Does the Church Know How to Reach the Modern World?

Marshall McLuhan, a 1960s media prophet, was one of the first to predict how digital technology shapes culture. Decades before the Internet became mainstream, McLuhan warned of the unintended effects brought by each new communication tool. His still-famous phrase “the medium is the message” summarizes  his thoughts by pointing out that a particular medium shapes a message more than the content it carries.

For example, McLuhan, a late convert to Catholicism, would affirm that a sermon delivered through radio, through television, through a blog, and through YouTube would be received in drastically different ways. The radio sermon would be listened to with sustained attention, the television sermon would be viewed as entertainment, the blog sermon would be shallowly skimmed, and the YouTube sermon would be gauged by its visual and emotional effects.

Many Christians operate out of the belief that we can “communicate the same message through new means.” They assume what McLuhan adamantly denied, that communication mediums can be neutral. For better or worse, however, new media conditions whatever the Church shares through these technologies; how we think, relate, speak, read, worship, and pray are all influenced by these tools and the culture they create.

What does the future hold for the Church and new media? There will certainly be many negative trends, but here are three positive ones to look out for in the coming years:

Springtime of Evangelization

No great evangelists of the past two millennia could have conceived that within minutes they could have their messages beamed to billions of people across the world, cheaply and easily. St. Paul, the early Church Fathers, St. Francis Xavier, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen each would have given their right arm for access to our new media.

This technical ability has, in many secular spheres, birthed a “springtime” of evangelization. People who would never consider setting foot in a church are dialoguing with priests on  YouTube. Streaming videos and alluring websites encouraging inactive Catholics to return to the Church have already produced staggering results. And new media is connecting the Church with many difficult-to-reach groups: youth, young adults, the elderly and homebound, and those living in remote locations.

Young people, in particular, are often considered the most difficult demographic for the Church to evangelize. Yet over 96% of young adults have joined a social network, providing the perfect arena for the Church to meet them. Outside of new media, there has hardly been a more powerful evangelistic tool to reach young people.

Also, though many see the internet’s anonymity as a detriment, it can be beneficial. Back in the twentieth century, radio and television allowed Archbishop Fulton Sheen to reach a myriad of people who would never darken the doors of a church. The shows allowed these seekers to engage Catholicism in the privacy of their own homes, avoiding public embarrassment or critique. Our modern new media provides this same dynamic of evangelizing through anonymity. People uneasy about religion feel comfortable exploring Christianity behind the safety of their computer screens.

The Church does advise, however, that true witness is always personal; that online evangelism should optimally lead to personal dialogue and relationship. Properly termed, then, this New media outreach is more “pre-evangelization” than “evangelization, “ but it does provide a monumental first step through doors — and screens — that have long been closed to religion.

Rise in Church Dialogue

Imagine a bishop responding to tweets from people in his diocese, or a priest using Facebook to discuss his Sunday homily. This type of online interaction between clergy and laypeople isn’t too much of a stretch. In fact, it is already happening in many places (follow @bishopcoyne to see what I mean). New media is already breathing fresh life into communications between Church leaders and laypeople.

One major theme throughout the Church’s teachings on media is the value of dialogue. In recent centuries, numerous Church leaders have explained that the Church must be in constant conversation with the world, including both Catholics and non-Catholics. By its very nature, this conversation can’t be one-sided; it must be an authentic, two-way connection.

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  • None

    Yes, as you say: “By its very nature, this conversation can’t be one-sided; it must be an authentic, two-way connection.” And we must be “authentic” Christ; uncompromising, unconditionally Christ. Some would like to be “authentic” to the world, but that is a mistake to think we will be a Light in the world in this way when in reality we are only mimicking the darkness. I see so much Hope in the Catholic Church, but we must not think we can “bargain” (compromise or negotiate) with the devil who rules this world for this short time more. But as Christ told the devil who tried to tempt Him in the desert with all the “power” and “authority” of the world, Christ said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is
    written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”  (Matthew 4)

    8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”  10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’

  • None

    Yes,
    as you say: “By its very nature, this conversation can’t be one-sided;
    it must be an authentic, two-way connection.” And we must be “authentic”
    Christ; uncompromising, unconditionally Christ. Some would like to be
    “authentic” to the world, but that is a mistake to think we will be a
    Light in the world in this way when in reality we are only mimicking the
    darkness. I see so much Hope in the Catholic Church, but we must not
    think we can “bargain” (compromise or negotiate) with the devil who
    rules this world for this short time more. But as Christ told the devil
    who tried to tempt Him in the desert with all the “power” and “authority” of the world, Christ said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is
    written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”  (Matthew 4)

    8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”  10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’

     

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173602118 Angela Sealana

    McLuhan is our ‘semi-patron saint’, Brandon. Were he alive today, I believe he would join us in being Catholic communications theologians and bring incredible insights to this new media adventure. We would all do well to study his words. Thanks for this great piece.

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  • voice

    The Church is CLUELESS when it comes to modern communication.   No official television presence?    Yes, there have been grassroots (EWTN, etc.) efforts but they are not the CHURCH.     The call of the Second Vatican Council has not been answered by the bishops who seem to think writing about it, calling the Church to it is enough.   There needs to be everything from commercial type evangelization and ROBUST  DYNAMIC programming (drama, movies) to proclaim the Good News to modern ears (not Mother Angelica and the good sisters praying the rosary during prime time or a priest sitting in a chair trying to teach).   I guess Vatican radio will have to do…    

  • Laurie

    …and lets not forget that evangelization is the Holy Spirit’s work fundamentally. The power of the spirt is largely forgotten. Evangelization is far more than human dialogue, although human dialogue is used for evangelization. These days people hang on to a religiosity without recognizing the real power of the Holy Spirit, the kind that makes miracles. It is only God. We are the humble instruments but we can do nothing of ourselves and certainly can’t measure the power of evangelization by fanciest and most up-to-date technology. We use it of course, but it is not the power.

  • Florin S.

    Much is being made about Cardinal delegate Timothy Dolan and his speech at the Vatican and how we need to make the Church a Church of yes instead of no. I like Card.delegate Dolan but my concern is that he is kind of a ‘showman’…good at times, not so good at others. I heard him being interviewed the other day after his meeting with Obama and, although he was frustrated, he said that he admires Obama and was honored to have been with him…how can you ‘honor and admire’ a man who is responsible for pushing the slaughter of human babies in the womb, and who would have babies who survive abortion lie alone and helpless, uncared for, uncomforted because, Obama said, if he would admit that the baby in the womb was ‘human’ 5 minutes after birth then he would have to admit ihuman 5 minutes before, in the womb…what does he think ‘it’ is…? an animal? theDNA is human after all…Card. designate Dolan also said he will not refuse the Eucharist to
    public figures such as Pelosi and Biden despite the fact that they stand arrogantly against the Church, against her teachings and against the bishops and urge others to do so…this concerns me, saddens me……I understand that; Pope Benedict said the same thing. But there are times when ‘no’ must be said, ‘you have come this far and you shall go no farther!”
     

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