Ancient tradition and modern communication appeared to work together when the new pope was elected in Rome this month.  According to tradition, white smoke signalled that a new pontiff had been selected. Shortly afterwards, the papal twitter account (which had been eerily quiet over the previous two weeks) announced to the faithful: “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM” – or “We have Pope Francis”.

The capital letters may have captured the excitement of the occasion, but they also struck a gauche note on Twitter, especially in contrast to the earlier silence. Like other religions, the Catholic Church sometimes looks like it just doesn’t get new media.

In today’s wired world, we are online in our work lives, our social lives, and also in or spiritual lives, but most institutional religions are struggling to keep up with this shift, and everything it represents. The Vatican may run a magnificent website, but it has never adapted to the deeper transformation in online culture. Instead, it has always used media – whether print, television, the radio or the internet – to communicate to the masses in a one-to-many fashion.

Even the much-discussed Papal Twitter account, which was only launched three months ago, has yet to reach its full potential. The Church has used the web, social media and other new forms of online interaction as tools for traditional communication, rather than real engagement with its followers.

With a “business as usual” approach, the Church (and others) has failed to recognize the radically different way people interact online. The phenomenon known as Web 2.0 means that people are both consumers and producers of information, not just passive recipients. This has a significant impact on how people engage with their faith online—and engage they do (the most recent Pew survey found that 64% of wired Americans had used the Internet for religious or spiritual purposes).

The development of the Internet, which has significantly changed social norms, may represent one of the greatest challenges to the Church. On the most obvious level, the Internet has drastically altered the way people seek information about religion. On another level, it has affected how people view and interact with religious authorities, how they interpret rules and dogmas, how they develop and maintain religious social networks, and even how they participate in ritual activities and view the sacred.

For good or bad, our social world is being rapidly transformed by new media.  For religion to remain relevant in a wired world it must connect with people the same way they now connect with each other.

Author: Christopher Helland is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at Dalhousie University in Canada; and member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith

Image: The Vatican’s Twitter account is seen on a smart phone REUTERS/Max Rossi