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.