Monday, June 11, 2007

This is Not Your Father’s PowerPoint: Using Technology for Parish Formation

This extended version of an article by Diana Macalintal originally appeared in Today's Parish Minister, Vol. 39, No. 4, April/May 2007.

Don’t freak when I say that PowerPoint is passé. The bad news is that the one-way flow of information that presentation-based technologies embody, such as PowerPoint and static Web sites, has stagnated. The good news is that what people are doing with technology today is more intuitive and natural and doesn’t require you to download a manual or consult an animated paperclip in the corner of your monitor. The shift can be likened to a blackboard or your favorite hang out.

In “the old days” of the Internet, the World Wide Web was a place to gather information. An expert “out there” provided the data I needed. Just download the information, and go on your way. In church culture, it’s similar to the idea of memorize the correct answer, fulfill the required number of hours, and get your sacrament. Fast. Quick. Done.

In Web 2.0, the expert is a facilitator or conversation-starter who presents a question or issue, writes it down on a blackboard, and gives everyone a piece of chalk and an eraser. Everyone adds their own thoughts on the topic and shares their own experience, while the facilitator moderates the conversation. The group helps interpret, correct, and nuance the collective information. They verify theory against lived experience and challenge them when either falls short. There is informality in the interaction, as in intimate conversations with friends at the coffee shop, because the goal is not to download an answer from an expert but to discover the answer through full, conscious, and active participation in a group. Thus, a new kind of community is formed, creativity is fostered, conviction is expressed, and new thought and insight occur, gained through adult learning. This model of technology finds similarities in the catechumenal model of formation.

2.0 technology can be used for forming those directly involved in the parish, such as catechumens, sacramental preparation parents and candidates, liturgical ministers, parish staff and councils. These groups might use technology to stay connected in between gatherings or to enhance their face-to-face meetings. They could use it to share information, maintain a group calendar, keep common records, have access to shared files, and discuss issues relevant to the group’s purpose. They might also use technology to offer support to each other when they cannot be together in person.

Forming these persons requires not only sharing information but also engaging in conversation. One medium that facilitates this is a wiki, an easily editable website (“wiki” means “quick” in Hawaiian). Anyone who uses a word processing program, like Microsoft Word, can quickly add content to a wiki. Groups use wikis to collaborate on projects, participate in online discussions, share files, and learn from each other. Teachers have begun to use wikis in the classroom to enhance students’ learning and facilitate cooperation.

The difference between a wiki and a static Web site (where the content stays the same) is that not only can everyone read the content but they can also add, edit, and correct it. (Wikis can also be made private so only members can access and edit it.) Through a wiki, the group can continue a discussion after the parish meeting has ended, allowing people to participate according to their own schedule. It enables more even participation since no one person can dominate the conversation unless the other members refuse to participate. Wikis are great for introverts or those who process better through writing. See an excellent video defining wikis in plain English.

Giving up control of the content and letting the group drive the discussion require trust among all the members. Yet this is catechumenal at its core. This kind of sharing lets the group recognize the workings of God present in each person, respect diverse experiences, gently challenge each other, and help each other discern the movement of the Spirit.

You might also use other Internet-based sites, such as blogs or Web pages, to list resources where people can act upon their newly-discovered insight. For example, the parish Web site can list local organizations in need of volunteers. The parish blog can be where parishioners ask for prayers, share faith stories, or respond to a question of the week. The parish home page could have links for seasonal prayers, blessings, or recipes for families to use in their homes.

Technology can also enhance in-person gatherings. For example, a group can clarify its thoughts in a communal way by using a laptop and an LCD projector during a meeting. The facilitator or scribe can summarize each person’s comments which are projected on a wall. Not only does this allow for more careful discussion and group collaboration, but it also provides an immediate record of the discussion, saved into a word processing document or even directly onto the group’s wiki. Click here to see a video about this process.

However, don’t rely completely on Web sites and email for your technological approach to formation. Most young adults, especially those under age 25 communicate primarily using IM (instant messaging) and cell phone text messages. Imagine if each parish leader had a parish IM screen name that was publicized in the bulletin and parish Web site. Online IMs can then be used for quick messages among parish group members or for giving real-time assistance to those seeking a live person. Imagine if the pastor or youth minister sent short text messages, such as daily prayers or affirmations, to the cell phones of those in the youth group. Now that’s church spreading the word in a new way.

There’s a Twilight Zone episode about a factory manager who replaced his employees with machines until he himself was replaced by a robot. “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” exemplified the fear that technology would replace human interaction and eventually take over. Yet, in the very same year Rod Serling’s gloomy prophecy was aired, Vatican II promulgated Inter mirifica, the Decree on the Means of Social Communication (1963), stating: “The Church, our mother, is particularly interested in those [technical inventions] which directly touch [humanity’s] spirit and which have opened up new avenues of easy communication of all kinds of news, of ideas, and orientation. Chief among them are those means of communication which of their nature can reach and influence not merely single individuals but the very masses and even the whole of human society” (1).

Thirteen years later, Pope Paul VI would write that “the Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 45). The danger to the church lies not in technology but in not using it to its fullest to form God’s people. Web 2.0 has shown that technology can foster deeper human interaction and conversion to new ideas through wise use of social networking. If the church is to communicate God’s word to a generation that embraces virtual human interaction, it will have to dramatically strengthen both its approach to formation and its evangelization efforts beyond the parish walls, wisely utilizing the gifts of this new age.

Diana Macalintal is the director of worship for the San José diocese and holds an MA in theology from Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minn.