The social media phenomenon offers both challenge and opportunity for the church. Social media reaches people -- millions are on Facebook and Twitter every day. The church cannot ignore them. They are interactive, however, and don't work when conversations are one-way. They involve dialogue, something not always welcome by clergy, teachers and other leaders.
"Because I said so" doesn't cut it in social media, a fact regretted by parents and leaders who for ages have resorted to the phrase when exasperated with the petulant "But..." and plaintive "Why?"
For oldsters, such dialogue takes getting used to. A few years ago I took a course in church social teaching. It was to be an intellectual treat -- until I got into the classroom with students who sought to debate the prof. The lecturer loved the interactivity, but I groaned inwardly at each sidestep. A former teacher, I appreciated the back-and-forth that helps minds expand, but I wanted the teaching clear-cut and wanted to soak up all the renowned prof had to offer. It may have been my inner dinosaur peeking out.
The church has a solid history of such top-down didacticism. It has libraries of tomes that explore theological truths. But that is only one part of the church.
Another side of the church -- the pastoral side -- is open to dialogue. It has validated such conversations as far back as the Gospels (see woman conversing with Jesus at the well). On the one-on-one level, the dialogue that ensues after a "Can we talk?" encounter has been an integral part of the church for years, a comfort to worried parents, frustrated spouses, abused workers and confused children.
Perhaps social media can help the church engage more in such dialogue. It is not easy. It takes energy, especially emotional energy. Talk -- or dialogue -- is work.
Many business leaders boast they have a web presence, but don't take questions and avoid interactivity, though they might send an auto-reply: "Thanks for your message." Better they post comments on a billboard, with the honest implication that they don't want feedback. To be genuine on social media you have to answer questions. You have to discuss. You have to accept and even embrace being challenged.
At the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we have Facebook and Twitter accounts. They offer opportunities to share, but also give rise to points of contention inherent in all dialogues. Some people agree with you, some don't. Some want to fight. All of them, however, belong to our virtual community and so deserve respect. Some people who post ask the community to share in their sorrow, perhaps over the death of a spouse. Others muse on the feast or Scripture reading of the day, giving others a new twist on a moment in the church. Some are ready for a fight and evoke the urge to push "delete." We try not to do that since the whole point of the virtual community is dialogue. If a virtual scrimmage breaks out, we hope all, including virtual bystanders, come away more enlightened. It is a risk worth taking. Virtual conversations grow in importance as church attendance decreases and fewer have relationships with a parish to which to tether themselves in life's storms.
The Internet, of course, cannot replace the community at Mass, where you know strangers by the pew they choose and as their children grow. There's nurturing warmth even in the nodding acquaintance with those with whom you pray every week.
Social media has a place in the 21st century church, though some oldsters may have to be drawn into it, collars, veils, rosaries and lapel crosses askew. Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be worthy instruments of the Gospel to nurture our faith life, though some are just warming up.