The Art of Church Communication

In today’s world, where Google is the ultimate answer to all our questions, where does the church stand?

The Art of Church Communication

By Binu Alex

I am speaking from the cradle of knowledge from where the first Catholic communication was aired – Marconi’s radio. We deal with an essentially and dominantly communicating God. The first communication from God we see in the book of Genesis – “Let there be light.” This communicating God continues in the Word incarnated and lived among us. Our challenge in Asia is how to communicate this communicating God to a digital church populace.

As you all know Asia is the most emerging region for digital development. Compared to a continent like Africa, which also has a huge potential, Asia stands out for two reasons. One is its technology supremacy and the easy digital embrace. The second and the most important factor is that Asia creates and consumes a large digital content. It is instrumental in creating, manufacturing and innovating the most advanced technology – both software and hardware.

So the question is – are we producing enough content to feed this ever hungry digital population? The plain answer is no. Fake news is the veritable proof. Fake news started as fillers – squeezed into places where it found a little space. But today it is the opposite. Truth is totally pushed out and we see Fake News prospering at an alarming speed.

Here comes another set of interesting questions. Where does Church fit into this conundrum? Does the Church have enough content to ward off fake news or propaganda against it? Are digital platforms the biggest challenge for the church? Are we able to find space for our glued-to-mobile generation to look into what Church offers them? It is again a long no. I will come to these one by one.

In today’s world, where Google is the ultimate answer to all our questions, where does the church stand? The search has become so important to our lives even at the risk of Google giving a wrong answer based on its algorithm; we believe it as the last word. The communities in Church are no different. A priest or pastor is no more the ultimate guide to their problem. It is a browser on the web that gives answer they are looking for.

This is where the real danger lies. We don’t have enough answers on the web to satisfy the queries of intriguing questionnaires. So an artificial intelligence or AI determines the best answer; it could be completely wrong or opposite to what Church believes. This delivery of answer makes faith dependent more on machine learning and artificial intelligence than the word of the Lord.

You all know technology cannot substitute human interactions. In a world where attention span is so short, the written method becomes a major hindrance.

Let me give you my own examples of how digital platforms can be viewed in multiple ways. I go to meet Bishops in India asking them to gift the missalette Living in Faith that I edit and publish - to their priests and religious. Most bishops agree but they respond saying it is available on the mobile easily without any cost. Why should they spend money on a printed product?

Then I try countering them with utmost respect. Are you sure the materials priests get on their mobile are verified texts? In the form of right version of the Bible or right reading of the day? And from the right source? They are not sure. Though I am a digital nerd and advocate digital literacy, I am a little apprehensive of something called too much and too fast. What if a laity asks this Bishop why he should attend a mass instead of sitting home and watch it on his mobile phone? How should the Bishop respond?

As an editor managing Church publication – especially related to liturgy – this is the major challenge I face. I run a technology company specializing in Church digital solutions. But when I sell a printed product, those who know me are puzzled why I have these double standards. The matter of fact is that there should be a clear distinction between what a technology can do in liturgical matters and where it should stop.

When I said too much too fast, I meant the materials that is being circulated across on various platforms are not made by Church or even a person authorized by the Church. Just because there is a huge gap of information about the Word, we see this vacuum filled by those who think they are doing their duty of the church. It may not be damaging the church, but I don’t know whether it is helping it. So technology isn’t the issue. Its usage is. In fact technology can unite the church in a way that we couldn’t even imagine a few years ago. It is a great form for dissemination of information. The most common factor that parishes say they adapt technology is to attract the youth. But in the melee of doing this, some overdo it and make it fun and entertainment factor which Church is not.

Having explained this background let me come to the main focus – the challenges digital publishers face in Asia. May be the challenges could be same across the world but geographical variations can do make some differences. As I said before, Asia is the biggest digital market. Though most Asian countries do not have majority Christian population, those who follow Christ are not alien to the changes they see around them. In fact they are much ahead of others by way of their education and social development levels.

Let me further elaborate the digital challenges for Catholic publishing in Asia by taking the example of one Asian country, India where I come from. Christianity is India’s third largest religion with roots back to the first century. India has approximately 28 million Christians, constituting 2.3 per cent of the population. Among them, an estimated 20 million are Catholics, spread across 178 dioceses in India. So if you see this from an Indian perspective, it is a miniscule minority. But this population is more than many of the countries in Europe. So there is a market out there.

I can see a lot of parishes and dioceses create a large number of contents. But these contents are not even read by own parishioners. Online content is a crowded place and a large portion of the Church doesn’t know anything about Search Engine optimization. Do they have a distinctive brand voice? Do they know what their audience wants? Do they have a voice in trending conversations? Are the contents fresh and original? What is the form of delivery of this content? Is it optimized for Mobile?

Most dioceses and institutions in Asia – yes there are a few who have done extremely well – tend to outsource their digital needs to people who are not trained to handle it – mostly clergy. And they come up with sub-standard products that no one looks at. Most of them are static information. In a world where digital transformation is now turning to mobile-first, we see a host of web services from Church which is not even compatible on a PC.

It is time the Church in Asia embarks on all forms of digital publishing and communication for its mission in various fields. I would call it the Digital Mission for the Church in Asia to implement a series of digital communication tools to connect with the people. This has to be done to empower them through all the social activities and to implement the faith formation of children and the adults. The Digital Mission should find a prominent place to grow faith and the Church in Asia. For this to happen, dioceses, congregations and parishes need to allocate funds and budgets to equip themselves with modern digital communication technologies. There is no fund earmarked for digital empowerment in any diocese, as far as I know. Parishes could embark on digital publishing to cut cost and reach more people; dioceses could make their weekly or monthly newsletters digital; local church newspapers, magazines and periodicals can all be digital, without destroying the importance of the print wherever necessary.

I have also observed that most dioceses have least priority for catechism. An area where we should be investing more is completely neglected. This is where we should invest our money and energy. Today, our children are in a digital age. So, faith formation of children at Sunday school should be a combination of digital and printed materials, focus being more on digital. This can transform the way Catechism is taught in Sunday schools. The Digital Mission for the Church should begin by rolling out spiritually stimulating, faith-filled Internet platforms for children, by ensuring that such platforms imbibe all the Catholic values.

If you ask me about India, Church’s digital media presence is poor thanks to lack of ideas to reach out to the laity and professional management. Going digital has not been a priority area for the Church in India where divisions are sharper bordering on even hostilities and as a result creating psychological distance between communities. The Church, therefore, has a duty to go digital to unite all these divided people. Holy Father Pope Francis has reminded us about this when he said: “The digital world - the social networks that are so pervasive and readily available - dissolves borders, eliminates distances, and reduces differences.”

Portuguese missionaries established India’s first printing press in 1556. But today, Christian media work is not seen as professional and competitive to any of the mushrooming number of publishing and digital media organizations that have come up in India. May be because of the lack of critical mass any product needs to sustain itself. The number of Christian publishing groups in the country is very small. India’s Catholic publishing organizations are mainly religious and are managed by the priests or dioceses with no involvement from field professionals. For the religious orders in India, the priorities are education and healthcare, and not publishing or going digital. And so, there is no serious Catholic media group in the country with a wider mission objective.

So am I doing a Church bashing here?
No. I am just presenting a perspective which you will agree is plain truth. Our challenge is to compete and overcome digital divide. For that to happen we need to change our thinking. The Church doesn’t think from the perspective of an end-user. This is where the problem starts. Whereas common publishers are attracting audience they cannot directly reach, the case of Church is opposite. It has a captive audience. Church attendance in Asia – particularly India – is huge. Almost 95% of all the members of a parish can be seen at a Sunday mass. In some parishes it is 20,000 to 25,000 people. What is the church doing to communicate to these captive audiences other than the Sunday sermons? Albert Einstein once said it is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.

Most of the Church establishments don’t even have an email engagement with their parishioners. And in most cases, there is not even a database of parish members. If you think platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are your friends, you should think again. Yes, they are essential and very handy when it comes to spread the social media presence. But before all these, there was something called direct communication – either through email or text messages. Both these are still not obsolete. It is essential that you establish a direct connection with your people. Don’t let Google give answers to their pastoral needs. Here is where I look forward to making a connect. If a parish priest has a direct communication with his parish members, I can make a request to the parish priest to get me connected. If all parishes have similar arrangements, I can ask the Bishop to give me an audience with them without looking to be spammed. All these can be monetized for the parish and the diocese if they play the game intelligently.

So is the Church resistant to new media and the enormous power it wields on people? I really don’t think so. The reason being the Vatican has made huge progress in adapting to the new media. It was a pioneer already in audio dissemination. So the Church in itself is not averse to anything new. In short there are no institutional barriers. But it lagged behind in having the right kind of start when it was needed the most. Now that it is lagging behind, the chase is hard.

The Church did make progress in terms of exploring the word of God through audio visual mediums. But it didn’t make any impact. I think the new age digital products and mediums made it vanish. There are organizations which produce daily sermons and disseminates them by Whatsapp. But it has not made any effort to evolve and adapt to the new method of reaching out or doing something new. What it started two decades years back, it still does the same without bothering whether there is an audience for their content or not. This is because the Church may have perhaps failed to understand digital culture. No matter what tools you may use unless we understand what the end user needs, there is no point in any digital transformation.

In most Asian countries literacy is an issue. Reading and writing is sometimes a taboo. This was the primary reason why early missionaries established educational institutions because they wanted to put the Word of God on maximum eyes and tongues. Those were the times when there was only a printed word or an oral sermon. But then televangelism entered the drawing rooms and there was no need to get educated to listen to a sermon any time of the day. But when smartphones came, it really made the audience king of content. They chose what they wanted to watch or listen at their convenience. Here the Church got sidelined, marginalized and gradually faded into oblivion. We may agree or not, we are in the age of digital religion and cannot sit and argue against it but to adapt it. It may not change the religious practices but it has already changed the approach. For example there is a growing debate on whether the mass should be on Facebook live and that those seeing it should be counted as virtual attendees along with physical attendees.

For the Catholic Church in India, in the whole of Asia for that matter, if it has to be a dynamic presence, it has to be a digital one, and there is no escape from it. Today most dioceses – or for that matter most countries - do not even have a spokesperson to keep the church view. When in crisis they make mistakes because they are not tuned to today’s digital media. There are many incidents from which Church could have come out of the intruding and biased mainstream media by having proper communication. I believe the message from top is clear. Go for it. Go digital effectively. But the bottom line is ill equipped to make it work. We are doing our bit to make this happen by having our own platform called Digital Catholic with a mission to help the church make digital progress not just by building a web page but get a 360 degree solution. But we just started. It is too late but then we have to begin. Better be it today. Thank you for your time and presence.

Binu Alex, a journalist by profession, is Editor and Publisher of Living in Faith. Excerpts from Speech delivered by him during the International Days for Catholic Literature in Rome 26-29 June held by The Vatican Dicastery of Communication.

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