The Church and Media: Exploring a New Continent
Book Looks at Opportunities in 'God's Gift to Humanity'
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By Traci Osuna
ORLANDO, Florida, NOV. 15, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The Internet is undoubtedly the largest, most influential source of information in the world today. Yet, in some quarters, there is still suspicion of the Web and its content. There are those suspicious that these "young people's gadgets" -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube -- are mere time wasters. But to a growing number, including both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Internet is a way to guide people to God and a vital tool for today's evangelization.
In his book "The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet," author Brandon Vogt addresses the new media and the benefits these tools have in bringing people closer to God and the Church.
As a recent convert to Catholicism, Vogt says it was his own experience in learning about the Church through such tools as blogs and YouTube that helped him gain a new perspective on Catholicism.
"I was born and raised in the evangelical church and just three years ago I entered the Catholic Church," he said, explaining how the Internet played a major role in his step: It was the immediate and personalized responses he received to his questions and the interactive nature of the Internet that fueled his need to know more, to discover the truth and combat the stereotypes he had grown up with as a Protestant.
"In college, I was involved with an evangelical college ministry and was really embedded in the Protestant culture," he said. "And I was exploring Catholicism, but I really had no one to turn to. I had all these questions about the Catholic Church, but I didn't know any Catholics. So, where did I turn? If it wasn't for the Internet, probably no one."
Vogt shared how he would read the posts of Catholic bloggers or visit Catholic Web sites and could comment on or ask questions about various topics of discussion. He appreciated the direct and timely answers he received from the bloggers or other readers. "That's the optimal way for the media to spark conversion: invite people to ask questions and very carefully, very charitably, to slowly walk through a lot of their difficulties and struggles."
Vogt suggested that the interactive and conversational nature of the Internet will draw converts to the Church, as well as bring young people into a more active role. He proposes that those groups or institutions using new media to broadcast their message, much like a newspaper or radio, where the communication is one-way, are not using the Internet to its full potential.
"New media is all about conversation," the author stated. "People, especially young people, who use these new media tools, don't just want to be fed information, they want to dialogue, critique, converse, wrestle with, answer and respond to anything that's posted on-line."
In the process of writing "The Church and New Media," Vogt says he reached out to many on-line friends that he both admired and looked to for guidance when he was undergoing his own conversion. "I purposefully wanted the book not to be something that I just wrote myself; not to be a perspective from one person, one view of this new media revolution. So I gathered some of these on-line friends, each contributed a chapter of their expertise, so it's really multivalent and presents a vast and diverse view of how new media can be used to serve the Church."
Vogt explained that the contributors to the book represent a broad spectrum of those involved in using new media: from those with leadership roles in the Church to lay professionals and stay-at-home moms. "We have a spread of every different take we could find on this new media revolution to show how vast, how diverse it really is."
Among the 12 writers who contributed to the book are Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, who wrote the "Forward"; Father Robert Barron, noted Catholic speaker, author, and founder of Word on Fire; Jennifer Fulwiler, Catholic columnist, and frequent guest on Catholic radio and television, who converted to Catholicism after being raised an atheist; Shawn Carney, co-founder of "40 Days for Life," and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who contributed the "Afterward."
Vogt says that, as he was planning the organization of the book, he approached some of the bloggers and Facebook friends he had been following for the last few years. "I targeted experts who I thought might be [willing] to write a chapter on the subject and, thankfully, every single person I asked gave me an enthusiastic yes," he reported. "It was a thrilling experience for me because this is kind of a dream team of [my] personal heroes. … It was a phenomenal opportunity to write a book with so many people that I admire."
Along with the opportunities new media bring to the Church, there is also an increased awareness that we still have a lot to learn about this medium. Vogt explained that the Catholic Church as a whole, and particularly the institutional arm, has been relatively slow in employing these tools.
"If you look at the new media world as Pope Benedict XVI has, at what he calls the 'digital continent,' then the broad Church right now is taking her first step onto this continent," he says. "She's departed the ship and she has her foot on this new land and is beginning this exploration. …"
He referenced the fact that many Catholic organizations or groups have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or utilize YouTube to spread the Word of God. In the past few months, the Vatican launched a brand new Web site, www.news.va, which integrates the latest news from the Vatican and the global Church, with social media capabilities that appeal to the younger generation.
"[The Church has] got a long way to go [on this digital continent] and she needs to learn to run on this land rather than saunter across it, but we're making our first strides, which is good," Vogt reflected.
The author added that his mission since writing the book has been to help those in the Church, from priests and bishops to communication directors, become more comfortable with using new media. He says that people constantly are asking, "How do I get started? Which tools do I use?"
"My advice is always the same: Just pick one," he says. "Don't feel like you have to do all of them and become super-effective in all of them instantaneously."
Vogt suggested parishes ease their way onto the "digital continent" by doing something small, such as starting a blog and posting an article once a week or creating a Facebook page and adding a few comments each week. "Just take small steps, but take the steps. … Move forward instead of staying stagnant."
With both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI referring to the Internet and technology as "a gift from God to humanity" it seems only fitting that the Church use new media to its fullest extent to reach the people who use it the most: youth.
"Young people have always been the most difficult demographic to reach across the board," Vogt proposed. However, he added, this is the same group that is most active on these new media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and blogs.
"So I think these tools are really a gift from God in the sense that, at this particular time in history, they have the potential to act as a bridge for this distant demographic and the Church, who so desperately wants them."
To help the young people get more involved, Vogt says that many churches and youth groups are recruiting tech-savvy teens to manage their parish Facebook or Twitter accounts. "Anything that you can do to invite young people deeper into parish life strengthens their relationship with Christ and the Church."
Lastly, Vogt wants to assure those who still see the Internet in a negative light to consider Pope John Paul II's message in his last apostolic letter, "The Rapid Development."
"In the very last letter he wrote before he died…[which] explicitly dealt with the Internet and new technology … [the Pope said] 'Do not be afraid of new technologies …' I think that is the voice that the Church as a whole needs to hear ringing in her ears over and over again."
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