Technology can help engage, evangelize


By Celine Klosterman

Susan Stanforth, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, updates the parish’s Facebook page. The page is updated frequently, and its posts receive feedback from users, a sign of community engagement, said the presenter of a webinar on technology’s role in evangelization.

DAVENPORT — In an increasingly digital age, churches need to use technology to attract new members and engage existing parishioners, Mike Stone told about 45 people Feb. 19.
Parish websites, social media and online giving can make faith communities more vibrant, he said in the seminar “Technology for the New Evan­gelization.” Internet product manager for Liturgical Publications Inc. (LPi), he offered a presentation at St. Vincent Center and via webinar that was sponsored by the Davenport Diocese’s Stewardship Commission.
Technology is a piece of the puzzle, if not a solution, to increasing stewardship, Stone said. Technology can make people feel more connected to their community — which inspires them to give more of their time, talent and treasure.
Engaged parishioners spend more time volunteering, donate more to their parish, are more likely to invite someone to church, and indicate more satisfaction with their lives, he said, citing the book “Growing an Engaged Church” by Albert Winseman.
To engage current members, churches should make it easy for parishioners to find out what service opportunities there are and who to contact to get involved, Stone said. A website can provide this information. But the site must be inviting, as it’s often future parishioners’ first impression of the church. Updating the site frequently shows visitors the parish is active and vibrant.
Stone later shared the results of a 2010 survey asking respondents to choose whether Internet, TV, newspapers or radio was most essential to their lives. More participants chose the Internet than any one of the other options.
He showed a photo of a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square in 2013 to see the newly elected Pope Francis. Nearly everyone pictured was holding up a smartphone, tablet computer or camera to capture photos and video of the new pontiff. “If this photo doesn’t tell us why we need to be communicating online, I can’t say what else would,” Stone said.
For parishes thinking of launching a new website, LPi offers a template-based site builder called WeConnect that doesn’t require programming experience, Stone said. Websites created with the tool are optimized for mobile devices — on which 50 percent of web traffic will flow over the next 12 to 18 months, he added.
Try to include on your parish’s homepage the top things people visit your site for — such as Mass times, staff contact information, church location, online giving, the bulletin, forms, calendar and news.
A website can also include blogs that evangelize by sharing Catholics’ experiences and encouraging conversation. Don’t fear negative feedback on blog entries, but use it as an opportunity to explain the faith, Stone said.
Share parish events through photos and videos on your website and on social networks such as Facebook. But “make sure that what you’re posting means something to somebody,” Stone said. Engage users by asking thought-provoking questions about their faith.
As an alternative to public forums like Facebook, LPi offers WeGather, a free online network that offers private event management tools, parishioner directories and media sharing.

Stone later encouraged parishes to promote automated online giving, which he said leads to a 10 percent to 30 percent increase in income. Electronic giving lets people manage their donations like other bills they pay, and ensures the church receives a member’s contribution even when he or she misses Mass.
A priest attending the seminar suggested parishioners may hesitate to sign up to make a recurring online donation because they feel less control over the amount they give each week. Stone said LPi’s WeShare online giving program lets people change the amount of their automated contributions “without an awkward phone call to the parish office.” The program also lets parish staff integrate weekly reports into their church management software.
After the seminar, Father Ron Hodges, administrator of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell, said: “It’s important that the Church utilize every avenue possible to reach current and new members, to keep them engaged and informed. I think by the time most of us get the hang of one tool, it has become passé with the young, and they’ve moved on to something else. I also think that we need to give more than lip service to embracing technology. Maybe the diocese can help by not just supporting what is available, but by providing some examples of how we might use the new products and tools that are out there.
“I liked hearing about the three tools LPi showed us on Wednesday. WeConnect, WeGather, and WeShare seem like they will provide good, user friendly tools to help us communicate with current and potential parishioners. It does seem like it might necessitate adding a technology person to our parish staffs. It will be something I hope to discuss with the parish.”
Lisa Willows, catechetical ministries assistant at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, said: “Mike’s comments on growing an engaged church really hit home as to engaging and attracting new members, as well as providing relevant information for our current members on our parish website. Our websites are a ‘marketing tool’ for our parish and should present a welcoming experience for those looking at it. Additionally, we need to pay attention to the ‘little details’ on the website, making sure our information is current, shows a vibrant faith community and is simple to navigate.
“Our next generation of parishioners are growing up online, so we need to make sure that we are engaging and reaching them where they are with tools that they are comfortable using.”
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