New media hold opportunities for reaching Internet generation

By  Michael Redfearn, Catholic Register Special
  • May 9, 2008

{mosimage}In 1966 John Lennon got into a world of trouble by saying during an interview that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He later clarified, correctly so, that his statement was taken out of context and that rather than implying that the Beatles were more important than Jesus, he was merely pointing out that rock and roll music at that time was probably more influential in the life of the typical teenager than was Jesus.

But the damage was done and some so-called Christians organized public bonfires of Beatles records and even threatened to kill Lennon. How would such a statement by a comparable celebrity be received today? Would it even register as a blip on our jaded entertainment industry radar screen?

Fast forward to 2008 and it seems that Lennon’s words are still as relevant as ever. Canadian sociologist Dr. Reginald Bibby’s most recent (2005) major survey pegs weekly church attendance among Canadian Christians at about 25 per cent compared to a high of about 70 per cent during the 1950s. A 2006 Ipsos survey put weekly attendance at about 17 per cent.

There are a multitude of reasons weekly church attendance is down overall. Certainly the fact that Sunday is viewed by many in our culture as just one more day to add to the bottom line contributes to the lack of weekly worship. But it is clearly not just adolescents who are shunning the church pew.

Pope John Paul II was keenly aware of his own charisma and how to fuse it with the power of communication technology to help spread the Gospel to the multitudes. John Paul II seemed to internalize the central message of one particular document forged in the Roman Catholic crucible known as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Inter Mirifica (The Decree on the Media of Social Communications), among other things, acknowledged that “The church recognizes that these media, (the press, movies, radio, television and the like) if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind.”

A growing number of Protestant pastors and ministers are tired of competing with the Internet, MTV and video games and are taking a long look at the exploding market of what is being called “house of worship technology.” Fed up with dwindling congregations and disconnected parishioners, some Christian leaders are raising funds to hard-wire their houses of worship with large video screens, state-of-the-art sound systems and digital video cameras.

Others use shared homilies, Internet blogs and video clips from popular films to illustrate and comment on the weekly Scripture readings while recording, then later uploading the weekly service as a podcast to the Internet. But is this pandering or simply a genuine effort of innovative leaders to re-engage and help meet the spiritual needs of the online generation?

Regardless, as many Catholics are all too aware, change in their church is often agonizingly slow. Indeed, at times, the state of the Holy See more accurately reflects the catchy phrase “nothing’s going to change my world” from the popular Beatles song “Across the Universe.”

Quite often throughout history, though, change has occurred at the grass roots level. The incredibly rich and storied history and traditions of the Catholic Church should continue to be shared and celebrated with the faithful. But perhaps the standard one-dimensional weekly homily from the pulpit has run its course.

Many of today’s youth and young adults may not be devout worshippers but they are spiritual beings who hunger for purpose and meaning in their lives. Their world is rife with complexity and interactivity, where ideas are exchanged with lightning speed via brave new technologies. They eagerly leverage the read-and-write capabilities of the Internet which promote and facilitate wide-spread collaboration. The rigid top-down management style of the business world is giving way to more fluid forms of egalitarianism, where holistic thinking and bold innovation are encouraged, not sacrificed on the altar of “thou shalt not.”

Catholic new media are blossoming and quickly changing the techno-theological landscape. Indeed, later this month in Toronto (May 28-30) more than 300 Catholic communications professionals will gather to discuss and learn more about using the latest media tools to better advantage in their ministry to the world.

The Catholic Media Convention 2008
will unite theory and practice together in talks and workshops dealing with everything from design to next generation web techologies. For more information, go to www.catholicmediaconvention.org.

Not every liturgy need be a rock concert or every priest a pop star. But by continuing to open its doors to new ideas and engaging technologies, the Catholic Church would help keep hope alive by honouring the imaginative spirit of Vatican II and in the process, perhaps even encourage some of its stray sheep to return to the fold.

(Michael Redfearn is an information technology consultant with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board and is enrolled in the Master of Catholic Thought graduate program at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo.)

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