As senior director of Church Engagement for LPi, Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS is accustomed to utilizing digital resources is helping parishes with effective communication. In his workshop, “Evangelization in a Digital Age,” during the Gigs, Geeks and God Conference on Jan. 14, he reminded attendees it isn’t the quantity, but the quality of engagement that matters.
Welliver is the author of the Everyday Stewardship Book Series, which includes Everyday Stewardship: Reflections for the Journey and Everyday Stewardship: Living an Extraordinary Life, all published by LPi. His weekly reflections appear in parish and diocesan media around the world. Most recently, he created the stewardship course for the Revive Parishes platform, which features other Catholic experts from a variety of fields.
With myriad technology available, the greatest struggle is not how to use the various apps and platforms, but to choose what to use and to use it more effectively.
“Technology grows and becomes smarter. If you don’t use it correctly, it becomes just a paperweight on your desk,” he said. “Do people need email and apps? People need the good news of Jesus Christ — that’s what we need. Tech can become a vessel for good news to be proclaimed to those who need to hear it, but we get caught up in the packaging of it. Evangelization is more than just a message. How we offer that message is important. It is the same thing with catechesis — it’s not only about the truth in catechesis, but how we impart that truth.”
Welliver compared the overuse of the latest and greatest apps and platforms with presenting an elaborately wrapped Christmas gift to someone with a pair of used sneakers in the box. The brilliantly wrapped gift offered high expectations, but the receiver was disappointed once the gift was opened.
“This is how it is sometimes with technology, when we have really nice packaging, but we are not really paying attention to what we put inside and what is inside is what makes all the difference,” he said. “So, it makes no difference if you spend a lot of money on technology if what is packaged inside doesn’t move people. Ultimately, the good news of Jesus Christ is shared through the way we explain that and impart that to people. How we talk about our relationship with Christ and Jesus in me reaching out to the Jesus in you is so important.”
While parishes have distributed church bulletins every Sunday for years, Welliver said most parishioners don’t bother to read them. Now that parishes are also sending out weekly emails, parishioners are ignoring those as well due to a lack of engaging content.
“My own parish, St. Pius X in Greensboro, North Carolina, is presenting videos and different mediums to create a sense that there is something greater than ourselves” he said. “Our parish produces great videos with heartfelt music. Before Christmas, they offered Christmas card crafts that appealed to those sitting at home, unable to worship with community or for those sitting at home, feeling lonely. This video was a creative way to spread the good news by creating a card or giving part of yourself through crafts. This is evangelization to me.”
Other parishes, such as Spires of Faith in Dyersville, Iowa, produced an idea like the “Flat Stanley” series. The parish created several videos of the “Flat Priest” visiting various places, staying for dinner, story time and prayers.
“It was really cool and another example of parishes using tech in a profound way. The emphasis is the message inside the package,” said Welliver. “They are demonstrating the vulnerability of Jesus inside them and through that, reach the Jesus in you. You don’t have to spend more money to get out a good message — it is just in them. Just make sure that whatever package you use, make sure your emphasis is in what you are packaging within your technology.”
Welliver explained that parishes and other organizations may mindlessly send out newsletters, bulletins and other media to parishioners; but most haven’t thought about the effectiveness of their message.
“If we are going to talk about evangelization, the question revolves around communication and how good we are at communicating, period,” he said. “George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ That is the biggest problem with communications. We say something and think we told them something.”
Welliver advises parishes and other ministries to take a step back and evaluate whether they truly communicated the good news of Jesus or was it their personal good news? Was it packaged so that it was not Jesus speaking but yourself? Did you open yourself up and be vulnerable, so it wasn’t a message without heart? Were others able to see your sincerity?
“No one wants to meet a Jesus that you claim to know but don’t really share that much about him from your own perspective,” he said. “You can quote the Catechism, encyclicals, paper documents and read scripture, but if you don’t open up and get real, it is all lost.”
Especially with COVID-19 limiting personal gatherings, having an effective form of communication is essential to evangelize and it needs to be tailored in different ways to reach all audiences.
“You can’t talk about Jesus to everyone in the same manner, as everyone has different touchpoints in their lives. You have to find a way to resonate with them,” he said.
Welliver suggests surveying neighborhoods and parish communities, and making sure parish databases are up to date.
“Making sure you aren’t asking people to download an app to those who are no longer in the parish is important,” he said. “Focusing on what people need rather than what they want is important. Giving people what they want is not evangelization. When Jesus came and spoke about his Father and spoke about turning to his Father and the Kingdom of Heaven — they wanted to hear more. That has not changed — people want to know Jesus.”