Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs. All of these are familiar terms for college students, high school students, recent graduates and newlyweds. The church is becoming familiar with them, too. While many young adults use these Web tools to keep in touch with friends, they can also expand their networks to stay connected to their parishes.
St. James Parish, Menomonee Falls, started using blogs earlier this year for three groups: the Christian formation program, which covers middle and high school students; the college and young adult parishioners; and for those who go on mission trips. Tracy Dereszynski, St. James youth minister who’s in charge of updating the blogs, said she did a Google search one afternoon and set them up in about an hour. Not only does it make downloading lesson plans easy for the middle/high school students and give easy access to the schedule, but the timeliness of the information is another benefit of using blogs in the parish.
If your parish doesn’t use Facebook, blogs or other online tools, offer to teach the staff how it works and illustrate how it can keep the youth and young adults involved in your parish. Or, start an intergenerational evening at your parish, like the one mentioned by Katie DeBruin, director of faith formation at St. Patrick Parish, Whitewater.
“It’s more for instant information, and you don’t have to search through the parish Web site to find what you need,” Dereszynski said, highlighting the aspect that the online tools are free. “And you have more control in Christian formation, what goes up on the blog as compares to what’s going to go up on the parish Web site … and we found it really effective.”
She also does Gospel reflections for the middle/high school students, whose blog is updated about twice a week; shares kids’ mission trip stories, complete with pictures; and offers the college students a beginning-of-the-year prayer as well as online retreats during Advent and Lent when the site is updated three times a week. “It’s just a nice way to keep up with everybody without getting all the personal information that you get on Facebook,” Dereszynski said.
However, St. James joined Facebook this summer at the request of the business manager.
“His plan is to use it to put out bulletins about like raffles and things that are going on with the parish,” Dereszynski said. “That’s the goal, we just haven’t gotten to that point.”
Dereszynski said she has added a few parishioners as friends, but thinks the parish can use Facebook more effectively with the help of young adults who know more about it than someone in his or her 40s, like Dereszynski.
“A lot of our staff is over 50; there’s not a lot of us under 50, so they’re very resistant to using Facebook, too, because they just don’t understand it … so it’s kind of a tug-of-war,” she said. Dereszynski hopes to have a young adult, their apprentice through a program at Notre Dame who has Facebook, show them how it works.
But Dereszynski advises other parishes to get involved because it’s worth the extra work to learn how to start a blog and join Facebook.
“Just don’t be afraid,” she said. “Just give it a try. It’s really easy and once you’re set up and going, just keep putting it in your bulletin and people will catch on.”
Julie Hammer, 24, director of religious education at St. John the Evangelist Parish, Kohler, and Blessed Trinity, Sheboygan Falls, said she has a personal Facebook page where she’s done some networking with students, but the goal is to do so with the parishes in the near future.
“It’s definitely not one of my strengths, so that’s why in the two years (as director) I’ve not started something,” Hammer said. “But I do know that that’s where the kids are.”
Hammer said that a few of the cons related to getting the parish involved in the online world are that it takes away from the one-on-one contact with students, and involves a respect issue with information people have posted on their pages and may not want broadcasted, but would still be useful in many ways.
“I could see it as a way to stay in contact, to recruit, to advertise, make announcements and then just fellowship,” she said.
In the tri-parish communities of St. Paul the Apostle and St. Rita parishes, Racine, and St. Sebastian, Sturtevant, David Kenny, director of religious education for youth and young adults, has used Facebook to raise awareness about upcoming events for the two groups. He creates an events page and then invites youth and young adults from his Facebook page listing.
“Once I know events are coming up or whatever, that’s normally what I do and it seems to work out quite well,” Kenny said.
He’s tried using Twitter, but Kenny said he’s found more communication among the youth and young adults by using Facebook. While he’s had a good response from people in the 14-35-year-old age group, he would like to devote more time and effort to improving his use of the newer technologies within youth ministry because it gets the best response.
“Because that’s where the kids are,” Kenny said of why it’s important for parishes to get involved in Facebook and other Web technology. “This is what they’re using all the time and it’s where you’re going to find them.”
Kenny is among the group of parish staffers who taught themselves how to use these tools, but sees an opportunity for the archdiocese to offer training to parishes to help keep them up to date in modern technology.
However, Katie DeBruin, director of faith formation at St. Patrick Parish, Whitewater, said it creates the perfect opportunity for an intergenerational faith evening “to have the younger people show us how to use the Facebook – I know a couple of the kids in our youth group have sat with me and said, ‘Here’s how you get here, and here’s how you do this and let’s put this picture,’ so I would encourage parishes who are thinking about doing it to actually do it as an activity where you match the older people with the younger people.”
The goal at St. Patrick is to use Facebook as a communication tool with religious education and faith formation classes. It has yet to take off, according to DeBruin, who said they just started it this summer, but they’re working to change that.
“It would be a tool (we use) so everybody knows what’s going on and last minute changes,” she said.
Though it might take some time for parish staff to learn how to use the many Web tools available, they have begun. Kenny said that because letters and phone calls don’t get the response they used to, it’s important for parishes to keep up with the changing times.
“It’s kind of like texting,” Kenny said. “Facebook is the more quicker response … it’s like, yeah, keep up on all the technology.”