OLEAN — Sixty-eight-year-old Beverly Geise, clutching her tablet after a Saturday afternoon mass, walked up to a St. Mary of the Angels Church worker donned in a bright green t-shirt that read, “I’m not texting, I’m praying.”
Whereas using cell phones or tablets in churches is normally taboo, St. Mary’s encouraged it that day to teach its older generation how to download its new app and convince its younger and more tech savvy parishioners that the app is a worthwhile use of their storage.
For Geise, she’s happy the app will let her keep up with St. Mary’s the other six days of the week she’s not in Mass, as well as the other six months of the year she lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“This way we know what’s going on in our local parish,” she said. “That’s the way of life now is technology. If you don’t have it, you’re gonna be out in the field some place.”
St. Mary’s launched its own app for mobile devices this weekend. The free app will keep followers up to date on parish news like upcoming events and Mass time changes from their phones, as well help them practice their faith away from the church through daily mass readings and audio of homilies. There’s even a notification to remind users of their next confession.
“Being Catholic is not just a label. It’s a lifestyle,” said Jennifer Kane, communication director for St. Mary’s. “It’s just another little tool that we’re offering to help you be in touch with that lifestyle.”
And St. Mary’s isn’t the only church with its own app. At least four Catholic parishes in nearby Allegany County have their own app.
They’re part of a growing number of churches using the technology. Just MyParish App alone, which St. Mary’s new app is based out of, is being used by approximately 1,500 Catholic churches across the United States and United Kingdom and has been downloaded 50,000 to 100,000 times, according to the Google Play Store.
There are several other Catholic apps on the market to download, like prayer apps that provide readings and apps that assist those apprehensive about confession. There’s even something that helps track Pope Francis, who launched his own app, Missio, in 2013.
“Technology has improved tremendously to help with all this software,” Kane said. “And so the church has picked up on this, from the Vatican to the national level with the bishops to diocesan level to now to the parish level.”
While it may seem odd for churches — typically thought of as behind on the times — to launch apps, religious organizations have actually been among the first adopters of new technology, said Dr. Karen North, University of Southern California communication professor and director of the school’s Digital Social Media program.
“You think that religion would be so old fashioned and so old school that it would be the last to the table, when in fact it’s one of the first and has been since the time of the printing press and probably before,” she said.
Whereas it was printed Bibles or televangelism before, apps and other digital media are the “obvious next steps” for religious leaders, North said. Churches have identified digital media as a way to connect spiritually with followers, whether through sharing videos of masses and pilgrimages for those who cannot be present, or tweeting out Bible verses. Pope Francis himself has 9.6 million Twitter followers — as well as his own set of emojis.
“If you think about especially fundamentalist Christians and the mandate to share their views because that’s how you save people’s souls, then any way you can reach more people more easily is something that would be ‘helping you do the work of God,’” North said. “And digital technology is shockingly helpful in that way.”
But it’s not just Catholics and other Christians taking advantage of the technology. North said the Dalai Lama, who has 12.9 million Twitter followers, was very early to digital technology to share his perspectives; and that Jews have tweeted videos at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for others who cannot make the pilgrimage themselves.
“If you’re running a church … and then you look out and they’re all playing Pokemon Go and they’re all reading the news on Snapchat and they’re all texting each other even though they’re standing near each other, then you have to say to yourself, ‘How do I want to reach them?’ Well, how do you reach somebody? Go to where they are, don’t expect them to come to you,” North said.
“So churches, which traditionally have expected people to come to them, are now thinking to themselves: Maybe we need to reach people where they are. And where are they? They’re on mobile devices, and they’re reachable on mobile devices.”
For St. Mary’s, which had 200 people download its app amongst its 1,350 families this past weekend, it’s about following its parishioners out of the church and to where they already spend so much of their lives: on their phones.
“These mobile digital media devices are personal to people,” Kane said. “And we are taking space in that personal arena of communication that they’re already engaged in.”
Kane has been closely following church apps for the last four years and even started her own website, CatholicApptitude.org, which blogs about and catalogs Catholic apps. It’s now one of the top websites doing so and already has 60,000 visitors so far this year.
She said the printed church bulletin, which many churches still use as their primary form of media, only carries “so much weight.” The bulletin can’t play audio or share a photo album of St. Mary’s parishioners in Poland for World Youth Day. Diocesan Publications, which produces St. Mary’s bulletin, actually gave it access to MyParish App for free.
The app also allows the church to stay current with news. With the bulletin, which must be printed several days before it goes out, the church could miss sharing its concern about major world events, like the string of terrorist attacks across the world this year. Of course, the app is also about staying connected with and appealing to young people.
Millennials are collectively less religious than their elders, with just 27 percent attending religious services on a weekly basis, according to a 2014 survey of 35,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center. Digital media may just be a way for the churches to gain back young people’s interest.
“They look out and they see that the same people who came to church 15, 20 years ago, are still in the church and their children or grandchildren are not coming to church as often,” North said. “Yes, absolutely it's about reaching a younger generation.”
Clarice Ambroselli is a junior at St. Bonaventure University and an intern for St. Mary’s who helped parishioners download the app after Mass Saturday. While she’s downloaded the app — she sings for the church and wants to be aware of changing Mass times — she’s not sure how many of her peers will.
“I definitely saw who I was helping was more of the older generation,” Ambroselli said, adding that she assumes the younger generations can simply do it on their own. “I’m not sure if that shows the correlation between the older generation and the church and the lack of that between the younger generation and the church, but one of the main hopes is that this app will draw that younger generation into the church by giving us an outlet in the form of technology.”
The Rev. Greg Dobson, St. Mary’s pastor, said it’s crucial for the church to reconnect with its younger parishioners when they return from college during winter, spring and summer breaks. The app will increase the chances of that happening by keeping them in touch during the semester.
Dobson has seen technology change things for priests. More and more are using tablets to read aloud the Scriptures at Mass, weddings and funerals, he said, rather than a physical book.
Yet Dobson said he doesn’t see churches and religion itself becoming all digital or some kind of virtual reality, as it is still a personal thing.
“Just like a rock concert is not going to change, people need to get to together and there’s an experience in the community of gathering together,” Dobson said. “A virtual funeral is not the same as being there, or being at a friend’s wedding.”
But North thinks the whole reason churches are using technology is to be more personal in the lives of their followers. She said churches are using the same technique used by the Kardashians — sort of.
“People are like, ‘Why are the Kardashians famous? It makes no sense at all, right?’ But part of it is that they got a little bit rich and famous and then they let everybody be voyeuristic and view into their life and feel like they have a personal connection with them,” North said. “So to an extent, churches can do the same thing and make a personal relationship. ... A church can now create a personal relationship with a worshiper by connecting with them through digital media, sending them images, sending them thoughts, sharing personal, in-depth church moments with them even though they’re not there.
“It’s very smart.”
For Geise, who was baptised and married at St. Mary’s, she’s just happy apps and new technology will keep her in contact with her church. She’s recently had two clear CT scans after her doctor found a small amount of cancer in her lungs last year, and thinks having the app during that time would have helped her through it.
“With the prayer and readings and stuff like that that’s available now, it would have been a real nice little crutch,” she said.
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)