Connecting to God and WiFi: Preaching in a digital culture

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vt., addresses Catholic media in St. Louis June 2. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

I recently received a phone call from the Diocesan Director of Cemeteries. Apparently, a number of people were invading some of the Catholic cemeteries in Burlington, Vt., with eyes riveted intently on their mobile devices. They were playing Pokémon Go, trying to capture digitally created creatures that virtually inhabit these cemeteries. I asked him if they were doing any harm. He replied, “No, there is simply more ‘traffic’ than usual.” Since cemetery rules and regulations applied to all visitors regardless of their reason for visiting, I told him so long as no harm was being done, he should let them be. “Who knows?” I replied. “Perhaps they might even gaze upon a monument or two and be moved to ponder eternity. Then again, they just might be satisfied with catching a Pokémon or two.”

Whether walking, riding on a bus or sitting in a restaurant, café or any other public space, one cannot help but notice that digital culture is ubiquitous. The same can be said about many family dens and dining rooms. Everyone seems to have his or her eyes fixed on a mobile device or laptop. But the presence of digital culture is not limited to devices. Newspapers, magazines, billboards and print advertisements often contain a hashtag or a link to a website for further information. Live Twitter feeds scroll down the side of cable news broadcasts and trending measures follow closely behind. The digital culture is so pervasive, and so many people own and use digital devices, that we have to remind people to turn their devices off not only in movie theaters, plays, concerts and places of worship but at the dinner table, too.

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While there are a few off-the-grid outliers out there, either through choice or circumstances, most people who live in a first-world culture are digital inhabitants. (In fact, because of the global presence of the internet, distinctions like first world and developing world are blurring and even disappearing, in part because of the increasing access many people, though not all, have to the internet.) And it is within this first world, digital culture here in North America that the church also lives and interacts and evangelizes. Present-day Catholic disciples of Jesus who seek to live and to proclaim his offer of salvation through the church have to come to grips with a twofold aspect of approaching the digital culture. On one hand, digital media form and inform us as individuals, families and communities, including the church. On the other hand, digital media form and inform our engagement as a church within the present culture.

Preaching With Both Hands

This is particularly true when it comes to preaching, whether it is kerygmatic (calling one into relationship with Jesus Christ through conversion and belief), catechetical (deepening the understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in his body, the church) or homiletic(proclaiming Jesus and exhorting all to embrace him in the context of the liturgical assembly). Regardless of the type of preaching, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth urged the preacher “to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Teaching in the mid-20th century, Barth urged the preacher to interpret the signs of the times as found in the media through the lens of faith, speaking to both what is good and what is evil in the world.

Barth’s quip can be modified easily for today’s digital culture: Hold the Bible in one hand, and a mobile device in the other. But unlike a newspaper, which for the most part delivers information in a relatively static way, digital devices (tablets, phones, laptops, VR glasses, etc.) provide a vast amount of information at lightning speed that engages us in a way very different from newsprint. Digital media form and inform us in a way different from the newspaper. It is not the content but the manner or the “medium” by which the content is delivered that has become crucial. As Marshall McLuhan put it briefly more than 50 years ago, “The medium is the message.” How content is delivered is as much a message as the content itself.

What might be some of the possible effects of using digital media? Personal experience and observation more than suggest that there is a positive dimension to digital media. They can bring people together and keep them informed in a faster way. People have quicker and easier access to information, news and each other. With the right tools, one can keep in touch with loved ones on the other side of the globe. One can watch Pope Francis live as he prays the Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square. One can wave hello and even sing from a distance as a loved one celebrates a birthday party. There are, however, risks and downsides to our digital-media formation: isolation, a loss of real embodied community, a preference for the virtual over the real, the development of nasty subcultures of anger, hatred, gossip, detraction, bullying, violence and, most significantly, pornography, which now makes up most of the traffic on the cyber highway. The Christian preacher in the present era must not only seek to evangelize within the digital culture but must evangelize the medium itself, making it more about the good news than the dark territory it can become.

Toward Community and Communion

One of the major challenges the Christian preacher faces in the digital culture is to call people from isolation and separation into community and communion. The preacher today has to make a case for why coming together as a community in a real physical place and time is a good in and of itself. It is not a matter of merely addressing the “I am spiritual but not religious” trend but also of demonstrating the necessity of conscious and intentional participation in a proper Christian community that is right for each person. This is a great challenge, and it is one that is often difficult to resolve as knowledge, distance and time (to name only a few factors) get in the way. Often, I find all that I can do is point people in the right direction, ask for some help in the “com box” and above all, pray for them.

This forms and informs how I, as preacher and evangelizer, interact within digital media. Most of what I do is to plant seeds. I do not approach digital media as an apologist but as a cultivator, one who sows the seeds of the good news in the different types of soil that form the contemporary digital culture. In terms of content, I take two approaches. The first is Christological: “Talk about Jesus, talk about Jesus, talk about Jesus.” I encourage my users to use the grace each has been given to respond and to grow in that deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, raised and glorified. As I repeatedly said to my seminary students in homiletic courses, “Always preach Jesus Christ before you preach the church.”

The second approach is simple and Pauline, “Say only the good things that men and women need to hear, things that will raise them up” (Eph4:29). There is enough darkness and anger in the culture; we cannot and must not add to it. I try to bring light, goodness and the offer of salvation. I seek to entice someone to pick up the seed and then invite them to become fertile ground. St. Augustine, in his treatiseOn the Teaching of Christian Doctrine, said that the preacher must “teach, please, and persuade” (Book 4). Byplease he meant that the message must be one that draws the person and the audience in by both its content and its form. I often use humor or a short personal anecdote or a picture to entice my audience so that I may then teach and persuade. These things are not ends in themselves but means to an end, an end that is always for all to be in communion with the person Jesus.

Cultivating Growth

The image of my use of digital media as planting and cultivating seeds is appropriate when one talks about the “form” of the message. Generally speaking, the preacher is best served within digital media by following the comedian George Burns’s sage advice, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending and to have the two as close together as possible.”In terms of content in digital media, the shorter the better, so use as few words as possible. That might sound odd, but digital culture is a medium driven more by image and video than by words. Data demonstrate that a good image or short video will get far more traffic than a simple written paragraph—no matter how short or clear.

A recent and sad example validates this point. Remember the worldwide reaction to the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees after the photo of a little boy lying dead at the water’s edge went viral? He wasone of at least 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos. That image was viewed millions of times in digital media and moved people in a way that a printed paragraph in a newspaper could not. On my own platforms, a picture or a video almost always gets more traffic than just a printed text, even a tweet of 140 characters or less.

My purpose, however, is not to pit images against text. People who study internet analytics report that even a good video, no matter how well produced and how strong the message, starts to lose viewership after about two minutes of airplay. The users of digital media have too many other things to do, too many other possibilities and thus do not want to spend too much time in one place. The result is that the attention span of many of us in this culture has become short and fragmented.

So how does this form and inform my preaching? It does so in a number of ways, particularly in terms of performance and style. Since my audience is now “image driven,” often possessing a shorter and fragmented attention span, my preaching contains clear, striking and memorable “memes.” It makes use of memory tricks to help keep my audience’s attention and help them remember the truth of faith I am breaking open for them. I have adjusted the way I preach, structuring my homily into three or four significant segments, each designed to “change the channel” or refocus my audience’s attention. I do this through a simple change in posture, moving sideways if standing outside a pulpit or shifting my stance and posture in the pulpit. I make changes in voice inflection, or the use of call-and-response questions like “Do you know what I mean?” with a nod of the head. I also make shifts in content, moving into a new story or a new point. While there are any number of techniques that can be used, it is important to remember that preaching is a vocal performance that involves the whole preacher.

Finally, clarity of thought is a must. Blessed John Henry Newman summed it up well: “I must have a definite sense of who I am as a preacher, a definite sense of who my audience is, and a definite point of faith about which I want to preach.” These words, addressed to his 19th-century audience, are as true now as they were then. As we live in the digital culture and engage that culture through various devices, clarity is a must. Knowing who I am as a preacher in the digital culture, knowing my audience and knowing the truth to propose is the clarity of presenting a person, Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth and the life.” Proper use of digital media can proclaim  Jesus not only as the way, the truth and the life—but my way, my truth and my life, so that in the community of faith where he is proclaimed, he may be celebrated and lived as our way, our truth and our life.

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Joseph McGowan
1 year 2 months ago
Wonderful, practical article. Thank you.
David Wither
1 year 1 month ago
This is an excellent article with a positive perspective towards digital technology. Unfortunately many of the Baby Boomer generation think that the young people are going to outgrow the digital toys or worst yet are trying to force the genie back into the bottle by trying to tell the young people to put their smartphones down. The reality is that there is a huge gap between the generations. This article, especially the reference to Karl Barth’s preaching technique is a great step forwarding to realize that preaching must transcend all generations. Our real challenge is to begin to prepare for Gen Alpha who doesn't just use technology but will integrate it into their lives flawlessly. Regardless of how you perceive it, connecting to people in the future (to educate, inform and or establish a relationship/experience) will require the use to technology. Now is the time to prepare and to begin to let go of old paradigms.

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