Applying Six Offline Models to Online Evangelization
The Internet has now opened up as a wide field for our evangelization. Much of the cultural interchange now takes place via such electronic means. The Church is called to step out into every new forum and evangelize it, yet for the online forum what would mainly have is individual examples and not a systematic application of existing offline models into the online world.
As someone who has been involved in this world, I’ve seen a lot of people try, and some of them succeed. I built up a following of 40,000 on Twitter by understanding its dynamics, and realizing in what respects it is the same as, and different from, other methods of human communication. I was always a bit of a tech geek: in the 80s I was writing elementary book reports on an old Turbo XT, and even studied two years of computer engineering before switching to become a Catholic priest. I was into religious stuff online back in the mid to late nineties. I intuitively grasped different ways that people were evangelizing online. But upon recently reading a book on models of evangelization, I find I have a concrete schema to categorize the main ways in which I see this happening.
In The Great Commission, Timothy E. Byerley presents six models of evangelization in American Catholicism.1 Along with explaining each model, Byerley presents historical examples of each model, and ideas for their application today. However, other than one mention that new technological means of preaching need to be used at the end of the proclamation model,2 he does not mention evangelizing via the Internet. This essay is an attempt to fill that gap by adapting each of his models online.
Each model will follow the same basic structure: a brief summary of the model, suggestions for how each model can be applied online, and a person or group evangelizing using that model online. Some models are obviously more easily transferred than others—it is a whole lot easier to preach than to distribute meals to the homeless online.
The examples I picked present one way this is being done today, but there are three important caveats: like examples in Byerley’s book, most evangelization mixes these models; I try to show various platforms rather than focusing on one; and I chose examples for clarity of the model, not necessarily the best at that model. 3
The St. Stephen Model: Witness
This is the model of all the martyrs. Martyrdom via the Internet is not possible: some might complain about virulent online attacks that may feel like a martyrdom, but these attacks online are far from being martyred. Generally, they are either about moral issues, not the kerygma, or reference clerical sexual abuse, as a reason to take Catholic authority away. However, there are ways to witness an authentic Christian life that can be then transmitted electronically. A substantial amount of research shows that the younger generations—millennials and the iGeneration—value authenticity more than a really polished presentation.4 I confirmed this through personal experience when I was interviewed by Elite Daily, a popular website for the iGeneration, and all my friends over 50 didn’t like its unpolished approach. Yet, as a Church, we can still focus on polish while being authentic.
Online witness is primarily about being open and authentic about your own life, and your own struggles, rather than giving a saccharine-coated, and wildly artificial vision of Christianity, but at the same time showing how your relationship with Jesus helps you get through challenges, and transforms you into a better person.
Audrey Assad’s twitter5 is an example of the witness model. Audrey is a worship leader with some original Christian songs but what she posts is far from self-promotion or press releases you might expect from an artist’s account. Her posts vary from interesting stories about her kids, to her struggles, to her concern for persecuted Syrian Christians (her dad was a Syrian refugee). Through all the struggles, one can see the light of Jesus emerge. It isn’t usually explicit but implied by providing her strength to get through it all. Even when she preaches, it is a preaching of witness of her experience – for example: “Me: but I am not worthy of love. Jesus: :dies on cross: Me: but I can’t believe in you. Jesus: put your hands in my wounds.”6
The Jerusalem Model: Liturgy
This model focuses on the liturgy as “The source of Christian evangelization,” and not just, “The goal of evangelization,”7 according to Byerley. The liturgy evangelizes in two ways: by its own sacramental power, and by its beauty. As the Church has already clearly stated, the sacraments are not valid via electronic means—I cannot hear your confession over the phone; and watching the Mass on TV doesn’t fulfill your Sunday obligation—applying this model requires applying the second aspect, beauty.
St. Thomas teaches the transcendentals: everything that is, is true, good, and beautiful, insomuch as it is. Truth has been lost to majority opinion, or political correctness; goodness has been lost to voluntarism; but beauty can still reach today’s society. Unfortunately for us, beauty is the transcendental that has probably the least written about it. The Internet offers an opportunity to transmit the beauty of a photograph, a poem, or other artistic productions to the whole world instantly. We are all more moved by a picture of a shell-shocked boy who survived a bomb blast, than by any words of the political leaders about that bomb blast.
Fr Jason Smith, LC, uses Instagram8 in a way that evangelizes through beauty. Instagram is an ideal platform for presenting beauty because the focus is your pictures. Fr. Jason studied fine arts, and was a good photographer before becoming a priest, so he understands principles of artistic beauty in photography. His feed shows a variety of subjects, such as statues of Mary, liturgies, pictures showing the beauty of nature, and pictures showing human virtue. His photos reach out to all those who are looking for beautiful photography on Instagram, and then draw them in, because photography speaks to a higher beauty than simple aesthetics that other good photographers on Instagram touch on. The beauty he shows in a statue of Mary reaches into the souls of people in a way that a homily on Mary could not.
The Proclamation Model: Preaching
Proclaiming the message of God in speech, or in writing, has always been an important aspect of evangelization. The Internet offers new ways this can be done, but the central point of putting God’s message out there is to make it into an attractive form so listeners take it in and understand it.
The Internet transforms the historical pattern of preaching in many ways, and I will mention five of the most obvious. First, the fact that any preaching is available, at any time, to anyone, creates a certain bifurcation of general preaching into “the excellent” and the “merely okay;” whereas before a mission preacher could be in an intermediate category of “pretty good.” Before, constraints of time and place left plenty of room for the “pretty good,” but why am I going to listen to a “pretty good” preacher online, when I can listen to an “excellent” preacher with the same effort? Now, most of those who would fall into the category of “pretty good,” have to have some unique angle to keep evangelizing through preaching. They might share a unique story, or angle, that narrow-casts to a certain demographic. This leads us to the second difference: a preacher can be far more specialized. A topic may interest a small portion of the population—like the Catholic approach to a particular psychological condition—but via the Internet, these people can all be reached without repetitively preaching to minuscule audiences. Third, video production and editing change how you preach: it allows preaching to go through several takes, and allows visual messages to be interspersed easily. Fourth, certain online platforms have particular orientations or restrictions which require the preaching to be modified: the daily reflection on the readings I tweet is very different in form from my three-minute, daily homily, even though the tweet is usually a summary of my homily. Fifth, the disembodied nature of the internet challenges preachers to be better at guessing the audience’s response. In-person preaching has an immediate feedback loop, where if I say something overly strong, I can see people’s faces reacting to that, or if I’m boring, I see their eyes close, or look dazed, or nod off. Online preaching has none of this interaction with those listening to what is said by the homilist, so those preaching online must be better at guessing how people will react to their spoken comments in order to avoid being boring, or so strong that the homilist comes off as being offensive.
The Facebook page of Rev. Francis J. Hoffman, “Fr Rocky,” the Executive Director of Relevant Radio,9 is an example of this model. It posts stories and quotes to inspire visitors to the site, along with videos for are quick teachings, or having daily Mass broadcast. Fr Rocky tends to be very straightforward and evangelistic, encouraging people to live the basics of the faith. This is an interesting example because it is a continuation of his off-line ministry where he answers basic Catholic questions on the radio, as well as his newspaper column. However, his online posts respond to the medium of Facebook because he uses videos he takes, or shares his photos, and those things related to his radio network.
The Fraternity Model: Small Communities
The fraternity is based on the models of the early Church, where people came together in a group and shared. Byerley relates it to Mark 3, where Jesus formed a group of his first apostles.10 But equally applicable is the common life shared by the apostles in the early chapters of Acts where it states: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”11 These community gatherings formed individuals so that they might then go out and preach. But it also attracts individuals to the community by the very nature of its very fraternity.
The Internet can both promote and hinder such fraternity. It can promote fraternity by encouraging people with similar interests, even those from quite a distance away, to connect: for example, Catholic youth ministers in small towns, or Catholic moms homeschooling autistic kids, can connect with this community. It also promotes coming together by helping introverts feel welcome. Nonetheless, the “disembodied” way in which Internet communication happens—with vocal tone and posture usually implied, and touching absolutely impossible unless a meeting is arranged—tends towards a certain superficiality which is not conducive to community. Even though this final factor does not affect communicating intellectual content very much, it has a devastating effect on emotional content. Thus, it might appear to create a more superficial sort of gathering. By being information-heavy, but emotionally-light in ones communication efforts may leave an online community in constant danger of becoming mere business-talk centered, rather than more family-oriented communication.
Reddit is built around forums on various topics but it is not where you would expect to find Catholicism: it is famous for things like memes, asking celebrities direct questions, and philosophical leanings that don’t align with Catholic values. However, a group of Catholics have built a forum referred to as “sub-reddit.” This “/r/Catholicism”12 has formed a community that supports growth in the Catholic faith. Its thrust is not so much to go out and evangelize, but rather it tries to provide fraternity in two ways: first, it helps strengthen the Catholics who are part of the community to evangelize others; and, second, it tends to be a place for people wondering about Catholicism, but wanting to ask questions anonymously, to go, and do so. They are welcome to do so there. A similar group just so happened to have saved my faith. When I decided to take my faith seriously after a religious experience in high school, I found no good youth group around, and a similar online forum (OneRock, which has since folded) gave me the fraternity I needed for a year and a half until I started attending a university with a good campus ministry.
The Areopagus Model: Inculturation
Inculturation means adapting the Gospel to the culture without denying any of its claims. It is called the Areopagus model because in the Areopagus, Paul preached to a Gentile, and presented a philosophic view unlike his other sermons recorded in Acts. It has three stages.13 (1) Christianity is introduced into a culture by evangelists who have understood the culture and translated the Gospel into terms that culture can understand. (2) Then the culture is transformed involving a long process of discernment, developing new expressions for the deposit of the faith which create a certain harmony between Christianity and the culture. (3) This fresh cultural expression finally becomes a new ecclesial communion.
Since Internet culture is a certain variation of American, or Western, culture that only recently emerged, I doubt the third stage has been realized yet. Since we are dealing with the transformation of a culture that was already at least partially evangelized, we begin with some members of Internet culture already converted. As well, many aspects of the faith in American culture can be directly transferred, but not all can be transferred perfectly because (1) the medium changes the message; (2) Internet culture is not really a single culture but each online medium has its own subculture which added altogether make Internet culture; (3) we are dealing with generational shifts at the same time because Internet culture involves a much higher percentage of the young than general culture; and (4) the Internet creates new symbols, not just new mediums through which to communicate.
“New Catholic Generation” 14 is a YouTube channel created by three Catholic university students. It resolves all the challenges listed above regarding transferring American faith symbols to the Internet. (1) Using short videos changes the mode of presentation: they manage to be engaging, to the point, and humorous. (2) Short videos—including things like listicle skits (listicle: a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article) and reaction videos—is properly adapting their message to the culture of YouTube. (3) They are all young so, therefore, they match the generational shift present in Internet culture. (4) They understand how to cut videos, how to use Internet humor, and how to pass on experience, which makes their change in symbols, to spread their message, match the change in symbols from American to Internet culture. They grew into Internet culture so they seem to understand adapting the Gospel to the Internet’s cultural forms. Their work may mainly be keeping Catholics “Catholic” rather than reaching new audiences, but considering the high number of Catholics who leave the faith at this moment, this is an important form of evangelization.
The Loaves and Fishes Model: Charity
The loaves and fishes model is exemplified by Mother Teresa—the idea is to do charity without working directly for reimbursement or conversion, but such charity draws conversion out of people. This model works off Jesus’ words—“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”15 to try and provide what is needed to those who are in most need. Catholic Answers Forums16 and /r/Catholicism provide help to the spiritually poor, but it is a real challenge to help the physically poor via the Internet. The closest thing I have heard of is helping lonely seniors in the U.S. by connecting them with students in foreign countries who want to learn English for regular conversations17 but the only case I could find was not specifically Catholic.18
A few Catholic organizations have used Internet effectively for another aspect that has always accompanied the charity model: getting support. This support is an essential aspect of this model because providing meals, or teachers, costs money, and their effectiveness for conversion requires prayer. I want to point out Mary’s Meals19 and Catholic World Mission20 as two organizations effectively getting support for the charity model via the Internet. One focuses on providing meals to poor African kids, while the other one focuses on providing education to poor Latin American kids, but their online methodology is very similar. Both use social media to promote their message. Both make it easy to support them online, and give you a sense of what your money does, not just asking for random donations of $100. Both keep a spiritual aspect to it by asking for prayers, and being open about their faith.
Examining Byerley’s six historical models of how the United States was evangelized, we find that most of them could apply to online evangelization once you recognize the different mediums, and different symbols present in the online world as opposed to the offline world. The Jerusalem and fraternity models suffered significantly, and were not able to reach their fullness in an online environment because each of them lacks physical presence. That physical presence also made the loaves and fishes model almost impossible for anything but getting support.
Unfortunately, along with some of the examples I gave, I could give counter-examples. The proclamation model has a particularly high number, and strong counter-examples. Fr. Thomas Rosica commented on the counter-examples in May 2016: “Many of my non-Christian and non-believing friends have remarked to me that we ‘Catholics’ have turned the Internet into a cesspool of hatred, venom, and vitriol, all in the name of defending the faith!”21 I don’t think these counter examples deserve any more press than they already get, and one of the best counters to nastiness is ignoring it rather than arguing with it.
To counter such a negative impression, we need to promote all six models of online evangelization without ceasing off-line evangelization. We can even integrate them on and offline as several examples do right now: Audrey Assad, Fr Jason Smith, and Father Rocky. The internet itself is morally neutral; what matters is what we do with this tool. If we are Christians who recognize their call to evangelize, we shouldn’t change from that online model but instead use it as one more means to spread the faith.
Finally, using any model of evangelization, we always need to remember that unifying principle that Byerley quotes from Jesus: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”22
- Timothy E. Byerley. The Great Commission: Models of Evangelization in American Catholicism (New York: Paulist Press, 2008). ↩
- Cf. Ibid. 65. ↩
- Two disclaimers about the examples: (1.) I know or interact with many of the examples I give. Audrey Assad and I have interacted half a dozen times on Twitter, Fr Jason Smith is a friend and member of the same religious congregation, I participate infrequently on /r/Catholicism, I used to participate in Catholic Answers Forums, and Catholic World Missions is affiliated with the Regnum Christi movement which I work for in another capacity. (2.) I don’t guarantee everything about these examples has been perfect or that these individuals won’t change in negative ways. ↩
- This is too complex to extrapolate here but here’s a brief introduction: Matthew Tyson. “Millennials Want Brands To Be More Authentic. Here’s Why That Matters.” The Huffington Post. January 21, 2016. Accessed July 30, 2016. huffingtonpost.com/matthew-tyson/millennials-want-brands-t_b_9032718.html. ↩
- twitter.com/audreyassad ↩
- Audrey Assad. “Tweet.” Twitter. July 26, 2016. Accessed August 03, 2016. twitter.com/audreyassad/status/758075758828892161. Note: putting an action with colons on either side :like this: is a way to express an action rather than speech in online discussions. ↩
- Byerley. The Great Commission. 32. ↩
- instagram.com/frjasonsmith ↩
- facebook.com/FatherRocky ↩
- Cf. Byerley. The Great Commission. 66-67. ↩
- Acts 2:42. ↩
- reddit.com/r/Catholicism ↩
- Cf. Ibid., 90-91. ↩
- newcatholicgeneration.com ↩
- Matthew 25:40 and 25:45. ↩
- forums.catholic.com ↩
- Tim Nudd. “Perfect Match: Brazilian Kids Learn English by Video Chatting With Lonely Elderly Americans.” AdWeek. May 7, 2014. Accessed July 31, 2016. adweek.com/adfreak/perfect-match-brazilian-kids-learn-english-video-chatting-lonely-elderly-americans-157523. ↩
- Their “about” page (cna.com.br/sobre-cna/conheca-o-cna) lists values that could be Catholic but could also not be. ↩
- marysmeals.org ↩
- catholicworldmission.org ↩
- “Vatican PR Aide Warns Catholic Blogs Create ‘Cesspool of Hatred’.” Crux. May 17, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2016. cruxnow.com/cns/2016/05/17/vatican-pr-aide-warns-catholic-blogs-create-cesspool-of-hatred/. ↩
- John 10:10. Quoted in Byerley. The Great Commission. 133. ↩