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Evangelizing a Digital World

How Churches Can Communicate With Youth Today

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 30, 2007 (Zenit) - Passing on the faith to the next generation is harder than ever in a world that is more and more secularized. A recent book offers recommendations on how to get the message across to a new mentality strongly influenced by changes in media technology.

"Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in Their 20s and 30s," published by Paulist Press, is written by Mike Hayes, associate director of Paulist Young Adult Ministries. In the introduction, Hayes explains that while some had doubted if young people were religious at all, there is a religious awakening among at least some youth.

Hayes provides an interesting examination of young people in the United States, with many points worth reflecting on. His book is also useful for the tips it offers on how to use the Internet and other media to communicate.

A limitation that does need to be noted, however, is his superficial rejection of what he characterizes as overly orthodox Catholic groups. His cursory dismissal of these groups in a few of the book's passages offers an incomplete vision of the very real benefits, and considerable success, they are having among young people.

Young Catholics in the United States, Hayes notes, live in a time of revolutionary technological changes, uncertainty about the future, and a desire for instant gratification. Regarding communications, Hayes comments that many young adults are subject to an information overload. In the midst of the competing claims for attention, it is difficult for the Church to make its message heard, or to know how to adapt to changes in mentality.

He distinguishes between Generation X, born between the years 1964 to 1979, and the Millennials, born from 1980 onward. The former, he argues, tend to view the world in a more pluralistic and explorative manner. The latter are looking for something solid to base their lives on. Nevertheless, Hayes warns against reading too much into generalizations, as there are many differences within each generation.

Search for the sacred

One thing the two generations have in common is a desire for contemplation and a liturgy that provides a sense of mystery and sacredness. For example, Hayes notes the renewal of interest in Eucharistic adoration and some forms of contemplative prayer.

"In a world where life seems very fleeting, young adults search for things they can depend on, things that have stood the test of time, things they regard as true, and things that are greater than themselves," Hayes explains.

The creation of a spirit of community through liturgy is also a point of attraction particularly for Generation X, who in many cases have experienced a lack of family bonds, due either to divorce or to being in a household where both parents work.

There are, however, also many young people who are not active in their faith. Large numbers have received little formation in their faith, others are caught up in the demands of work and family life, and some prefer a private form of spirituality, outside of participation in formal Church-based activities.

Many of those who are not regulars at church will, however, come into some contact at critical moments such as marriage, the death of family members or friends, and times of personal crisis. Hayes recommends using these opportunities to reach out to young people.

As well as more tried and true methods such as Eucharistic adoration, the rosary and Mass, Hayes also devotes a section of the book to explaining how to use modern media. We need to make better use of Web sites, e-mail newsletters, blogs and other ways to reach out to young people, he recommends.

Virtual efforts

Churches are indeed active in using the latest media technology to evangelize. Prior to the recent visit by Benedict XVI to Austria, the Archdiocese of Vienna provided a free service via mobile phone offering excerpts of the Pope's sermons and writings, the Associated Press reported July 30.

On Sept. 21, the London-based Times newspaper reported that the Churches' Advertising Network bought an island in the popular Internet site Second Life.

The virtual island is constructed as a replica of life in first-century Palestine. The aim is for it to become a center for religion on Second Life.

Then, on Sept. 25, the Washington Post reported that last year, churches in the United States spent $8.1 billion on audio and projection equipment. Around 80% of churches apparently have elaborate video and audio systems, together with a variety of online materials.

The article cited a report by TFCinfo, a Texas-based audiovisual market research firm, according to which 60% of churches have a Web site, and more than half send e-mails to their members. Other means now increasingly used include podcasts and text messages.

A number of services are already available for the Bible, and on Oct. 2, the BBC reported on one of the latest, called Ecumen, that will deliver daily prayers, ring tones and photos to mobile phones.

The more recent phenomenon of social networking sites is not exempt from religion, as the New York Times reported June 30. A number of Christian social sites now exist, where believers can have social contact without having to immerse themselves in sites where all sorts of morally undesirable content is present.

Religious video podcasts are also available, as the weekly newspaper National Catholic Register reported May 27. Earlier this year the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Cardinal Justin Rigali debuted on the popular YouTube site, with a series of videos containing reflections on the Gospel.

The archdioceses of Philadelphia and Boston have also used streaming video to make broadcast some events, thus making them accessible to greater numbers of people, the article reported.

Baptizing the Internet

In 2002 the Pontifical Council for Social Communications published a document titled: "The Church and Internet."

"Since announcing the Good News to people formed by a media culture requires taking carefully into account the special characteristics of the media themselves, the Church now needs to understand the Internet," the council explained (No. 5).

The Internet offers many advantages, such as direct access to spiritual resources along with a capacity of overcoming distances. It thus offers the Church new possibilities for communication.

New media technologies also offer many possibilities for two-way communication and social interactivity. While these means are new the social aspect of the Church as a community is a long-standing principle, the document comments.

The Church is, in fact, "a communion of persons and Eucharistic communities arising from and mirroring the communion of the Trinity" (No. 3). Therefore, communication is part of the essence of the Church. This communication, the Council specified, should be characterized by truthfulness, accountability, and sensitivity to human rights.

The council also warned that the virtual world has its limitations and that pastoral planning is needed to enable people to make the transition from cyberspace to a personal community, where they can come into contact with the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and participate in the celebration of the sacraments.

The Church should make full use of the potential offered by new communications technology in carrying out its mission, the document recommended. At the same time we need to keep firmly in mind, the council exhorted, that for all types of media, Christ should be both our model and the source of the content of what we communicate. A model as valid in the 21st century as it was for the first Christians.

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