Internet

Reality keeps raising the April Fools' bar for all those online Catholic satirists

Day after day, Kevin Knight scans news and commentary pages looking for items that will interest Catholics and others who visit his New Advent website.

With its plain white background, stark graphics and columns of headlines, the site looks something like the powerful, secular Drudge Report. But New Advent focuses on church life and doctrine, not celebrity scandals and political horse races.

Knight does appreciate the occasional zinger. Still, he has learned to be extra careful when April 1 approaches. After all, the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a pope whose off-the-cuff remarks often puzzle the faithful. Oh, and Donald Trump is president of the United States.

"Yes, it has gotten harder to tell satire and hoaxes from the real thing," noted Knight. "It's getting more necessary to be explicit when linking to some stories -- especially when they deal with Pope Francis. … In the past two years, I've deliberately avoided linking to April Fools' stories for this very reason."

All savvy news consumers need to do to see what Knight is taking about is open an online search program and enter various religious terms and then the phrase "not the Onion," referring to The Onion, a secular satire site.

Take this headline, for example: "Muslim Schoolgirl Sent Home Because Her Skirt Was Too Long." That story is real.

Or how about this? "Pope Francis to make Martin Luther a Saint on October 31." That jest ran on April 1 on the "Liturgy: Service and Gratitude" site.

Consider this headline: "Jesuits to Admit Women to the Society."

Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Once upon a time, the average-sized American religious congregation had two telephones that really mattered.

There was the office telephone, answered by a secretary or receptionist during business hours. It was the job of this gatekeeper -- who over time became an expert on life in the flock -- to tell the shepherd which calls were urgent and which could wait.

The other telephone was at the pastor's home. Many people knew that number, but they also knew it was not business as usual to dial it.

"People knew they never should call the pastor's home number unless it was a real emergency," said the Rev. Karl Vaters, of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif. "There was a boundary there and people tried to help protect the pastor's time at home. That boundary was there to help protect his family and his ministry."

These days, both of those telephones, for all practical purposes, have been replaced by cellphones for the pastors and members of small congregations -- usually defined as those with under 200 people attending the main worship service. For most clergy, the cellphones in their pockets are always there, always vibrating to remind them of cares and concerns that rarely, if ever, go away.

It was the one-two punch of cellphones and email that first pulled clergy into the social-media age, followed by digital newsletters, Facebook pages and constantly changing congregational websites. Even in small churches, the work of the "church secretary" has evolved, from answering the office telephone and preparing an ink-on-paper newsletter to serving as an all-purpose online networker.

"The old boundaries are vanishing and, for pastors in some parts of the country, they're almost completely gone," said Vaters, reached by telephone.

Dark (porn) secrets in modern sanctuaries

At some point before 35-year-old Jesse Ryan Loskarn hanged himself in his parents' home outside Baltimore, he wrote a painful letter soaked in shame and self-loathing in which he attempted to explain the unexplainable. The former chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) had lived a secret life, hiding memories of child abuse and his addiction to child pornography. Even as U.S. Postal Inspection Service agents used a battering ram to enter his house, it appeared that he was trying to hide an external hard drive -- containing hundreds of videos -- on a ledge outside a window.

"Everyone wants to know why," he wrote, in a Jan. 23 letter posted online by Gay Loskarn, his mother.

"I've asked God. I've asked myself. I've talked with clergy and counselors and psychiatrists. I spent five days on suicide watch in the psychiatric ward at the D.C. jail, fixated on the 'why' and 'how' questions: why did I do this and how can I kill myself? ... There seem to be many answers and none at all."

Shock waves from these tragic events were still rippling through closed-door gatherings of Beltway insiders this week when the Rev. Jay Dennis came to Washington, D.C., for meetings linked to the Join One Million Men anti-pornography initiative approved last summer by the nearly 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. Associates who thought they knew Loskarn were, of course, shocked by the details of his terrible secrets.

"Secrets always have power. ... Here was a secret that literally put this man in chains," said Dennis, the veteran pastor at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Fla. "People are still grieving, of course. They are shocked and in a state of disbelief. ...

"When I read that letter, there were many words and phrases that sounded familiar. There are so many men in our churches that are having some of those same feelings of shame and guilt and hopelessness. They are suffering in silence and they're afraid to talk about what they are doing."

Obviously, he stressed, Loskarn's involvement with child pornography raised criminal issues that are far more serious than the lusts and lies that threaten relationships at the heart of many Christian marriages and homes. Any pastor who sees evidence of abuse and child pornography must immediately appeal to professional counselors and to legal authorities, he said.

In some cases, legal pornography can lead to sexual addictions that require professional intervention. Also, he said, clergy now work in an age in which many children are exposed to online pornography by the age of 10 or 11. Often the initial exposures occur accidentally, a form of digital abuse that can leave children shocked and ashamed and terrified to turn to anyone for help.

"What ties all of this together is silence," said Dennis. "We have resources to help people with these issues and those resources will only get better. .... But nothing really matters if our pastors and our people remain silent and refuse to take this issue seriously. At some point, we have to talk about pornography in our pulpits and pews."

Three years ago, a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 American pastors about the impact of pornography yielded one very disturbing statistic, he noted. While 69 percent of the pastors agreed that pornography has "adversely affected the lives of our church members," a solid majority -- 62 percent -- thought that 10 percent or less of the men in their flocks were exposed to pornography on a weekly basis.

"To be blunt, that number is too low to be real," said Dennis. "I'm convinced that some of our pastors are not facing the facts about the dark side of life in this day and age. ... There are men and women out there who are hiding dark secrets and they feel alone and afraid. "

Many, he said, would identify with key passages in the Loskarn letter.

Consider these words, for example: "Today the memories fly at me whenever they choose. They're the first thing I see when I wake and the last thing I think about before falling asleep. I am not in control of anything anymore, not even my own memories. It's terrifying. ... To those who choose to sever all ties with me, I don't blame you. No one wants to think or talk about this."

Culture wars in the App Store, part II

At first glance, the original rules written to govern the Apple App Store seem to be simple, logical and easy to enforce. After all, who wants one of the world's most powerful corporations to circulate digital forms of hate? Consider, for example, the guidelines governing "personal attacks" and "objectionable content."

The former rejects, "Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way." This does not apply to humorists and satirists, of course. The "objectionable content" rule forbids, "Apps that are primarily designed to upset or disgust users."

The section on "religion, culture, and ethnicity" offers another variation on this theme, stating: "Apps containing references or commentary about a religious, cultural or ethnic group that are defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence will be rejected."

The problem, of course, is that apps that gladden the hearts of gay mainline Protestants, Reform Jews and other doctrinal liberals will be deeply offensive to Southern Baptists, Orthodox Jews and other conservatives -- and vice versa. And one person's evangelism app may, by its very existence, be seen by those in other faiths as a tool for spiritual violence.

The bottom line: It's hard to produce products built on religious doctrine without offending someone. So do Apple leaders ban all of them or listen only to the religious voices they find the most sympathetic?

In recent years, media leaders have "increasingly bought into the idea of minimizing content that they view as potentially offensive," said Quentin Schultze of Calvin College, a media scholar who has been studying online religion for two decades.

"The larger and more influential the media outlets, the more likely they are to want to take the edges off, because they have the most to lose. ... It's the unique, unusual minority points of view that will keep getting clipped off, of course."

Back in the early 1990s, when Web browsers and email were foreign terms to ordinary Americans, Schultze began exploring the implications of online discourse and publishing for religious believers and their institutions. Soon this led to his trailblazing "The Internet for Christians" website -- a weblog-style project years before that term was coined -- and then a 1995 book with the same title.

The key, Schultze said during those heady days, was that the lower costs and accessibility of World Wide Web publishing would create a "somewhat level playing floor" allowing small, innovative ministries to compete, or cooperate, with larger religious institutions. During times of turmoil, for example, a dissident religious group's online publication could publish information and viewpoints that would be ignored in a major denomination's traditional ink-on-paper newspaper or by secular newspapers.

"Clearly, the Net is becoming a place for religious discourse that is being ignored in public media and isn't being allowed in the sanitized world of official church publications," he told me, in an "On Religion" column interview in 1996.

Decades later, it's hard to imagine what the marketplace of religious ideas and debates with be like without the legions of alternative voices and viewpoints found in the global religious blogosphere and in social media.

The problem, said Schultze, is that if powerful digital corporations -- think Apple, Google and Facebook -- insist on pushing religious voices out of the mainstream public square, the online result will almost certainly be even more strident rhetoric and propaganda on the fringes of public life.

"The wild, wild west of the Internet is still out there, but all too often what's being said out there is very narrow and self-fulfilling. That's where you have websites that just keep telling small groups of people want they want to hear, over and over, with little or no contact with other groups and other points of view," he said.

"But when the leaders of Apple endorse something, or reject something else, they are primarily worried about how that action will affect the reputation of their corporation, not whether their decision promotes a healthy diversity in our public discourse."

In tense atmosphere, he added, religion is a uniquely dangerous subject.

"The passion and the commitment that religious believers bring with them into public discourse is precisely what makes this subject seem so flammable and threatening and dangerous to people in places like Apple."

Culture wars in the App Store (and what they mean)

In a career packed with sound bites, the late Steve Jobs offered one of his best when describing his vision for a family-friendly Apple App Store. "We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone," he famously responded, in an email to a customer. "Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone."

This stance was clear, but hard to apply in the flood of information and images on the World Wide Web. After all, many consumers are very easy to offend, when hot buttons get pushed. What about that Playboy app, which was accepted?

In the introduction to the App Store guidelines, which many observers believed were written by Jobs, it's clear where Apple executives expected to encounter trouble -- sex and religion.

"If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app," stated this 2010 document. "We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, 'I'll know it when I see it.' "

Sex is sex, but many consumers are just as offended by religious views they consider dangerous or judgmental. Mix sex and religion and Apple team really gets nervous.

Brian Pellot, a London-based reporter on religion-liberty issues, recently dug into App Store history and produced a list of symbolic faith-based products rejected by Apple.

"I basically just searched around until I came up with five that were somewhat relevant to religion," he said, via email. "I think a lot of these were flagged because of perceived or feared offense. Not so much because they had to do with religion but because Apple doesn't want to upset users."

It doesn't help, he added, that it's "easier for people to pick fights behind the online mask of anonymity."

In his Religion News Service essay, Pellot focused on these apps:

* "Me So Holy," which allowed "users to paste their faces onto the bodies of religious figures including nuns, priests and Jesus."

* The "Jew or Not Jew?" app helped users investigate Jewish celebrities.

* 3. The "iSlam Muhammad" app pointed readers toward "violent and hateful" Quran passages that "encourage Muslims to attack and behead anyone who does not agree with them." Apple accepted some apps that "ridicule other religious texts, including the Bible," noted Pellot.

* An app from the "ex-gay" ministry Exodus International was removed after protests from gay-rights organizations.

* The Manhattan Declaration app promoted the work of those affirming the "sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife." It also was deemed offensive by gay-rights groups.

This latter decision was especially aggravating to leaders of traditional religious groups -- Protestant, Catholic and Jewish -- active in the drafting of the online manifesto.

"Apple is, obviously, a private company with the right to allow or disallow any apps it wants," said Russell Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

"The exclusion of the Manhattan Declaration app is troubling because it signals one more example of a cultural marginalization of the expression of belief held by those of various faith traditions. ... The freedom of consumers to download an app obviously doesn't imply endorsement of a viewpoint by Apple, so why exclude this one?"

It's crucial to understand that Apple and many other digital trailblazers have evolved into corporate giants guided by lawyers and public-affairs consultants armed with opinion polls and market surveys, said George Gilder, author of digital-culture works such as "Telecosm: The World After Bandwidth Abundance" and "The Silicon Eye: Microchip Swashbucklers and the Future of High-Tech Innovation."

"All such institutions respond abjectly to intimidation" and that is especially true when they encounter issues as politically volatile as homosexuality and radicalized forms of Islam, he said. Also, when it comes to offending elite digital executives, some voices are more offensive than others.

Thus, the "wimps in Silicon Valley" are often quick to pull religious material that will cause controversy in their own cultural circles, he said.

"It's pretty pathetic but it is just the way it is," said Gilder. "It's good news for smaller companies, though."

NEXT WEEK: Are religious debates being driven from the digital mainstream?

Talking to real, live 'Nones'

Like many computer pros whose lives revolve around the Internet, Marc Yoder eventually created a weblog in which to share his views on life, technology, faith and other cultural issues that happened to cross his path. His "Marc5Solas" site -- the musings of a self-proclaimed "nobody from nowhere" -- drew a quiet hundred readers a week.

Then the 42-year-old Yoder wrote his "Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church" post, based on dozens of face-to-face conversations with college students and 20-something agnostics and atheists in San Antonio. He offered them coffee, the occasional lunch and a chance to vent. They did just that.

"We all know them, the kids who were raised in church. They were stars of the youth group. They maybe even sang in the praise band or led worship," noted Yoder.

Then they vanish. About 70 percent slip away somewhere between high school, college and the office, according to researchers. How many return?

"Half. Let that sink in," noted Yoder. "There's no easy way to say this: The American Evangelical church has lost, is losing and will almost certainly continue to lose OUR YOUTH."

Before he knew it, 500,000-plus people had visited the website and his manifesto went viral on Twitter and other social-media platforms. Then the agonized digital epistles began arriving. A few religious leaders started looking for the man behind the brash post.

"There was lots of church bashing, but I expected that," said Yoder, reached by telephone. What hit him hard were the "worried voices" of "people concerned that something fundamental had gone wrong in modern churches and they couldn't put their finger on what that something was," he said.

What Yoder had done was tap into one of 2012's hottest cultural trends, which was the rise of the "religiously unaffiliated" -- the so-called "nones." The key numbers emerged from research backed by the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The study's findings have loomed over a variety of news events in recent months, from debates about gay marriage to the challenges facing a new pope. The key facts: One-fifth of the U.S. public -- and a third of adults under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated. The ranks of the unaffiliated have risen, in only five years, from about 15 percent of American adults to nearly 20 percent. This trend appears to be accelerating.

What is happening with the dropouts? Among Yoder's blunt observations:

* Churches offering the atmosphere of Starbucks/Dave & Buster's "knockoffs" are no longer cool for the young. "Our kids meet the real world and our 'look, we're cool like you' posing is mocked. ... The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn't relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn't matter. ... The minute you aim to be 'authentic,' you're no longer authentic."

* Many young people have never been to a real church, since they were raised in multi-media nurseries and then taken into hip church services built around jumbo video screens and rock bands. "They've never sat on a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank," he argued. In short, many have never seen faith applied to the full timeline of real life.

* Rather than teaching tough truths about tough issues, many religious leaders now sell a faith rooted in emotions and pragmatism. "Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we've given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn't catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals, ... we're simply encouraging them to 'be nice' and 'love Jesus'," he said.

* Young people are also supposed to be winners all the time and there is little room for "depression, or struggle, or doubt" in many big churches, argued Yoder. The bottom like: "Turn that frown upside down or move along."

It's hard to talk about sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness in that kind of happy-talk environment. Far too many of what Yoder called the "big box" churches are not the kinds of places in which young believers learn to wrestle with the timeless tragedies and modern temptations of life.

"The church," he said, "is simply a place to learn life-application principles to achieve a better life. ... You don't need a crucified Jesus for that."

The pope, Twitter and what comes next

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would surrender St. Peter's throne, messages stopped flowing to the 1.5 million or so readers following his newborn @Pontifex feed at Twitter. This wasn't surprising since the 85-year-old theologian -- bookish and reserved, by nature -- cited his deteriorating health and declining energy as reasons to let a new pope wrestle with a world "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."

Twitter certainly is a barometer for change and a forum for questions. While the pope fell silent, the hashtag #askpontifex remained open and the questions and comments continued to build up. Here are a few typical mini-rants in English.

"Latin is a dead language. Latin is the language of the Dead," thundered "MichelArchange," linking to "#pope," "#bishops," "#vatican," "#hypocrits" and "#liars," among others.

"So, if i have sex before a child molester blesses my union, hell awaits me?", asked "BS Radar."

"We all feel abandoned by your abdication," tweeted "Geeky Catholic."

"Did central Italian bank or someone else forced you to abdicate?", asked "Patlatus."

Benedict XVI and his team eventually returned to Twitter, with his first new tweet focusing on spiritual growth during the sobering season that precedes Easter and, this year, a papal election: "During the season of Lent ... we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives."

When @Pontifex opened, on Dec. 12, Vatican officials stressed that while Benedict XVI would not be handling the technology for tweets, the content would come from him. Still, no one addressed a key issue -- whether the elderly pope would be interacting with real messages, in real time, from real Twitter users.

If he did, this blast from cyberspace must have been a shock, noted Elizabeth Scalia, a Catholic blogger known as "The Anchoress." While some might consider the thought absurd, she also wondered if the pope's exposure to online life added a digital last straw to his already heavy burdens.

"When Benedict finally logged on to Twitter he got to see firsthand the sort of raw, unhinged anti-Catholic hatred so active within social media threads," she said, in an online essay. "We who work in new media experience this hatred so regularly it barely registers with us, but for Benedict, or those around him, it must have been a shocking revelation to encounter the vilest expressions of hatred, the intentional voicings of malice and evil hopes, flung squarely at the Holy Father, in real time."

Much of this venom directed at the church, she wrote, "has been inspired (and earned) by the deplorable scandals of the past decades (for which we are due a long season of penance)." But much of the anger also stems from the church's refusal to compromise in the public square, where its ancient traditions serve as a "sign of contradiction" to modernists.

Catholics are bitterly divided, as well, as anyone can see by scanning #askpontifex for a minute or two.

"I wonder if our sensitive pope looked into the abyss of pain, screaming hatred and ignorance so easily accessed by just a few clicks of a keyboard, and felt called to humility and prayer -- a full renunciation of everything in the world, including earthly power and communion with the faithful -- in reparation, penance," Scalia observed.

The pope will soon settle into a monastic life inside the Vatican walls to read, to write and to pray. The status of the Twitter account @Pontifex -- Latin for "bridge builder" -- is unknown.

If Benedict XVI plunges into a monastic life of prayer then he will not "retire" at all, stressed Scalia. No one who has studied his life truly believes he is walking away from the papacy in order to relax in a library or play Mozart on his piano.

"During his entire priesthood, the man has not shaken off duties and burdens, but consented to carry more and more. This is who he is," she said. "Increasingly, I believe Benedict's resignation, rather than releasing himself from a heavy weight, is necessary so he may take on something much more cumbersome."

The evidence, Scalia concluded, is that he will be "doing penance for the church, and for the world -- for those of us who cannot or will not do it, ourselves."

Churches ignoring the digital playground

GILFORD, N.H. -- Everywhere computer professional Brian Heil looked at SoulFest 2011 he saw packs of young people trying to stay on schedule as they rushed from one rock concert, workshop or prayer meeting to another. But first, there was one more text to send, one more Twitter tweet to tweet, one more Facebook status to update, one more snapshot to share, one more YouTube video to upload, just one more connection to make in the digital world that now shapes real life.

This year's four-day festival drew nearly 13,000 Protestants and Catholics from throughout New England, which means there were about that many cellphones, smartphones, tablets and other digital devices on hand. The screens glowed like fireflies in the crowds that gathered for the rock concerts each night on the lower slopes of the Gunstock Mountain Resort.

"Everyone's connected everywhere. It's continuous. This is how our young people experience life today," said Heil, during his "Protecting the Playground" workshop for parents and youth leaders at SoulFest. "They don't even look at the keys on their phones anymore when texting. ...

"Lots of kids are more comfortable texting than they are talking and having real relationships. They have trouble with face-to-face intimacy because they're so used to living their lives online and in text messages. Texting feels safer."

But the harsh reality is that the digital world is not safer, stressed the 52-year-old Heil, who has a quarter of a century of experience as digital networker and designer. While many pastors and parents have heard horror stories about children straying into dark corners online, few are aware of just how common these problems have become -- even in their sanctuaries and homes.

This is the kind of danger and sin that religious leaders often fear discussing, precisely because these realities have not remained bottled up in the secular world. Thus, Heil urged his listeners to ponder the following statistics in his presentation, drawn from mainstream research in the past year:

* Two-thirds of Americans under the age of 18 have reported some kind of negative experience while online. Only 45 percent of their parents are aware of this.

* Forty-one percent of children say they have been approached online by some kind of stranger, possibly an older predator.

* At least 25 percent of children report having seen nude or disturbingly violent images online. Heil is convinced this number has risen to 45 percent in the past year or so. The vast majority of children exposed to pornography first see these images on a computer in their own home.

"This is why, if I could convince parents to make one change in their homes, it would be to never put a computer behind a closed door. ... Keep them out in an open part of the house," he said.

* Among teens, 45 percent report having sent or received a sexual text message of some kind. One in five say they have sent or received a nude or partially nude image, the phenomenon that has become known as "sexting."

* Among teens with Internet access, 40 percent say they have been affected by cyberbullying activities, such as malicious changes being made to their Facebook pages after the theft of passwords.

"There are Christian kids doing this," said Heil, talking about various forms of cyberbullying. "Young people just go online and they open up. Things get emotional and they share what's on their hearts. They just can't help it. Then, before they know it, things can get mean and kids get hurt."

Meanwhile, he said, it's getting harder for adults to monitor what's happening in this "dark alley," in large part because young people are so much more skilled at social media than the adults who are paying for all of those smartphones and laptops. Many adults also fear legal complications if they try to trace their children's steps online. Some church leaders -- with good cause -- fear getting involved in social media and having the young misinterpret their motives.

Apathy is not the answer, however, since children are getting hurt.

"It's hard to do happy talk about this issue," Heil admitted. "It's painful and it's hidden and it's dark stuff. ... This is a test of whether our relationships really mean anything in the church today, whether there is such a thing as accountability."

Churches late to Facebook party?

A mere three years ago, Diana Davis published a hands-on book for church leaders entitled "Fresh Ideas For Women's Ministry." When flipping through its pages, she said, one of the first things she notices is a missing word -- Facebook. She needs to rewrite the whole book to cover this reality gap.

"That obvious, isn't it? It's so obvious that we ought to be using Facebook to tell more women about our Bible studies and prayer groups and retreats and things like that," said Davis, who has been married to a Southern Baptist pastor and administrator for nearly four decades, working in Texas and Indiana.

This connection is certainly obvious in America's megachurch subculture and the digital-media pros and market-research consultants who serve it. Davis, however, has focused most of her attention as a speaker and writer on churches that occupy corners in ordinary neighborhoods, not the giant sanctuaries that resemble shopping malls.

Lots of churches, she noted, don't even have solid websites. Facebook? Isn't it that computer thing all the teens use to waste time?

"Many small churches, or even our medium-sized churches, have nothing -- nothing," she said. "There are people who still do not realize that if you're not online, or if you are not on Facebook, you do not exist for lots of people today. Your church simply does not exist."

The disconnected leaders of these churches should start doing the math, she argued, in a Baptist Press essay offering advice to those who have remained unplugged from Facebook.

First, pastors should request "a show of hands to find out how many church members use Facebook," she said. "The average Facebook user has 130 registered 'friends,' so if just 20 church members use Facebook, that's potentially 2,600 people who could read posts about your church. One hundred members with Facebook could touch 13,000. ... Convinced?"

Once they recognize the potential, religious leaders must learn how to handle life in the parallel universe of social networking. Here are some key rules drawn from work Davis has done with church leaders who have taken their knocks.

* It's crucial to understand the differences between websites, which users enter on their own seeking information, and Facebook pages, which -- through "friends" links -- can send semi-invited messages into someone's personal "News Feed."

"With Facebook," she explained, "you're sending messages to your members, but you're also sending messages to their friends and then, potentially, to their friends and on and on. So it's more aggressive, in a way. You're on offense, not defense."

* Newcomers should proceed with caution in this casual, yet intense medium. Clergy, she said, "know they have to think before they speak. Now they're learning that they have to think before they click. ... For example, pastors are supposed to use the language well. But if you put something on Facebook that has two or three misspelled words in it people are going to think that you don't know what you're talking about."

* It's important to keep messages short, positive and audience appropriate. Facebook, she said, "is a good place to send out a prayer request, but it's not the place to share details of someone's surgery. This is not the place to talk about the fine details of your church's finances."

* Know that even simple amateur videos can help. For example, senior adults are more likely to feel comfortable visiting an exercise class if they can watch a short video showing others taking part. It helps to show newcomers what your flock is doing.

* Social networks cannot replace the human touch of true human networks. Facebook posts cannot replace a covered-dish supper, but they can help bring more dishes and people through the church door.

For example, as soon as news reports began about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Davis said her own church rushed out a message urging members and their friends to attend a prayer event. Then volunteers sent the message to other churches and their small-group networks. In short, the invitation "went viral" at the local level.

The result: Instant prayer service.

"That message went all over the place," she said. "We could have never done that by telephone -- that fast, to that many people outside our church. People came from everywhere. ...

"This is real. This is something that more churches just have to try."