What you may not have known is that the aforementioned blog-post started out as a communication to my then bishop 3.5 years ago. Did I get any response? I think it may have been passed on to someone in the curia who still has it in an in-box somewhere.
But I knew that this wasn't just a local diocesan issue, so I scrubbed the communication of local identifiers and that's how the blog-post came to be.
Given that the blog-post has been read so often, and that there haven't been any comments or private messages about it, in all likelihood it has been read by frustrated social media apostles like myself and not by any movers-and-shakers at diocesan level.
So for you, dear fellow social media apostle in the trenches, this update is for you. I'll go through the original blog-post and update it, and then at various points I'll do the controversial thing and point you to examples of people doing a really good job of soft evangelisation via social media.
I continue to believe that it is time that something was done to promote what I call 'soft evangelisation' at a diocesan level, as well as at local parish level.
'Soft evangelism' is using social media to provide reminders of God to the unchurched. The aim is to get trickles of good Catholic content into the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and RSS feeds of people who live in the diocese; so that among the Aunt Acid jokes, pet pictures and holiday snaps would be an article about the Pope's latest homily, an image of the mother of Jesus, and a photo from a local parish event. Things that people can easily flick through, and opt in for a read if they wish, but which even for that very brief moment are reminders that God exists.
Soft evangelisation has the capacity to plant seeds of faith that one-to-one evangelisation or parish evangelisation can later reap.
By and large our social media reach is very poor. It doesn't help that the majority of people in the pews don't have a social media account. However it goes a long way to explaining the disconnect between those who actively practice their faith and those far out on the fringe of 'spiritual but not religious' or 'practical atheism' because they aren't rubbing shoulders together either physically or in cyber space.
Many parishes and dioceses have improved their websites over the last 2.5 years to make them more user-friendly for mobile devices, adding in Twitter feeds from Pope Francis (@Pontifex) and uploading parish bulletins, and including a page for new parishioners/visitors/inquirers. Mostly these necessary improvements are happening in urban areas, and sadly there are still many rural and outback parishes without websites.
Yet when it comes to Facebook, very few parishes have a presence, and much fewer parishes have an active presence.
However just about all the schools do have an active Facebook presence because it is such an effective means to get information about changes to routine into the hands of parents, teachers and students ( eg. the school excursion bus for Year 4 is running 30 minutes late; the Reds vs Greens soccer match for under 15s has been cancelled due to wet weather.) The good news is that the necessary expertise is available very close to just about every parish.
As I think Brandon Vogt once said, 'If St Paul was alive today, where would he consider to be the modern Areopagus?' Considering the global possible outreach for minimal effort, social media would be the answer.
This is no longer 'optional extra' stuff. In the world-scape we live in today, any entity that doesn't have an online presence does not exist. Bishops need to insist that parishes have online active presences to 'keep the digital light' on for anyone the Holy Spirit is moving along the path to conversion of heart and mind. That insistence needs to be backed up with resources; computer hardware, internet connections, people expertise, help desks, information how-to packs etc.
Some parishes have begun sending out parish bulletins by email, and this seems to be a very good innovation, as well as being very useful for building up a database of contacts for when urgent information needs to be sent out (think bush fires, road closures, rescheduling of Mass times due to emergency illness of clergy).
Why do Facebook?
Facebook is very good for getting out messages to local people. I really need you to hear that. These days it is even better than putting a press release in the local newspaper.
There are 2 ways this is true.
The first is that for a small outlay of money a parish can get Facebook to put prepared material in front of Facebook users by postcode. The average parish normally has between 1-3 postcodes within its borders. Where do the people most likely to respond to a 'Catholics Come Home' initiative or to an invitation to the next RCIA program? Yes, in those postcodes. Prepare the material well, get it proof read by a handful of unchurched people for like-ability and removal of churchy-jargon. Upload it shortly before the Saturday vigil Mass, and then invite parishioners over that weekend to find it, like it and share it.
To understand the second way you need to unpack how Facebook works. The average person on Facebook has over 200 Facebook friends. Some of these will be family, some will be friends, some will be co-workers, some will be influencers/celebrities/organisations and some will be other parishioners and people they play sport with or do hobbies with. Possibly a third of them will live within the parish postcodes or in nearby suburbs. The more people in your Facebook network who like, share or comment on the same Facebook post, the more you are likely to see it in your Facebook feed. Due to this, a single message about pre-Christmas Reconciliation times could have a large reach, especially in the target postcodes, if it was liked by even 10 parishioners; and it would get seen by well over a 1000 people who don't have access to the parish bulletin and who would never think of looking up a parish website.
Granted, many of them won’t act upon a message like that this year, but if you back it up with prayer, some will act on it next year when they see the message again, and more will act on it the year after, if you keep sending the messages, getting parishioners to like/share/comment, and backing it up with prayer. Even getting an extra five parishioners intentionally using Facebook for this kind of soft evangelisation could double the impact of that message in the parish postcode area.
Why do Twitter?
Because Twitter is where the thinkers, and the deep thinkers are. There are plenty of extremely witty people, too. Twitter is where people share well written articles that have the potential to change political policy and social opinion. If you are passionate about pro-life issues, God's plan for marriage and family, the freedom to preach and practice religion without compromise, and many other Gospel-based values, you need to be on Twitter to support those on the front lines with your likes, shares and comments.
Very early in the proceedings of the 2014 Proclaim Conference Bishop Ingham got up and shared what at the outset seemed to be an innocent ice-breaker, 'Tweet others as you would like them to Tweet you'. It was far more than that. Those words reverberated throughout the conference, and are the words people remember from that conference far more than any of the other content. Only after many months did the penny drop that the only way to do this was to actually have a Twitter account – and use it.
Apart from a great message, reliance upon team work, prayer and the Holy Spirit, what else do the Divine Renovation people from Halifax, Canada have going for them? Ministry team leaders who tweet, and who like, share and comment upon each other's tweets. It gives their ministries enormous global reach, and huge encouragement to those on the journey from maintenance to mission in our parishes and dioceses. Visit @MacLorik, @CoachRobinson1, @frsimoncc, @colautta, @ron_huntley, @FJMallon, @LauraORourke, @divreno, @Tanya_Noye, @K8Robinson and the rest of them to see what is possible if you have even 10 social media tweet-leaders in a parish.
Many urban dioceses now have a social media – photographer team that shares photos, and information about the bishop's activities (eg World Youth Day, ordinations, school openings, official statements etc). They tend to have an inward focus.
Even in social media we have to lead by example and be heading towards the right mix of inward focus and outward focus, because without outward focus we cannot be the missionary disciples we are called to be. The Archdiocese of Toronto is leading the way. @archtoronto produces very high quality infographics on topics like Lectio Divina, the seasons of Christmas, What is Advent? etc as well as simultaneously honouring deceased clergy and giving funeral details, sharing Prayers of the Faithful, announcing Days of Confessions, and all the regular stuff. They are worth studying. Consider liking and sharing their content.
Here's a list of people on Twitter who greatly impress me.
@frpatrickop He has a very good mix of story, images, articles, and video on life as a priest, with musings, blessings, encouragements, simple prayers and thanksgivings. He has hold of the kind of faith that gently attracts and doesn't forcefully proselytise.
@jkuebbing is a Catholic mother and journalist, sharing her experiences of living faith and trust in God in the midst of family life. What she writes and what she shares are always worth the time to stop and read.
@ArchbishopGomez of Los Angeles, his tweets are always worth reading
@BishopZubik of Pittsbugh is also well worth following
@Pontifex for Pope Francis's inspiring daily tweets
@DisabilityJ supporting faith and access to churches for disabled and abled alike
Why do Instagram?
Because Instagram is primarily where the young people are. If you want an insight into how young people think – you have to be there. If you want to have a hope of connecting them into your parish, deanery and diocesan activities, you need to broadcast it through Instagram as well as your other regular channels.
Instagram is also where many of the creatives are: musicians, artists, illustrators, photographers, craft-workers etc.
Instagram has advantages over Twitter because you can write a short article. It has advantages over Facebook because you can see posting history easier and there appears to be no limit for the number of hashtags you can use.
On Instagram you can post short video, multiple photographs, and text. Each post must have an image. Unlike Twitter and Facebook that work better on large screens than on small screens, Instagram is designed specifically for mobile devices. There is a growing trend of people posting on Instagram first and sending secondary versions of those postings to Twitter and Facebook.
It comes into its own particularly at World Youth Day time, when through hashtags you can follow several pilgrimage groups, and get real time coverage of major events from many different perspectives. For me World Youth Day is a major opportunity to discover new social media apostles and start 'following' and supporting them.
@archie.will (a.k.a Archbishop William Goh of Singapore) is very good, uplifting and inspiring.
@srjulia (a.k.a. Sr Julia Mary Darrrenkamp), is a wonderful example of sharing her joy in living a consecrated life and gently inviting us into how wonderful a relationship with Jesus and His mother is.
@frgoyo (Fr. Goyo from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles) shows us faith with a sense of humour, and gratitude for the ways God is acting in people's lives.
@frjasonsmith from New York is also impressive.
@ingamae is providing excellent content to help end abortion.
@litcatholicmemes for doses of humour that contain life giving truth.
Because that's where the longevity is. Have you ever tried to find that great tweet, meme or photo on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? Even if you can remember who posted and a relevant hashtag, they are still very hard to find, and almost impossible if it over a week old. What's blogged stays blogged and findable by the browser search-bots. Your best content needs to be blogged to give it the longest and widest reach.
These days there are several places offering free technology to set up websites, (eg Weeby, Wix) that have templates to 'choose, drag and drop' and include blog web-page options.
With Weebly, and possibly with some of the others, you can have multiple editors. For parishes and dioceses this means you can give person A responsibility for uploading parish bulletins, person B responsibility for uploading accounts of recent parish events on the blog, person C responsibility for keeping the up-coming-events news up to date etc – and you don’t have to wait for a web designer to schedule time to do it for you.
To have a glance at what's out there, http://topcatholicblogs.com/ is a good place to visit. Aim to get on, and stay on, that site. It requires 6 months minimum of blogging, with a minimum of one blog post per month, staying true to Catholic teaching, be Catholic content, and have a link somewhere back to the TopCatholicBlogs website.
The better the content, and the more frequently and regularly you post to your blog, the more chance it has of succeeding. But it takes perseverance. It takes about 50 blog posts for the browser search-bots to flag you as worthy of notice, and it takes a minimum of 2.5 years to find your style, rhythm and audience, and often a lot longer.
Go for promoting the good, the true and the beautiful. Of course it is easier to grow using controversy or click-bait titles and lists, but that doesn't do much long term good to anyone. Ranting is better done elsewhere, if at all. Take Eph 4:29 as a sure guide, 'Let your words be for the improvement of others, as occasion offers, and do good to your listeners, otherwise you will only be grieving the Holy Spirit'.
You can bet that if you write something particularly good (and this applies to all social media), the first thing you will attract is not praise but a troll. A troll is someone who lurks online for the purpose of starting an argument. It is far better to ignore a troll than to 'feed' them by engaging with them. The only exception to this rule is if you sense that they are genuinely seeking truth, in which case you take the conversation private as soon as possible (eg email).
Apart from priests and deacons, who preach the Word of God mostly within church walls, those believers who are intentionally using social media for evangelical purposes are the front line troops in the culture war and battle for souls. They deserve the name 'social media apostles'. The vast majority of them serve God in this ministry without any monetary reward at all, despite the many hours it takes to produce and prepare content to upload each posting. These are dedicated warriors and it is more than time that they are recognised as such and publicly honoured, supported and protected at parish, deanery and diocesan levels. Now is the time for co-operation to increase between the bishop's communication team and these social media apostles who can get the bishop's messages into the ears of those that the regular media channels cannot.
Many of them have been lone rangers for a very long time, and they have the skills and the experience to get a worthwhile message out very effectively. It is time that they were officially commissioned by the church for this purpose.
It isn’t difficult to do; it just takes a bit of medium range planning and good communication. (Yes, I know that is hilarious, but with God all things are possible).
A bishop and his communications team should be in regular contact with his bloggers, just like a general should be with his captains. No blogger likes to be micro-managed, but give them a vision for what the bishop wants to achieve and themes for various times of the year together with cogent reasons for that timing, and they will astound you.
For example, if you know there is a political election up ahead and there are one or two topics that are important in that context (eg funding for schools, protection for the seal of the confessional, programs to reduce the incidence of domestic violence etc), get the bishop, his theologians and researchers and the bloggers together as early as possible to brainstorm together how to raise these topics for public conversation and how to share the wisdom of Catholic teaching on those topics in fresh and creative ways. Provide background documents to read, banks of images that are open source and relevant to the topic, and lists of online content for private research. Ask for one post of content a month, on which ever topic speaks to them, until the election is held. The same goes for other things that can be seen coming, eg referendums, plebiscites, Royal Commissions, legislation on pro-life issues coming before state and federal parliaments, diocesan year of Marriage and Family, Year of the Refugee in the universal church, whatever the next Papal document or Bishop's Conference document is to be about.
The more you get to know your bloggers and other social media apostles, the better you can tailor the prepared resource material. For example: A blog that normally does book reviews is going to need good books on the planned topics to review; a blog that usually does scripture meditations is going to need scripture references relating to the planned topics; a blog that comments on quotations from Pope Francis will need references to the planned topics from the speeches and writings of Pope Francis. Of course, your bloggers and social media apostles will still do their own research too, but it sure helps to know where to look, and to have a smorgasbord of excellent content to chew through rather than having to start the research from scratch. If the resource material is very good and the topics are compelling, your bloggers will catch the fire and spread it, and possibly write a whole series on the topic.
Many dioceses have graphic designers on staff. Grant your bloggers and social media apostles 2 hours a month each of your graphic designer's time. That's brainstorming time, idea wresting time and production time. So often the content is written and then a blogger spends just as much time trying to find an image to go with it, an image they have a concept for. Give that concept to the graphic designer and you will get a quality image in a fraction of the time spent previously doing fruitless internet searches. The graphic designer gets some short term wins, and a bit more variety in his or her day, and that's a win-win scenario for everyone. Your bloggers will soon learn that if they want to get an image produced within the 2 hours, then they need to prepare very clear concepts, and any associated text to be used in the image, and allow time for the designer to suggest better solutions or adjustments that will have the same impact but require less time to produce.
Bringing your social media apostles together has other benefits too. If you know someone personally you are far more likely to naturally like, share and positively comment on each other's social media content. I cannot stress enough how crucial this mutual encouragement is. Most social media apostles get so little in the way of positive feedback, particularly on the long lonely road before their content receives widespread recognition. Lack of encouragement is why so many give up before that wonderful moment of 'traction' is reached.
The other benefit is the sharing of technological information, 'tricks of the trade', helping each other bypass common pitfalls and increasing efficiency.
Most social media apostles will welcome topic suggestions, and will definitely welcome resources, as long as they are free to spin it their way, in harmony with the authenticity of their blog.
Good resources would also include access to diocesan image banks for images upon which copyright has already been paid, and information on effective ways of producing memes to go with the text on social media channels. Attaching a relevant quality image to a social media post significantly increases the number of clicks that post receives.
Plan – Step 1 Find your front line troops
One way is to use social media and print media (email, Facebook, Twitter, website, diocesan newsletter etc) get the word out that the bishop wants to connect with his social media apostles. A better way would be to pay attention to who has already been liking, sharing and commenting in useful ways on the existing diocesan social media channels, and who also have existing social media channels of their own, and sending personal invitations to these people. That won't catch them all, so also do some searches using relevant hashtags too (eg name of diocese, name of bishop, recent big diocesan event/conference; #YearOfMercy etc).
Plan – Step 2 Get them together
Initially a Saturday at the diocesan offices would be best, to enable the maximum number of social media apostles to attend. On Saturdays workers are usually at leisure and Mums can find someone to look after the children. Start the day properly with Mass, after registrations, a welcome and a vision for diocesan social media have been presented. First session is on using social media to evangelise. Second session is an overview of how various social media channels work, with a maximum 10 minutes per channel (just because you are proficient in one of them doesn't mean that you know how the others work or what the possibilities are). Third session is where your social media apostles each get 2-3 minutes to introduce themselves and their blog/Twitter handle/Facebook page etc and what they are trying to achieve with it. Some will be more focussed on apologetics, others more focussed on theology, bible study, vocations or family life etc. Fourth session is where people get split up into groups based on social media channel, (bloggers and tweeters, Facebook users, Pinterest and Instagram, Podcasts and YouTube) and learn from each other. Fifth session is re-presentation of diocesan vision, presentation of the diocesan media plan for topics, distribution of free resources, blessing and commissioning. NB Only get people who are actually proficient in evangelising through the various social media channels to lead sessions, and make attendance free.
This is the baseline from which you can build.
Plan – Step 3 Do it again regularly
Aim for four times a year, and make sure you achieve three times a year. Subsequent Social Media Days should have opportunities for feedback at diocesan level and individual level about how things are going (statistics, reach, followers, comments, trends, troll management etc). Take time to pray for each other too, and for God's blessing and guidance upon the development of this apostolate and for God's grace upon the followers of the social media channels and for whatever the next 'can see it coming' media challenges are.
If you start now, and get this moving, the next time an emergency situation hits, you will have a well-trained army ready and willing to spring into action at short notice.
Consider this hypothetical scenario: the bishop of a neighbouring diocese has been called to court to answer allegations of a serious nature. The secular press is having a field day, with op-ed pieces only considering guilt and not innocence, and spinning the story as darkly as possible. If the diocese can put together evidence for the innocence side of the story, or at least context to permit the benefit of the doubt, and then get it into the hands of your social media apostles, the chances of the positive side of the story being told to the community dramatically increase. The chances, too, of a fairer trial, should it ever come to that, dramatically increase as well. However if you don't gather evidence and context, and don’t have a prepared social media army, the community will only get to hear the sensational bad stuff and act on it.
I know I need more examples of lay people to follow social media-wise – I have them, I've just run out of time to include more of them here. I may get an opportunity to add them in later.
Lord Jesus, You know just how urgently teams of social media apostles are needed to spread your gentle yet powerful light one ray at a time. We confess that we have collectively been dragging our feet when it comes to these new ways of spreading Your good news. Please send Your Holy Spirit to encourage Your weary social media apostles, to refresh and reinvigorate those who were doing so well but gave up, and to connect them together for the greater and far more effective plans You have for them. Touch the hearts of bishops and their advisors that they may begin to grasp Your possibilities for this apostolate, and run with it in step with You. Please raise up intercessors who will specifically pray for and spiritually defend these front line troops of Yours. We ask You to inspire Your social media apostles to write words and prepare content and images that will touch the hearts of those who read them and impart profound encounters with Your love to them.
For You. Lord Jesus, nothing is impossible. Amen.
St Paul, missionary apostle, pray for us
Mary, Virgin Mother of all the children of God, pray for us.
St John the Baptist, whose cries in the wilderness moved the inhabitants of Jerusalem, pray for us
St Francis de Sales, patron of both bishops and journalists, pray for us
Interesting lay people on Twitter to follow or study
Notice how individual they are, the themes about which they post, and how well their posts can be appreciated by insiders and outsiders alike.