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For some churches, the Internet clicks; for others it doesn't

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Companies have sprouted up to create website and content management systems for religious organizations, like Digital Faith Community of Decatur, Ga. It has an app for that.

In April, some U.S. Catholics began receiving a warning in their bulletins when they showed up for Mass.

“The latest danger lies in a new communication device: social media (Myspace, Facebook, etc.),” said one version of the message. It convicted social media sites of a multitude of sins:

  • Encouraging dishonesty: “Users can construct their public profile, and are encouraged to fake things.”
  • Promoting “impurity”: “Initials known only to avid users are common, e.g., GYPO — get your pants off — which is, as you can imagine, one of the more 'innocent' ones out there.”
  • Destroying “parental authority”: “Parents lose total control over children and teens, ignore totally what they do and say, who they talk to, and where they are going!”
  • Fostering narcissism and isolation: “You make your own world and your own image to show off, for self-glorification, to feed vanity, and offer yourself an alternate reality.”

It concluded: “God entrusted our parents with the care of children for one particular purpose, and that is to teach them the way to know, love, and serve God in this life and save their souls hereafter. Everything leads us to think that Facebook fits poorly into this plan and was devised for a very different goal.”

It's not known how many parishes reprinted the message, which didn't come from the Catholic Church — it spread virally on the Internet after it was issued in March by the Society of St. Pius X, an ultra-traditional Catholic organization whose ministry isn't recognized as legitimate by the Vatican.

Read the 'Facebook Effect' warning from the Society of St. Pius X

The message, in fact, runs counter to the church's approach to the Internet and social media, an arena in which it has been “one of the first innovators,” said Heidi Campbell, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University who specializes in the intersection of new media, religion and culture.


In fact, the Catholic Church has a long history of being an early adopter of new forms of media, going back to the 1920s, when Catholic priests pioneered radio evangelism, Campbell said.

At the same time, other religious institutions, especially traditional U.S. Protestant denominations, are still sorting through the challenges as well as the opportunities posed by the Internet, and particularly social media, according to church leaders and administrators.

“I think there's a lot of groups trying to figure it out,” said John Davidson, a fundraising and ministry consultant for churchextension.org, which supports the ministry of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ.

By contrast, Campbell said, the Vatican — which fired up its first official website almost 20 years ago — has both a “very strong theological and technical infrastructure.” While it may be “counterintuitive from a hierarchical institution” like the Catholic Church, she said, “if new media will help them get the word out and do mission work, they'll do it.”

In June, Pope Benedict XVI — who has his own Facebook page app — issued “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” a pontifical message that invited “Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible.”

“I always look at the Catholics first, even though you wouldn't expect that,” said Campbell, who is completing work on "Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds" for publication next year.

The limiting power of tradition
While most churches have websites and nearly every denomination has some form of social media outreach, few have been able to match the Catholics' progress online.

“You see common themes — there's a paradigm that still exists and lives in the 1950s,” Davidson said. “Status quo and tradition can be good things, but they really do limit the ability to adapt quickly.”

As members of Generation Y and the so-called Millennials — who grew up with technology — become more influential in various religions, they are increasingly talking to one another online, outside of the structures of traditional religious institutions, whose pastors “may not be present in the communication at all,” he said.

“Most of the mainline churches (are) unaware that it happens,” he said, because “they're uncomfortable with using that kind of technology.”

As a result, while a church may have a rudimentary web page, its leaders “may not have thought about search engine optimization or how all of the social media needs to point back to that page.”

Instead, they're always one web generation behind: “'Everyone's on Facebook, so we need to be on Facebook.' But they don't think about how they should use that.

“They push out (static) content, but then an issue comes up in the congregation and all of a sudden you see people fighting one another saying a lot of hurtful stuff online. As a leadership group, they don't have the ability to recognize that they need to be present in these conversations to dispel rumors, myths, to do some crisis management,” he said.

“Whether you're there or not, the conversation's happening,” he said.

'Many to many' vs. 'one to many'
LifeChurch.tv of Edmond, Okla., is definitely there, live-streaming services to 14 church locations in five states and to millions of other followers around the world, who interact with one another and with church staff in robust live chats.  

A LifeChurch.tv producer explains how the church's state-of-the-art video operation is run.

In user discussions on LifeChurch sites, “you'll find a lot of things that are said good and bad about our church,” said the Rev. Bobby Gruenewald, a former technology entrepreneur who is the “innovation leader” at the organization, which was founded in 1995 by the Rev. Craig Groeschel and is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Overall, “the benefits are numerous,” Gruenewald said. “People are able to have a dialogue instead of just hearing a lecture.”

That's what makes LifeChurch work, but it's also what makes traditional church leaders uncomfortable.

Online communities are “more relational” than the traditional church model of communication, which is “viewed by a lot of churches as non-relational,” he said. That is, it seeks only to “connect people with content” through sermons and church bulletins.

That's because older leaders and more traditional churches view technology as an either/or — “as an amazing opportunity or an amazing evil,” he said.

“I think that's a total mistake,” said Gruenewald, whom Fast Company identified as one of its “100 Most Creative People in Business” this year. LifeChurch views technology as “something amoral that can be used for good and can be used for evil.”

The idea at LifeChurch, he said, is to use it for good to “connect people with people.”

Campbell, the Texas A&M professor, said that embracing that philosophy is a hallmark of effective religious communication online.

“In old media, it was a one-to-many communication system,” while the new media and digital culture is “a many-to-many form of communication,” she said.

But with that freedom comes what some religious institutions see as a loss of control.

“For religious communities that might want to constrain or have gatekeepers to their message, the Internet allows many people to bypass that gatekeeper,” Campbell said. While you can get your message out to exponentially more people, “You can't always monitor the message.”

Gruenewald acknowledged the challenge of figuring out “how do people filter and give credibility” to a cascade of religious information online, but he said that with “like anything that's new, this is a challenge with the Internet and technology in general.”

“It's only problematic if a church expects to control the conversation that's taking place about the church” — something “we don’t spend a lot of energy on,” he said.

By engaging widely online, “you have some context in which you can influence the conversation,” he said, echoing Davidson's point that whether you're involved or not, that conversation is going to happen regardless on Twitter or on Facebook.

“It can be a drawback,” he said, “but I think it's more of a reflection of the opportunity. ...

“If you define the platform, you can lead people to come and meet you there.”

Alex Johnson is a news and technology reporter for msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.