It was a call not for new teaching, but for new ways to deliver the teachings of the Church.  That was the gist of the reflection offered at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fall general assembly held last month in Baltimore.

Leading the charge was Bishop Ron Herzog from the diocese of Alexandria Louisiana.  In his reflection he said the Church cannot afford to dismiss social networking as some sort of a passing social fad.  The Bishop did not mince words with his fellow Church leaders in encouraging them to evangelize through this growing form of new media.

“I am here today to suggest that you should not allow yourselves to be fooled by its appearance.  Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not the Church may be facings as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation,” Herzog said.

Bishop Herzog went on to back up his support for social media by providing plenty of statistics establishing just how effective Facebook or Twitter can be especially when we look at the actual numbers and compare to other forms of media.

“There are more than 500 million active users on Facebook.  If it were a nation, only India and China would have more citizens.  The American Red Cross reported that it raised more than $5 million dollars, $10 at a time, through a text messaging service.  One out of eight married couples in the United States say they met through social media. It took 13 years for television to reach 50 million users.  After the iPod was introduced it took only nine months for 1 billion applications to be downloaded.”

The Church has a new evangelization frontier at its fingertips and it’s good to see them using as many digital means as possible to evangelize.  Herzog also told fellow bishops that a Facebook community started by USCCB in August now has some 25 thousand fans. Bishop Herzog’s statements at the USCCB gathering are a nice follow up to social networking guidelines the conference issued earlier this year.

It’s important though to note the same guidelines from the Bishops also include instructions and warnings regarding some of the negative fall-out from social networking. The guidelines and the warning lights are a must since we continue to hear, see, and read about problems associated with this still relatively new and very vast digital frontier.  Recently there have been several stories of on-line bullying, along with other types of unbecoming and possibly illegal behavior taking place on Facebook and other similar sites.  For example, while there is a high number of Catholic couples who met through social media, this fall the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers also found that 81% of their members said they have seen an increase in the number of divorce cases using social networking evidence during the past five years.  In a statement on the organization’s web site Marlene skin Moses; president of the AAML explains Facebook tops the list with 66% of the information coming from that networking site, according to their survey.  And last month a New Jersey pastor, with a Protestant church, was requiring all married church officials to delete their Facebook accounts because of marital troubles in his congregation. Other pastors were also interviewed for the same Associated Press story expressing concern over seeing marriage break-ups related to connections made with a previous love interest.

So indeed given the amazing outreach opportunity available to the Church through Facebook, it would be a huge loss to not take advantage of it.  Proceed the Church should as the Church exists to evangelize, but proceed into the Facebook frontier with caution.

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