08/01/2011 09:34 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2011

A Digital Strategy for American Catholic Dioceses

On Jan. 24, Michael Bloomberg hired Rachel Sterne, New York City's first Chief Digital Officer. It was an eye-catching move -- the first of its kind in the nation -- for a city government. In May Ms. Sterne, age 27, published the "Road Map for the Digital City," a plan for New York to become America's "top-ranked digital city," in the words of the mayor.

The plan involves public-private partnerships with city tech start-ups like Foursquare and Tumblr, increased internet access across the boroughs, a more intuitive and useful city web presence, and new uses for mobile, video, and social media. It positions New York City aggressively across the digital space, with Ms. Sterne as a sort of curator in order to be transparent, relevant, and responsive for the city's eight million citizens.

It is a position and plan equal to the challenge of integrating the two aspects of contemporary life -- our physical and digital spaces.

But for a variety of reasons, such coherent approaches to life in the digital age remain elusive, especially for major, culturally significant institutions. And among America's great institutions, the Catholic Church looms large as another arena for the reconciling of our physical and digital experiences. The American Catholic Church represents nearly a quarter of the population; some 68 million people across 18,000 parish churches within 195 dioceses in 50 states.

Catholics under 30, who embody the future of the Church, are true digital natives. They experience life in both the physical and digital space, with real world experiences like the Mass amplified across online profiles and communities, sparking curiosity and conversation among people who expect to be able to find answers (at least, orthodox clarity of information) as simply as they search for an address or pay a bill.

The digital life, in other words, impacts lines of thinking and personal formation. This leads to an inescapable conclusion: the Catholic Church is missing a tremendous opportunity.

The dioceses, and especially the major Archdioceses in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles -- the organs of the Church's unique central management -- have a chance to take a cue from New York City's hiring of Ms. Sterne to recruit "Directors of Digital Strategy" of their own.

Pope Benedict XVI has made the new evangelization a cornerstone of his papacy. This is the challenge of carrying the Gospel message with a new zeal and urgency to all people, everywhere. What simpler way to begin answering this call than to make the local Church relevant in the digital space -- the lives -- of her people?

Directors of Digital Strategy could develop coherent, custom plans of action, with clear lines of responsibility, and answer directly to the bishop, serving as a digital adviser. Parish churches, too, could recruit their own digital liaisons to take charge of online media, branding, access, and communication on a local level, working in tandem with the diocese strategist.

A pilot could be launched, with digital chiefs at a few core dioceses, taking advantage of the asymmetrical, low-cost/high-yield nature of digital solutions to enrich the experience of faith life beyond the pews.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in particular, represents an ideal proving ground for this concept. Charles Chaput, longtime Archbishop in Denver and author, will be taking over in Philadelphia in September. The city has been rocked in recent months by the simmering scandal of the sexual abuse crisis and its handling of accused priests, and the faithful are truly in need of leadership, not only about the state of their churches and their priests, but also on how to communicate their faith in dark times.

Like the citizens of New York City, Catholics in Philadelphia could benefit from a leader favoring a bold posture with new media, communication, and strategy. An initiative that employed cutting-edge solutions in exploring timeless spiritual issues would energize a new generation of parishioners.

The challenge has at least two parts. First, to engage Catholics beyond the Mass across relevant platforms, communicating the eternal message of the Church. Secondly, and critically with near-perilous internal and national economies, to do so at low cost while reaching more souls across diverse physical and digital communities.

Imagine: an Archbishop whose voice was a part of your Facebook feed. Who spoke through short behind-the-scenes videos and personal updates via Twitter. Who checked-in on Foursquare. Who live streamed and archived his Masses and homilies. Who had a public email address.

Or: Churches with their own curated Facebook pages. With Foursquare pages that rewarded frequent check-ins with a one-on-one dinner with the pastor. With short Kindle/iPad histories.

What happens (or doesn't happen) in one space impacts the other.

The challenge is really one of how to tell the story of the faithful, of the church's people in places like Philadelphia, and to produce and develop new digital offerings that can give cause for affection. This is the type of narrative transparency that builds reputational capital.

Catholics want the faith of their communities to shine, and their bishops and priests and schools to be meaningful parts of their lives and positive examples for others. The Catholic choir of community still sings. Like all choirs, it helps to have a director.

A digital strategist, and a roadmap strategy, are a smart way to seize a critical opportunity.