If we build it, will they come?

| September 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

New research reveals surprising information about ‘millennial’ Catholics and Internet use

I was all set to tell you about a new website with an eclectic mix of stories and videos that Catholics will love.

But you probably won’t go there.

I was going to tell you all about http://www.CatholicHotdish.com because it’s pretty cool, with its newsy items and blogs on issues and activities today’s Catholics are interested in.

I hesitate, though, because a new study of the media habits of Catholics reports that few Catholics — even “millennials” (under age 30) — are going to the Internet for things religious or spiritual.

“It’s not that Catholics aren’t online or using new media,” the study found. “They just aren’t using these to do Catholicism in any great number.”

Presumptions debunked

The study by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, found that despite the conventional wisdom, millennial Catholics do not overwhelmingly prefer reading content online compared to print: Results showed a 32 percent preference for online, 33 percent preference for print, and 35 percent with no preference. (The study had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.8 percent.)

That’s reassuring for those of us who publish The Catholic Spirit and frankly have tired of hearing that younger generations don’t read things in print.

Yet, here’s the thing: If Catholics aren’t in the new media game, are we failing to respond to Christ’s command to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark: 15:15)?

If the church improved the way it does new media, put more resources into it, learned how to better use it, would we do a better job of fulfilling Jesus’ command in this both/and — digital and print — media landscape?

Making the effort to reach out

This era of transition in the flow of information has leaders of lots of organizations — not just the church —scratching their heads. The Catholic Spirit, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Catholic parishes and ministries are right in there with everyone else trying to figure out how best to connect with a variety of audiences. For the church, the audience includes both those who do and who don’t practice the faith.

Lord knows we’re trying.

The Oct. 13 Archdiocesan Communications Day —the brainchild of The Catholic Spirit that is coming to reality thanks to a partnership among the newspaper, the archdiocese and the Coalition of Ministries in the Archdiocese — is evidence this local church intends to be in the game.

We’re bringing in experts in communicating and using new media — names like John Allen, Lisa Hendey, Matthew Warner and others — to build the knowledge base and set a foundation for a solid vision for communicating in our archdiocese. (You can register at http://www.archspm.org/news-events/events-detail.php?intResourceID=4047.)

Leaders in parishes and ministries across the archdiocese and across the Upper Midwest are invited, and we’ll be sharing best practices that work locally, too.

We’re all doing more, though.

The archdiocese has updated its online effort —www.archspm.org — to be a much more effective resource.

The Catholic Spirit now has five websites, more than 21,000 followers on Twitter, an active Facebook page and an e-newsletter. All those digital means connect people to faith-forming information, authentic church teaching, multimedia presentations with upbeat music and inspiring videos of local Catholic activities.

Most parishes have websites, but there’s good news and bad news there: CARA found that of all Catholic websites, parish websites had been visited by the greatest percentage of Catholics. The bad news? Only 14 percent of Catholics had visited a parish website. That means 86 percent had not.

Sobering facts

The CARA study, commissioned by the Catholic Press Association (of which The Catholic Spirit is a founding member), has a wealth of statistics about Catholics and media use today. It found that the majority of Catholics prefer to get their religious and spiritual information via traditional means. They prefer to receive a diocesan newspaper in print form rather than online.

In fact, the survey summary notes, “Few Catholics report doing anything with new media that is related to religion and spirituality at all,” and, “Millennials are not more likely than older Catholics to say they have done anything online . . . related to religion and spirituality,” and in fact, “Millennials are less likely than older Catholics to access any type of religious or spiritual media content.”

Here is CARA’s analysis:

The current discourse surrounding Catholic new media is often very rosy and optimistic. The data do not match this conversation — yet.

Traditional media sources continue to be more often used and preferred by Catholics for religious and spiritual content. Although certainly millennial Catholics are using new media frequently, they have yet to use it for religion and spirituality in any great number.

Will they ever?

How can this be achieved?

Those are unanswered and difficult questions. But what can be concluded is that creating content in new media does not mean people will use it. The era of broadcasting is over. In a narrowcasted world, people have to be aware of and want to visit and use your content.

The signs from the research suggest that too few Catholics are aware of and using the religious new media resources that have been developed. When it comes to Catholicism, more often than not, traditional media still have the broader reach in a “new media” age.

It is the “yet” in the above statement that presents the challenge.

It’s clear from the CARA study that our church needs to continue to accommodate those who prefer their religious information in print.

The challenge is, can we skillfully take advantage of the potential — note, potential — of new media. There’s a bit of “if we build it, they will come” hopefulness in all of our digital media efforts.

It’s clear, too, though, that the better the online content and the better the new media execution, the better the church’s chances of bringing the Gospel to more of God’s people. We know if we don’t build it, and build it well, we don’t have a chance they’ll come.

Bob Zyskowski is associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit and a blogger on CatholicHotdish.com.

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Category: Commentary