In today’s day and age, it is extremely rare to meet someone who does not participate in social media. Although Facebook was founded as a way for the students of Harvard to keep in contact on the internet, people of all ages have accounts, including grandparents and middle school students. Because of this, it is possible to reach almost anyone on social media, which makes social media quite the opportune place to evangelize and spread the good news. Because of how many people use social media, it could be an extremely effective way to spread the Gospel of Christ, if used in the correct way. The internet is overrun with pornography and sin, and is in desperate need of evangelization. What better place to evangelize than the most visited websites of the internet?
All Christians are called to evangelize in every aspect of their life, whether that be the clothes they wear, the words they say, or and everything else that they do in their regular, everyday life. Thus, because so many people use social media, they should use it to evangelize, just like any other aspect of their life. According to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, “We are all called to be missionaries and evangelizers in our families, communities, workplaces, and social networks. Just as we expect great missionary orders to learn the culture of the natives they are evangelizing, we must also learn, live, and embrace the life and culture of the digital continent” (O’Malley 11). What Cardinal O’Malley is saying is that no matter what someone’s vocation may be, priest, religious, wife, husband, single, it includes being an evangelizer. At a gathering held for evangelizers of the digital media, Pope Benedict XVI said: “As I thank you for the service you offer to the Church and thus to the human cause, I urge you, enlivened by the courage of the Holy Spirit, to set out on the highways of the digital continent” (Faces and Witnesses in the Cross Media Age 2). The call to evangelize should have no limits, and should be carried out and practiced everywhere.
There are several reasons why social media is an opportune location for evangelization. Unlike most media, social media is not a one-sided “telling” of information. Instead, it’s a conversation, with people asking questions, finding answers and sharing information. “Indeed, the spread of the culture created by communications undoubtedly brings many benefits. Among them are: a greater access to information; more opportunities for knowledge and dialogue; new forms of solidarity; and the ability to foster an increasingly global culture which leads to a shared heritage of values and the better development of thought and human activity” (The Synod of Bishops 62).
In the introduction to his book, Brandon Vogt, a Catholic theologian who specializes in new media says: “…a primary, defining characteristic of all New Media is dialogue. While traditional media features static content and one-way flows of information – like the Vatican’s early website – New Media transmits content through connection and conversation. It enables people around the world to share, comment on, and discuss a wide variety of topics” (Introduction: The Digital Continent 16). Not only does social media allow for a conversation and dialogue to occur, but it is “instantaneous, public and personal” (Wester 2). There is no waiting period for something to be accepted in social media. If someone wants to say something, they can without having to wait to spread the good news. Because that which is posted on social media is so easy to share, it is following the call of St. Paul who said that the gospel and good news should be “copied and distributed” (Marshall 90).
Social media also allows for a sense of community where there is none. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his message for the 47th World Communications day, social media allows for those who are isolated geographically or mentally to engage in a community and create unity between a separated world of believers (Message for the 47th World Communications Day 3). Not only is using social media for evangelization good and well, but it is also necessary. The Catholic belief is that faith can be tied to anything, and that includes the internet as well as all aspects of life. Mark Shea put it well: “To be Catholic is to be catholic, as in “universal”. This means that everything relates to the faith because God is the Maker of everything” (Shea 79). All Catholics who use social media should use it as a tool to evangelize because it allows contact and conversation with people who are otherwise unreachable and it fulfills the meaning of the word “catholic”.
There are many ways that social media can be used as a tool to spread God’s love to others, as well as some guidelines how to use it as a tool. Obviously, common sense and courtesy should be used on social media, but especially when trying to evangelize. Pope Benedict XVI puts it well,
“These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion. If the networks are called to realize this great potential, the people involved in them must make an effort to be authentic since, in these spaces, it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves” (Message for the 47th World Communications Day 1).
Text speak and simplified words may tempt the evangelizers to dumb down the theological truths they are trying to seek, Father Robert Barron says: “We have a smart tradition – the Catholic tradition is intellectually profound and rich. So when spreading the faith, especially through New Media, we can’t afford to dumb it down if the world is to find our story compelling” (Barron 42). Something that is so intellectual cannot be dumbed down, as these truths will lose the richness within it.
Thomas Peters, who runs the successful and popular blog “American Papist” says that there are three necessities to being a successful online evangelizer: faith, unity, and numbers (Peters 163). Peters goes on to say that without faith and prayer, there is no evangelization (Peters 164). In regards to unity, Peters says that when people see disunity within a Christian community, it makes their attempts to evangelize unbelievable and insincere. “In order to be effective, the world needs to see the witness of our oneness. This means that we should exercise restraint when we disagree with other Catholics publicly, because we risk scandalizing the world when they see our disunity” (Peters 164). Numbers may seem strange, but Peters puts it in a way that makes a lot of sense: “In our age, Christians are often silenced by being labeled as “extreme” and “fringe.” We know, however that a great number of good people believe we do, and for good reason – because what we believe is true! The Internet and social media uniquely connect all of us united believers wherever we may be. This allows us to project a unified front to the world” (Peters 165). When using social media as a platform to evangelize upon, one should be careful that they give off the right appearance as well as use the tools correctly.
It is recommended that priests should become involved with evangelization over social media. Father James Martin, SJ, posts daily statuses and inspirational photos on Facebook, as well as tweets to hundreds of followers (Bonccorso 19). In addition to giving an example of successful clergy of social media, Bonccorso explains why she thinks that priests should become involved with social media: “clergy who are willing to extend some pastoral care to people outside their parish boundaries can really save someone’s Catholic identity. If the clergy member is a priest, he is truly in persona Chrisi and a fisher of men when he connects with people online” (Bonccorso 19). As a fisher of men, the clergy have the ability to reach out to the unreachable and evangelize in places that would be impossible for others.
After making the decision to become a evangelizer through social media, it is important that one looks at the different platforms that they can use to reach out to others. One of the most popular and well-known platforms is blogging. The use of blogging in the new evangelization is extremely successful because bloggers can choose their audience and tailor the information they put out to fit the needs of their audience. Amy Welborn is a blogging layperson who has blogged for a long time. Mark Shea, a longtime reader of her work said: “What caught my attention was not just the quality of Amy (Welborn)’s work, but the fact that the technology she was using to publish it was interactive with the readers and that it was not subject to any editorial oversight but Amy’s. This meant, in a nutshell, that Amy could speak as she pleased, with no editors to edit” (Shea 72).
Once a platform is chosen, the evangelizer can decide whether or not they want their efforts to go to a targeted group. For example, they could decide to evangelize especially to non-practicing Catholics. According to Bonccorso:
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s (CARA) 2010 statistics estimate that nearly 74,470,000 people self-identify as Catholic in the United States, yet only 17,873,000 attend Mass regularly. 2,979,000 are very involved in their parish outside of Mass, and both volunteer and paid lay ministers only add up to 50,298.3 What does “Catholic” mean today? According to the stats, when someone says “I am Catholic” in the United States, the belief and commitment behind that statement is likely to be weak” (Bonccorso 15)
Because of the high numbers of non-practicing Catholics, they would be an ideal target group to evangelize to.
Another popular target group is the youth, because they are the most likely to use social media. Also, young people commonly struggle with their faith. According to Marcel LeJeune, a youth minister, “Only 40 percent of self-identified Catholic young adults are certain that you can have a personal relationship with God. Sixty-four percent of Catholic Millennials attend Mass a few times a year or less. Only 15 percent of Millennials go to Mass regularly” (LeJeune 57-58). LeJeune elaborates on this by explaining why the number is so low: “This crisis is compounded by the fact that the Catholic Church lags behind in reaching young adults where they are, because we have not embraced New Media as we ought to. This is despite young adults being plugged in, online, and engaged with New Media far more than any other generation” (LeJeune 58).
Social media can be extremely effective in the new evangelization, however, those who decide to use social media as a platform for evangelization should trod carefully, because there are risks and dangers, as well. Brandon Vogt explains that the use of social media can lead to shallow relationships (To Infinity and Beyond 191) and a rise in narcissism and pride in the evangelizer (To Infinity and Beyond 194). Social media encourages a self-centered attitude, so when making the decision to share the gospel over social media, evangelizers must make sure to protect themselves from these risks. Because the sharing space on social media is so short, Vogt warns that it may cause difficulty in prayer and contemplation (To Infinity and Beyond 197). However, Vogt also gives positive effects and trends that he has seen during his time as a participant in the social media evangelization. He refers to social media as the “springtime of evangelization”, because the great evangelizers of the past, such as Fulton Sheen, St. Paul, and St. Francis Xavier, would have loved to be able to share the good news by means of social media. Their messages would have been seen by millions in a matter of seconds (To Infinity and Beyond 198). Vogt continues by explaining that the social media evangelization will bring about a fresh wave of religious vocations, as well as a “fresh faith formation”. Today, when someone is discerning a religious vocation, they are more likely to take their questions to google instead of a spiritual director. In fact, a study found that ninety percent of recent discerners said that the internet aided their discernment (To Infinity and Beyond 202).
When used correctly, social media can bring about a new era that the Church has never seen before. People who would never have participated in evangelization will participate, and there will be conversions like never seen before. However, one must be careful, and remember that the internet is a tricky place. Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis both have taken the step to become social media evangelizers by tweeting inspiration to their millions of followers. Yes, the pope has a million followers on twitter. Just think of the impact that could be made upon the Catholic Church with the use of social media.
Barron, Father Robert. “The Virtual Areopagus: Digital Dialogue With the Unchurched.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 24-44. Print.
Bonccorso, Amy. “A New Door of Faith: Catholic Identity, Evangelization, and Renewal through Social Media.” Seat of Wisdom 6 (2013): 15-41. A New Door of Faith: Catholic Identity, Evangelization, and Renewal through Social Media. Seat of Wisdom Journal, Winter 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Carney, Shawn. “Moving Mountains: Building a Digital Movement.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 176-89. Print.
Fulwiler, Jennifer. “Into the Light: Sharing the Spiritual Journey.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 44-56. Print.
LeJeune, Marcel. “Speaking Their Language: Connecting With Young Adults.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 57-70. Print.
Marshall, Taylor. “New Wineskins: Fresh Presentations of Ancient Tradition.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 88-98. Print.
O’Malley, Cardinal Sean, O.F.M. Cap. “Foreward.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. By Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 11-12. Print.
Peters, Thomas. “Changing the World: New Media Activism.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 162-75. Print.
Pope Benedict XVI. “ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI TO PARTICIPANTS IN A CONGRESS ON “DIGITAL WITNESSES. FACES AND LANGUAGES IN THE CROSS-MEDIA AGE” ORGANIZED BY THE ITALIAN EPISCOPAL CONFERENCE.” Italian Episcopal Conference. Pope Paul VI Hall. 24 Apr. 2010. Address to Participants at the Congress on Digital Witnesses. Faces and Languages in the Cross-Media Age Organized by the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI). Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Pope Benedict XVI. “Message for the 47th World Communications Day.” Message for the 47th World Communications Day. The Vatican, 12 May 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Shea, Mark P. “Modern Epistles: Blogging the Faith.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 72-88. Print.
The Synod of Bishops. “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith – Instrumentum Laboris.” The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith – Instrumentum Laboris. The Vatican, 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Vogt, Brandon. “Introduction: The Digital Continent.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. By Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 14-21. Print.
Vogt, Brandon. “To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and the New Media.” The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet. Ed. Brandon Vogt. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 189-206. Print.