Eric Stoltz

Not since the invention of television has a new technology portended such changes in the way we live as has the Internet. Internet access continues to triple each year, and the content of the World Wide Web grows exponentially at regular intervals. People are using the Internet not only to receive news and purchase products, but also to exchange opinions, research topics of interest, make airline reservations and seek and apply for jobs. Real-time bidding on the Internet allows companies to purchase commodities ranging from steel to medical supplies, and governments are promising voting on the Internet in the near future. In short, the Internet is changing the way we learn, interact with one another and conduct business.

A review of Web sites produced by parishes and dioceses as well as private sites dedicated to various aspects of Catholicism demonstrates that virtually all of them utilize the Web as a one-way means of providing linear textual information. Thus, we can access documents, search the catechism, pull up today’s liturgical readings or the Liturgy of the Hours. Yet few have even begun to harness the power and promise of the Web as it relates to the mission of the church. Parish sites should be more than a listing of Mass times with a photo of the exterior of the church building. Diocesan sites should be more than a listing of chancery departments and officials. This being said, what are the elements of a Web strategy for the local church?

Access to Basic Information

While not every local church site may be able to provide its members with the full resources of the Web, there are essential elements that even the simplest page can and should make available. Many church sites offer schedules, personnel directories, location, history, photographs and access in some form to other helpful information—such as Scripture readings, liturgical calendars, church documents and links to related sites of interest. Features of this kind should be considered the most basic and necessary functions of a church site.

Churches should also carefully consider needs for additional information based on the particular needs of the local faith community. My parish, for example, is in an area with a large gay and lesbian community, so our site includes the complete text of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter Always Our Children (1997). Other local churches may offer other resources—perhaps an explanation of the relationship of the church toward Jewish neighbors, or a discussion of the Catholic approach to the environment in a locale where such controversies often come up.

Some churches provide updated information, like their weekly bulletins; or a diocese may provide a regular message from the bishop. Other examples of basic information easily provided would be links to appropriate pages of the Web site of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for explanations of where money from national collections goes or details about the works of the Campaign for Human Development or Catholic Relief Services. On a more practical level, parishes can post organizational documents, such as schedules for altar servers or rosters of volunteers (protected by a password). One can also envision the posting of financial statements or updated results of capital campaigns.

Interactivity

The key difference between the Web and previous forms of media is the ability to interact. This provides a further opportunity and challenge to local churches. A recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times ridiculed the governor of California for not having an e-mail address on his Web site. This position by the newspaper indicates that an e-mail address is no longer the novelty it once was, but is now considered a basic requirement for interaction with the public. Members of Congress and senators carefully track the opinions expressed in e-mail from their constituents. If this is useful for the governor of a state or the president of the United States, it is also of value to a pastor or diocesan bishop.

Lack of an e-mail contact is already being construed as a sign of aloofness or an unwillingness to hear from one’s constituents. Pastors and diocesan bishops should have an e-mail address readily available to the faithful, and policies and procedures should be in place that allow prompt responses within a day or two, in the same way one might provide for answering paper mail. Access to e-mail provides bishops a ready channel for learning about the concerns of the faithful directly, in keeping with the role of the bishop, as described by the Second Vatican Council.

If interactivity on the Web assumes certain responsibilities that must be met, it also provides numerous opportunities to further the work of the church. Interactive forums, for example, in the form of bulletin boards, can provide an opportunity for sharing ideas, experiences and insights by a variety of volunteers and local church staff. One can envision online forums for adult initiation directors, directors of religious education, even school principals and liturgical and music directors. Moderated forums could be established to help people learn more about the processes of matrimonial tribunals, programs for reconciliation with the church or vocational discernment. Some dioceses have posted preliminary drafts of official documents, inviting comments from particular groups.

The Web constantly provides new ways of extending interactivity. Local churches must be creative in the way they provide interactive opportunities on their sites to further the mission of the church as a whole. For instance, a church site may provide a section on the works of mercy, listing the corporal and spiritual works. As visitors click on a particular work of mercy, they could go to another section with a catechetical summary of that work, allowing them to consider how to integrate it into their everyday lives. Further links from that page could lead them to the sites of agencies in their community associated with that work of mercy, giving them the opportunity to volunteer or make donations. Thus the Internet allows us to bridge the gap between technology and the person-to-person touch that is the mark of the church as sacrament in the world.

Evangelization and Catechesis

The Web also lends itself to the needs of evangelization. Instead of the typical linear form of exposition found in books, it provides a means of making a simple statement that can be linked to a more substantive statement, any part of which can be explored progressively. Thus, even the simplest statement can be taken at face value or chosen for a more in-depth treatment. The visitor can choose those areas he or she wishes to learn more about.

The Web is the first means of mass communication that allows the church to provide the entire continuum of kerygma through didache in the same place, to offer the simple proclamation of a truth and at the same time make immediately available more detailed analysis and applications of that truth to whoever wants to learn more, in ever increasing levels of detail, presenting first the roots of a teaching and allowing the visitor to follow any of the branches to learn as much as he or she wishes.

It is certainly no secret that many pastors do not feel comfortable with the basics of technology needed to fully capitalize on the promise of the Internet. Adapting to a hyperlinked and interactive medium can be difficult for many accustomed to presenting thoughts and information in a linear form. But this can be viewed as an opportunity rather than as a problem, for pastors could thereby find themselves led to seek the assistance of the laity, particularly youth, in the process of evangelization. Younger people who understand the Internet—its culture, idioms and conventions—are the key to local churches in adapting the message of the kingdom to cyberspace. Thus, a previously unparalleled situation is presented for young people to be involved in the spread of the Gospel, adding new depth to the vision of the Second Vatican Council as expressed in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.”

A recent project in California seeks to provide comprehensive information on all the Spanish missions of the state, with photographs, maps, histories and personal observations in a vast linkage of Web sites on each mission. This project has been undertaken by fourth-grade students at schools in every part of the state, who create their own Web sites. Imagine the opportunities presented: A confirmation class could develop a Web site on their patron saints, or a young adults group could undertake the development of a parish Web site. By presenting young people with the basic principles of evangelization, they could translate such principles to the Web in a manner that can also help to sanctify popular culture, leading it to become in ever new ways the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

Spiritual Growth

The same nonlinear nature of the Web permits a variety of ways through which local churches could enhance the spiritual growth of their members. Take the example of a presentation about the communion of saints. Visitors to the site could access the liturgical calendar, which would contain links to each saint mentioned. As they followed the links, they would discover images of the saint, with opportunities to download that image, a brief profile with a link to a more detailed biography, and links enabling them to purchase books or films by or about that saint. Additional links could lead to the religious community founded by the saint, a site explaining his or her shrine, or a tour of the saint’s birthplace. Many such resources already exist and need only to be linked from local church sites.

Through various new Web technologies such as streaming video and audio, the full spectrum of the arts can also be brought to bear in fostering devotion. Much as the church through the centuries has used the arts to communicate important truths and to inspire the faithful through the power of imagination and beauty in church buildings and other venues, the Internet provides a new space for using these same principles.

Building Communities

Among commercial Web sites, a prime goal is to build online communities around a particular brand. Commercial sites measure their success in many instances by measuring the participation of consumers in various aspects of their sites, often setting as an objective multiple daily visits by individual consumers. Accordingly, they seek to present an array of services and interesting content on their sites, which are frequently refreshed. Content that draws repeat visits is referred to in the patois of the Web as “sticky content.”

There is no brand to compare to the cross of Christ, and there is no community that can provide more “sticky” content than his church. We have, to date, woefully underutilized these talents. When one surveys the dry Catholic Web landscape of committee chairs and Mass schedules and diocesan directories, one is apt to ask, “Where is the good news?” By providing an engaging presentation of the Gospel, with ample opportunity for interaction, local churches can extend the reach of their communities beyond the physical confines of Sunday liturgies and in-person activities to welcome a wider membership. A local religious education program could reach out by providing an online invitation to submit images of Christ from the community at large. Senior citizens could be encouraged to submit their memories of significant moments the church has played in their lives. A parish could invite members of the community to submit anecdotes and stories to be compiled into a parish history project.

When using the Internet to build faith communities, local churches are reminded in a new way that the parish is not the sum total of the physical structures and the clergy associated with those buildings. Parish sites that say, “Welcome to St. So-and-So’s Church” and show a photograph of the church building followed by a photograph of the pastor are unconsciously reinforcing the concept of church as a building with attached clergy rather than as a community of believers. Visual images and the way information on local church sites is organized should seek to expand community beyond clericalist or institutional preconceptions and bring focus to the Gospel. Using the home page as a place to highlight new content will encourage repeat visits to the site. A variety of useful services and other resources will encourage more frequent visits and enhance efforts to build an online community. The opportunities for building a parish or diocesan community through the Web are limited only by the imagination of the faithful. We must give a compelling reason for them to visit our sites. If the only reason one might visit a parish site is to find out the time for a holy day Mass, significant opportunities are being missed.

Social Justice

Whereas at one time the decisive factor of production was the land, and later capital—understood as a total complex of the instruments of production—today the decisive factor is increasingly the person, that is, one’s knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, the capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as the ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them. But the risks and problems connected with this kind of process should be pointed out. Many people do not have the means to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way within a productive system in which work is truly central. They have no chance to acquire the basic knowledge that would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential. They have no way of entering the network of knowledge and intercommunication that would enable them to see their qualities appreciated and utilized. Hence, even if they are not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies.

The Internet now allows vast resources of technology to be available even to those without advanced technical knowledge. Local churches should take a leadership role in expanding access to this new source of economic advancement to all socioeconomic classes. Much as in past centuries the church led the way for people to achieve economic parity through literacy and even more through Catholic higher education, the church must now make available to everyone the opportunities of the new information economy, lest the gap between the rich and the poor become even greater.

The opportunities presented by the new Internet economy are more open than was the case with previous knowledge-based jobs, because a college education is often not necessary to compete in the new economy. Teenagers who master the basics of the Web can set up their own businesses. A recent story in The Los Angeles Times reported that some local librarians had observed that up to 70 percent of those using free Internet access at library computers were homeless people. Some of them had set up their own Internet businesses that had enabled them to make down payments and pay rent on apartments. Whereas in previous times, economic advancement was almost always tied either to owning or subjecting oneself in some way to another who had ownership of land or capital, the Internet is an engine of wealth that is owned by all people.

On a local level, larger parishes and dioceses could make available to the faithful free e-mail sponsored by the local church, which is often open to them as a sponsoring organization at no cost. Dioceses and parishes should also, where possible, take advantage of the trend toward free Internet access, offering to the members of the local church the benefits of the Internet without cost. For those who cannot afford computers, the local church could enter into arrangements with providers of free computers to allow Internet access to parishioners.

Already the cost of quality computers has fallen to the $500 range. In the near future, Internet appliances will be introduced to the market which will allow simple Web browsing and e-mail access at half that cost. In many cases, such access will be provided by increasingly more affordable mobile telephones. Nevertheless, even such lower costs of Internet access will still be prohibitive for some. It falls to the church to ensure that the economic benefits of the Internet are available to all, as costs of Internet access continue to decrease.

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Not since Paul first put pen to parchment to write letters to the faithful in far-flung communities has the church been presented with an opportunity as vast as the World Wide Web. These opportunities run the gamut of the church’s mission, from evangelization to catechesis to building communities to social justice issues. To date, the local churches have by and large failed to embrace fully the promise of the Internet. In the new millennium, we have an opportunity to sacramentalize the Internet by making it the newest means of spreading the good news of Christ.

Eric Stoltz is a consultant in public relations and Web development in Los Angeles. His address is: eric@ericstoltz.com; www.ericstoltz.com.