What does the Catholic Church have in common with most major advertisers, retailers, politicians and information gatherers? The desire and need to reach young people. And it's a lot harder than it sounds. Seminarian and Word on Fire blog contributor Christopher Kerzich offers some sound advice on how to, and how not to, effectively reach this "key demographic."
How can the Church communicate with young people today? This question seems to be at the heart of the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which is currently underway here in Rome. The four-day meeting is focused on the world’s emerging youth cultures. After reading an interview highlighting the meeting’s themes, this humble scribe began reflecting on ways to communicate with the multitude of emerging youth cultures. From prayer and this reflection, I’ve seen there are four ways to communicate with today’s youth and young adults. Obviously, these are focused on encouraging the most important interaction in this regard, that between the young person and Jesus Christ.
Communicate within the Group
Walking home from dinner one evening I observed a group of ragazzi (a general Italian word for “youth” or “young adults”) outside a local café gathered and talking in a group. Interestingly, everyone looked as if they belonged and no one seemed to be an outsider. All were dressed similarly, were in the same age group, and were speaking Italian. In one sense this can be an analogy for today’s youth cultures (similar dress, similar language and gathered together either physically or virtually). This means those seeking to spread the Gospel message within these youth cultures can easily come up against roadblocks. There are certain “walls” that might exclude outsiders (either of age or background) from engaging these groups. Therefore, a new evangelist must ask him or herself, what is needed to communicate within these groups that might have a tendency to exclude outsiders?
Is New Media Here to Stay?
The Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) recently published a study titled, “Catholic New Media Use in the United States, 2012.” This helpful study divides the use of new media by a variety of age groups. My peers have been named the “Millennial generation” (born 1982 or later). The study states we are the highest users of the Internet, averaging “3 hours and 43 minutes online each day.” The study showed Millennials are the highest users of social media, with 82% of the group using Facebook. Additionally, this group uses the Internet as their primary source of news (37%) and is more likely to trust that news than any other group (28%). Sadly, the study states only “6% of Millennials would be interested in videos about the Catholic Church.” If you read the study and see the other statistics presented, one could easily find the answer to the question, is the new media, or some future form of it, here to stay?
Many social media users can name at least one person who over-saturates his or her networks with posts, personal information and photos of the food dishes he or she is currently eating. This reality can easily lead to one “tuning out” any message posted by an over-saturating social media user. When communicating with young people, it is important for new evangelizers not to over-saturate their message. When using Facebook, I’ve observed posting something weekly elicits a greater response from those in my network than when I have posted articles on consecutive days. In one sense, under-saturation is more effective than over-saturation of our message. Therefore, we must guard against over-saturating our message in order to keep our social media “street cred.” When seeking this balance, let us turn to the recently released World Communications Day message by Pope Benedict XIV. Our Holy Father states, “These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate.
I remember watching a movie set in the midst of a medieval battle and thinking about the number of soldiers it took to operate one of those large catapults. Researching this question, I found it took at least four men to send those boulders flying through the air (two to wind the rope, one for range-aiming and at least one for loading a firing). An interesting thought, but what does this have to do with communicating to today’s youth? You see, the same principle applies to social media. As I’ve observed, articles, videos or messages posted by multiple people on social networks seem to get catapulted to a wider range of readers. For example, I recently logged on to Facebook and what my “news feed” first told me was that two of my friends, who have never met each other, both posted a video on the Traditional Latin Mass. We must keep in mind that Facebook and other social media sites seem to prioritize posts shared by a variety of people on the social network.
Therefore, catapult theory, as I’ve come to name it, is the combined posting of an article or video about the Church that gets catapulted, via social media, to an entirely different group of people in one’s social network. What this means for communicating with today’s youth is that if multiple people post the same Church message, it is more likely to get into the hands of a greater number of youth and young adults. Like the medieval catapult, let us combine our evangelization efforts to spread the Gospel message to the masses.
Christopher Kerzich is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago.