: What's the one question you wish interviewers had asked but didn't?  Feel free to ask and answer it for #ChSocM readers!
BV: Here's a question I hear over and over, not only from my own work but from others (including #ChSocM readers): how should I respond to a pastor, leader, or administrator who doesn't want the church to use new media? I offer a three-pronged response.  

First, quell the fear. A favorite phrase of the late Pope John Paul II was, "Do not be afraid!" He of course echoed Jesus and the angels who roared the same words before many encounters. But this is the message so many Christians need to hear when it comes to new media. Yes, there are dangers.  Yes, there are reasons for concern. Yes, these tools do introduce new problems. But, "do not be afraid!" We Christians should never let fear drive any decision we make.

Second, demonstrate success. One of the best ways to get someone to "see the light" is to show them luminaries. Point to the churches, ministries, and people who are doing great things through new media. Highlight success stories and imitable examples. That's precisely what we do in The Church and New Media book.

Third, offer to do a trial-run. Suggest your church try a Facebook page for three months and see whether church members feel more connected. Propose a few short YouTube videos and survey reactions. Help the pastor produce a handful of blog posts and note how people respond.  

Mitigating fear, pointing to success, and taking small steps will help you win over new media skeptics.


Angela Santana said...

Great questions, Meredith. I appreciate your unique point of view in this discussion, bringing to Catholics a concrete connection with our Protestant bros/sisters. And I'm sure it's no mistake that a former Protestant wrote the book on Catholic new media. :)

Meredith Gould said...

Thanks, Angela. As a sociologist I cannot help but notice and give weight to demographic factors like age and religion. Converts are really interesting -- we map all along the bell curve of doctrinal adherence and this, too, changes over time.

I'm always acutely aware of how my religious upbringing and cultural identity as a Jew informs my Christian faith and practice of Catholicism. Book and blog fodder for sure!