Connection vs. isolation? Perfection vs. authenticity? Addiction vs. balanced use?
Mention use of digital media, and I’m sure you will find people on either side of the spectrum. Regardless of where you stand, I know one thing is certain — the power of digital networks cannot be underestimated in the lives of today’s young people.
Young people are obsessive consumers of all things digital, and the secular world uses this to its advantage. Brands, advocacy organizations and news outlets maximize use of social networks to extend their influence and transform the way young people look at the world.
Young people know this and are looking to the church to help them reclaim their presence along the digital highways. At the presynodal meeting this past March, young people asked the church to “deepen her understanding of technology so as to assist us in discerning its usage” and view the internet “as a fertile place for the new evangelization.”
Are we willing to meet young people in the digital sphere to become their companions along the journey?
I hope our answer is yes — with a desire to run and not walk. We can no longer sit in our churches and wait for young people to come back to us. We must travel to the digital spaces in search of young people who are trying to navigate this complex life.
We must make the journey, knowing it will require much of us. It will stretch us, make us discern new ways of using today’s tools to offer insight into eternal truths. It will challenge us to look at language in a new way. It will require a commitment of resources to ensure our digital presence can mirror the quality and quantity of secular outreach.
However steep the requirements may appear, I feel confident the Lord is asking us to embrace these communication methods as a means of making his presence known in the world.
Further, we must go to these spaces not only with a desire to share faith-filled digital content, but to model healthy use and consumption. This means we need to create social campaigns that teach young people how to use digital media in service to those in need and to give voice to those who are voiceless.
It means we need to create campaigns that encourage young people to put their devices down and engage in real-life experiences and encounters. It means we too need to model effective ways of giving witness to our faith.
Young people are experiencing a crisis in mission and witness. Out of fear of publicly sharing faith on their personal social media platforms, many resort to one-on-one private sharing via text or email.
If our missionary disciples fear retaliation for sharing their faith online, how do we expect people who are away from the church to engage in public dialogue or explore the beauty of what the church offers?
These challenges are real, but the power of the Holy Spirit is stronger. Over 2,000 years ago, the disciples left that Upper Room and taught us how to go out and communicate a message of hope. They went to their respective ends of the earth, and through word and witness spoke a message of truth, goodness and beauty.
Today’s digital highways are our ends of the earth. Use of digital media is not the only answer in helping to reverse the decline in religiosity of today’s young people. After all, Jesus does not call us into a relationship with our digital devices.
But if we hope for a world where more young people embrace the gift of a relationship with Jesus, then we must bring him to the space where they can take the first steps of encountering his lifesaving message.
Sarah Yaklic is the director of Grotto Network out of the University of Notre Dame. She is a guest columnist for the Catholic News Service series “In Light of Faith.”