Here are two, simple, practical, totally doable things that the Vatican (or somebody) could do right now. And they would make a tangible, real and significant impact in the Church's evangelization efforts online, almost immediately.
We're often looking for the Church to do flashy, obvious, big, grandiose things in regard to its use of technology. We need that, too. But there are more effective things they can be doing which more directly accomplish the mission of the Church. And most of us wouldn't even see or know about them. In fact, the Vatican may already be doing these things behind the scenes (which would be beyond sweet). However, I'm pretty sure they aren't. But they (or somebody with the resources and mind of the Church) should be.
These aren't novel ideas, either. Lots of other faith groups — and every major brand in the world — are already doing these things. They are simple and they work.
The first has to do with search engine results. The world is filled with people who have questions. The Church has answers. The challenge of the Church has always been connecting the two together. Well it just so happens that billions of questions are asked every day on one, little ol' website whose primary purpose is to provide the "best" results/answers from the entire internet to people who are looking for them:
As I (and many others) have pointed out before, the Church does terribly in its search rankings for key terms/questions being asked. Embarrassingly so. But the answer is probably not what you are thinking. We don't just want a Vatican website showing up for every search result. That's good, too. But it's not necessarily the goal. The goal is to make sure people get great answers to their questions. St. Augustine said three aims of rhetoric are to "teach, delight and persuade."
Well, guess what, depending on where somebody is in their faith journey, they may or may not find Vatican documents very persuasive or delightful at all. I know we're a universal Church, so it's tempting to always think in terms of solutions that will work for absolutely everyone (so we don't leave anyone out!). But always trying to come up with one-size-fits-all kinds of solutions that work for everyone often end up leaving everybody out. And most answers that are generalized and universalized for broad audiences are usually the least effective at persuading people. I think 1000 different people are much more likely to get their questions answered persuasively by 1000 different bloggers who can translate the questions and answers through their unique lens and relationships, rather than from one central, universal resource. It's just like in the off-line world. Most evangelization, while it's helped by universal resources, is primarily done in the give and take of *personal* relationships. We have to start realizing that the web is no different. Personalism applies here, too.
For a particular truth, what will persuade a 15 year-old male from a single-parent household who grew up with Lady Gaga on his New York City bedroom wall will not be the same thing that persuades a 40 year-old wife and mom raising three kids in the rural hills of Spain.
The beauty of the web is that what *is* uniquely persuasive to each of these folks is probably already on the web. They just haven't found it yet.
The solution is to help them find it. And it's not rocket science, it's search engine science. And the beauty is that the technology already exists and people don't even have to know about us in order for us to help them find it.
What the Church needs to do is put together a team of people that finds great content on the web, matches it specifically to what demographic finds it most persuasive, and then offers free consulting and help to the content owner that gets their content ranked properly. There is already excellent Catholic answers to Catholic questions all over the web. It's just that most of the folks with the answers don't know much about engineering a website or search engine optimization. Let's help them.
And then the next time that 15 year-old in NYC asks an important question in a search engine, he will get a really great Catholic answer that teaches, delights and persuades him. And the next time the mother from Spain does the same thing, she'll get an equally, but different, result that teaches, delights and persuades her.
The second thing they should do is to employ and deploy digital missionaries. For thousands of years the Church has inspired, sponsored and sent out missionaries to every continent. It's time to apply that concept to the digital continent. Mormons and other faiths already do this, by the way.
It's pretty simple. Recruit smart and capable people, train them, support them - just like you would any other missionary. The only difference here is that these missionaries are digital pioneers, wading through social networks, connecting with folks in comboxes, developing real relationships in online forums, being online witnesses of our faith and helping those in need to find the help they require. There are millions of people asking questions online right now, let's go out and find them and make sure they get a good answer. And let's do it as a Church in a big, serious way.
One caveat to both of these ideas is that, while they ideally would be backed and supported from the Vatican, they should be operated at a local level. The teams executing these projects would have to be entrenched and a part of the culture within which they are working. And you would ideally start with one regional experiment, learn some lessons and then uniquely apply it to other parts of the world in a similar way.
The Church has never sat back and expected folks to just show up at our holy sites. Why then do we expect them to just show up at our websites? We have always gone out and met them where they already were and invited them to something deeper. We need to think differently about how we can do that in creative ways that solve the unique challenges of our Church.
But, again, both of the ideas proposed here are neither new, nor unique. They are being used by lots of organizations in the world already because they work. We just need to do them with the full weight and resource of the organized Church. It's true that each of us could do these individually on our own. We should. But the power of an organized effort would maximize results. And would probably cost a lot less than the money already being spent on a lot of other less effective efforts right now in the Church. These approaches just aren't as glorious or glamorous and most people would probably never know about them. But that's not why we'd be doing them. We'd be doing them — and we should do them — because they will magnificently contribute to the mission of the Church.