Are we where people are?
How do we locate where people are?
How can we become “an evangelizing presence on the digital continent”?
When the Jesuits went to Asia and the Americas, they followed new paths to new lands and places where people had never heard the message of Christ. They went where the people were and told them about Christ. In our times, technology creates new virtual lands, habitats where we can spend time, communicate, and express ourselves. This truly historic change in communication technology is happening at a rapid pace and creating ever-changing landscapes. In our times, this is where the people are. The Directory for Catechesis states: “In virtual space, which many consider no less important than the real world, people get news and information, develop and express opinions, engage in debate, dialogue, and seek answers to their questions. Failing adequately to consider these phenomena leads to the risk of appearing insignificant to many people.”
The coronavirus pandemic has made this digital continent larger and wider, with many more people and activities online. The pandemic has made it more evident that we need to engage in technology, just as much as we need to discern which technology to use and how. Where are the people? How do they spend their time? What are they drawn to use, what not? Why? How do they use it?
Although technology and technological preferences change at a rapid pace, some principles are worth considering now. There is a clear trend away from desktop computers to mobile devices and from websites to mobile apps. Consequently, people prefer engaging for smaller bits of time, visiting an app for a few seconds or minutes at a time. This goes hand-in-hand with a continuing trend toward social media and the growing desire for visuals, authenticity, personally created content, and storytelling. A plethora of new voices and creators have become influential in these new realms, amplified by algorithms that filter and curate content for users and the dynamics of following, sharing, and commenting. The noise of the multitude of channels has also led to counter-movements: muting, blocking, filtering, unfollowing, and fasting from or limiting the use of technology.
Storytellers of Faith in the Digital Continent
For Catholic communities, these changing preferences present challenges as well as opportunities. The algorithms of platforms can amplify messages; at the same time, behind every platform is a business model monetizing those effects. Within this ecosystem, the most powerful and cost-effective way to get out a message is as old as the faith itself: through the power of authentic storytelling. Jesus told stories—for example, the parables—to make a point. The Church through the centuries gave witness to the faith through stories, which the Directory for Catechesis calls the “narrative identity of faith itself.”
Social media gives each community—and each disciple—a platform by which the Good News of the Gospel can be shared with a wide audience of hearers. It provides opportunities to enter into the lives of people who may be physically distanced but digitally present. Every community of faith that makes disciples is a place of stories of transformation—stories of hearts, minds, and lives changing for the better through a life in Christ. Which of these stories do you have to tell? How can you tell them online? Best practices include being brief, being real, and finding ways to systematically invite people to share their stories. Another critical best practice is to make space for storytelling by reducing other aspects of our communication, such as teaching, promotion, and information. Moreover, a story shared by a participant about his or her feelings and transformation from an experience is often more informative and makes a better promotion than a descriptive text. The stories are there; the challenge is to capture them, to make space for them, and to tell them well.
Reaching People Through Their Means of Communication
Our use of technology must be considered from the end user’s experience. For example, the catechetical leader might write a long e-mail that people find overwhelming and do not read. A pastor might record a twenty-minute teaching video but upload it to the parish Facebook page, where most users do not watch long videos. The Directory for Catechesis directs catechetical efforts to include educating believers in the good use of technology and an understanding of digital culture.
While looking at new technology, we cannot forget the significance of the older forms of technology and human interaction. A personal conversation may be better than a phone call; a phone call may be better than a text message; and a text message may be better than an e-mail. Further, even after decades of widespread internet use, there are people who are not online and who can fall through the cracks of our communication. Similarly, digital literacy and technological training varies heavily among staff, volunteers, and faithful of all ages. Taking steps toward working with what people use or want can begin with asking what modes of communication an individual prefers.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many parish communities have not only moved their activities online; they have identified new ways to reach out, share faith, and build community. Once the health crisis recedes, some of the changes in habits, technology use, and preference will persist. Thus, it is critical for catechetical leaders to discern effective technology in order to reach their communities and beyond, and to be authentic storytellers of faith in the digital continent.
Evangelizing Digital Spaces
- Where are our people? Where are the people beyond our community?
- What devices do they use? How do they use them daily?
- What media are they on? How do they engage there?
- How long are our messages? How long are messages normally on this media?
- How can we tell authentic stories of faith online?
Basic Guiding Principles
- Use technology that people are using in a way that they are using it.
- Find your voice and be authentic.
- Look for the stories in your community and find ways to tell these stories to others.
- Listen to voices and engagement from the community without silencing them.
- Use visuals, be brief, and be clear.
- Discern tools to use, and train your staff, volunteers, and participants.
- Make people in your community authentic storytellers for the faith.
- Find platforms that effectively connect various data-related aspects, such as registration, communication, online learning, and fundraising.
 DC 371.
 DC 213.
 DC 363.
 DC 207.
 DC 216.