In this “new” world, where so much of our spiritual lives have had to move online, we’ve been powerfully reminded how much we need one another and how significant it is to gather in person. But with in-person gatherings come questions: How can we accommodate those who prefer to or must join digitally? How can we involve pastors in what we are doing? How can we make sure digitally driven groups are rooted in and connected to parish communities?
Although the transition to an entirely digital landscape amid the novel coronavirus pandemic certainly came with challenges and struggles, many parish ministries are not just surviving through this medium but thriving. Those who can’t make it to the parish hall in person on Tuesday nights are finding that the commute is possible via Zoom. Communities in search of formation are finding themselves able to bring in speakers from around the nation at the click of a button. People of all ages are participating in digital faith sharing in parish Facebook groups. Real community is formed in these digital spaces.
How can we make sure digitally driven groups are rooted in and connected to parish communities?
Some of the most important work of the church happens in parish groups and ministries. Ask anyone involved and they’ll likely light up when they speak about the good works happening in these spaces. As the pandemic continues to loosen its grip on our social interactions, more faith groups are springing back to life—reinvigorated and on fire with spirit and zeal.
One might be inclined to prioritize either digital media or in-person gatherings—but that is a poor choice. Instead, parish ministers and group leaders should explore best practices for integrating digital communities into our physical realities one ministry at a time. While there is no universal, one-size-fits-all solution, these four best practices can help integrate the digital and traditional aspects of your faith community.
Be with your people
Good parish communication starts with a question: “Where is the best place to reach you?” Whether you’re a pastor looking to reach your ministry leaders or a group leader looking to speak to your members, you have to go where your people are. For some groups, that might mean age-old, tried-and-true communication methods—the parish bulletin, a poster in the church hall, or an email newsletter. Other groups might need something more sophisticated such as a WhatsApp or Facebook group or a digital content management space like Trello or Slack. It depends on with whom you’re trying to communicate, how often you’re trying to communicate with them, and how engaged you’d like them to be. Go to where people are and communicate there.
After understanding what media work best for your community, it’s important to define your goals. Are you trying to invite the entire parish to a particular event or ministry? Are you trying to reach people who aren’t in the pews? Or are you simply trying to share an update with your youth group?
Good parish communication starts with a question: ‘Where is the best place to reach you?’
These questions will help you focus your communication. Too often, parishes try to do all of their communication on just one platform. In these days of digital connectivity, that doesn’t work. You have to know the ins and outs of your audience before you can do anything else.
Using a platform that is foreign to you can be challenging, but communicating consistently covers a multitude of ills. Even before the pandemic, parishioners accustomed to on-demand information were rigorous in their quests to find answers to their questions. Your parish can best serve those parishioners by establishing an implicit and explicit standard of communication. Create a culture that emphasizes quick and concise responses and clearly outline how often people can expect to hear from you.
For instance, if a parish youth group primarily communicates through WhatsApp, youth ministers should set intervals at which participants can expect updates. Perhaps that means every Wednesday they share a “Wednesday Wisdom” graphic to inspire people and every Friday they communicate information about meetings. If you’re a pastor, set aside one day each week to issue a video or column on social media so people know when they can expect to see an update from you.
Never let the lines of communication go dead, especially if your chosen method is digital. Be available if someone has a question. If people see others asking questions and getting responses, they will feel more comfortable asking you what is on their hearts.
Communication is first a ministry of presence. Sometimes people don’t want or need resources. Sometimes they don’t want to be hassled with asks about events or donations. Sometimes communicating in your parish is simply about being there for people in their times of need. For instance, a bereavement ministry might find that a private Facebook group is the best way for its members to communicate and gather. While it’s important to share updates about meeting times and prayer requests, your ministry will bear more fruit if you focus on creating space for people to gather that is safe and welcoming, where people can interact without judgment, and where people can grow with one another. Social media, when used properly, can be a wonderful and dialogical space for ministries of accompaniment.
Nothing distresses me more than when I stumble on a church email newsletter or Facebook page where all they do is share a link to the bulletin. The digital age has radically redefined communication at every level, flooding the market with content of all kinds. To cut through the noise, you have to create engaging and original content on whatever medium you select. If social media is your chosen avenue to interact with the parish at large, quality video content is a must. If you want to effectively communicate in digital groups on Facebook, WhatsApp, Trello, or other similar sites, beautiful graphics will draw people’s attention when they scroll through their feeds.
It’s not enough in 2021 to just create good content. Any parish communicator is at their most effective when they ask questions, invite feedback, and encourage sharing from their parishioners and group members. “Being engaging” can be as simple as asking for feedback via Google forms after an event or asking a question on social media. Digital media certainly makes our world noisy, but it also gives us the unprecedented ability to engage with and hear others.
Communication is about community, and the digital tools at our disposal allow us to cultivate communities, whether it’s the parish as a whole, church ministries and groups, or parish leadership. The actual platform or medium you use will differ from community to community. As such, the subtle nuances of working through social media algorithms or navigating how to post on WhatsApp versus Instagram are valuable to know. Working with digital tools can be overwhelming, but if you remember these best practices and keep your communication fixed on Jesus, you’ll communicate in this noisy, difficult world.
After all, there is no message more engaging than the gospel, nobody more present to us than Jesus, and no institution capable of communicating as effectively as the church when we move forward with faith, transparency, and compassion.
This article also appears in the August 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 7, pages 23-25). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Dylan Ferreira