When, in May of 2011, Vatican representatives arranged a meeting with Catholic bloggers from all over the world, Brandon Vogt was anticipating the release of his charity-benefiting book The Church and New Media. Since then, a shrewd Pope Benedict XVI has initiated the launch of the Vatican’s news site with a mere touch to a tablet, and (on Twitter, as @Pontifex) has answered tweeted questions and mastered the art of dispensing genuine theological insights in 140 characters or fewer.
Vogt, in the meantime, has found himself counted among a well-regarded and growing list of smart, fired-up young Catholics (Rocco Palmo, Fr. Roderick Vonhögen, Leah Libresco, Jennifer Fulwiler, Dan and Hallie Lord, and Marc Barnes to name a few) who are using blogs, podcasts, videos, and every sort of social media to engage all comers in frank discussions about Christ, the Church, the life of faith and what challenges it. The Virtual Field of the Lord does not lack for seed-sowers, but dioceses and parishes need to have their online rows hoed and ready to receive inquiries. Outdated (or missing) websites thwart the gospel’s growth.
Understanding that, Vogt—an engineer by trade—has partnered with Flocknote founder Matt Warner and eCatholic’s founder Josh Simmons to take on what might be called the geek’s task: They have designed a one-day conference to instill a confident sense of Internet craft and courage to pastors and parish coordinators who know they need to be online, but are not quite sure what that entails. I asked Vogt some questions about his ministry.
Elizabeth Scalia: What exactly is a Digital Church Conference?
Brandon Vogt: The Digital Church Conference is a one-day guide to mastering new media. Through several talks, interactive demos, and panel discussions, we teach people everything they need to know, from perfecting their website, to building social networks, to evangelizing online. We arrange the entire event and provide basically everything. All we need from them is the venue, a video projector and screen, and a hand dispensing the marketing media, which includes a custom video.
What inspired this whole concept?
Matt Warner, Josh Simmons, and I are all tech-savvy; we realized that amidst this swirling world of Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and text-messaging most Catholics are both excited and terrified. They know this new media is powerful, and they know they should be using it. But they’re simply afraid to dive in. They’re wary of the dangers, they don’t know where to start, and even if they do, they’re unsure how to move forward.
So, “be not afraid?”
Over and over, Pope Benedict has called on the laity to master these new media tools. That requires education and help, so the three of us created this conference with the goal of making it as easy and cheap as possible for dioceses to help their parishes and ministries harness this technology. We want to bring it to every diocese in the country.
What is the greatest weakness you see in diocesan sites and in how parishes approach the Internet? I know my own parish website is essentially the bulletin in PDF; nothing is interactive. Are they simply not familiar enough with useful tools, or afraid of time commitments?
You hit the two biggest nails on their heads. Most resistance we encounter boils down to two things: unfamiliarity and fear. The two feed into each other. Catholic leaders don’t know how these tools work, and they’re afraid that if they open the floodgates of commenting, sharing, and posting, things will quickly get of control. That needn’t be.
With the Digital Church Conference we show people how to conquer these fears and leave them feeling confident that these tools can help them tremendously.
Who attends your conferences? The bishop and chancery? Are pastors and parish counsels invited?
In the conferences we’ve hosted so far, we’ve gotten a wide mix of attendees. We’ve had priests who had never ventured onto Facebook, we’ve had diocesan and parish staff who are intrigued but wary, and we’ve had young ministry leaders who use these tools every day but want to take them to the next level.
Our conference has something for everyone, beginner and expert alike. Our hope is that representatives from throughout the diocese, including each parish, return back to their groups and become “digital seeds” for their respective communities.
Last summer I spoke to a large group of women, many of whom run the rectory front offices and are very comfortable with the traditional processes. My talk was on New Media and the Holy Spirit and I was surprised at how many of them approached me afterward to confess that they avoided the Internet; they thought of it as a kind of devil’s playground, inappropriate for church business. How do your presentations address such concerns?
It’s true the Internet contains vulgarity and sin. Back in 2000, even before comboxes caught fire, the U.S. bishops compared going online to “visiting the best theme park in the world and coming across a toxic waste dump.” Indeed, there’s truth there.
But when used properly, when the dangers are noted and mitigated, new media can be tremendously positive. For confirmation of this fact we don’t have to look any further than Pope Benedict XVI. In his recent World Communications Day Messages, the pope has expressed overwhelming praise for the new media. Two years ago he said these tools “stir our wonder at the possibilities.” In this year’s message, he described them as “portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.” That doesn’t sound like someone describing the Internet as “the devil’s playground.”
In a way, these conferences are part of the Church reading the signs of the times and responding, then?
One of our intentions with this conference is to tap our Great Tradition and reveal the strong and consistent support for these tools. We take people through Vatican II, the teachings of Pope Paul VI, the modern examples of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, all to show the unwavering embrace of new media.
When you see an eighty-six-year-old pontiff launching a tweet from an iPad, it’s hard to miss the Church’s view of technology.
Where have you presented so far, and what are your goals?
We’ve put on the conference three times so far, in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis (at the Catholic Press Association annual conference) and the Diocese of Orlando. Last week we had a great time presenting in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, before more than two hundred people. We’re in discussions with several other dioceses about hosting conferences throughout 2013, which we’re really excited about.
Any diocese interested in learning more can go to DigitalChurchConference.com (and if you don’t work for a parish or diocese, but would like to bring this conference to your area, please forward this on to the right people).
Our goal is simple: to help the Church master new media, which are the most powerful evangelistic tools she’s ever had. To the degree we help Catholics harness Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites, blogs, and text-messaging in service of the New Evangelization, the conference will be a success.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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