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Making the Gospel 'go viral'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 11, 2011

Last week, for their symposium on “Christ and the New Media”, my friends at Thomas More College asked me to give an introductory talk, summarizing relations between the Catholic Church and the news media in the years since Vatican II. That assignment forced me to think about the “big picture” in a way that my everyday work does not allow: to think about things as they are today, as they were 50 years ago, and as they might be in the future. After pondering these things for a while, I reached an unexpected conclusion: 

We are about to begin an era of explosive growth in Catholic evangelization.

Do you find that surprising? I confess that when I reached that conclusion, I surprised myself. Yet there’s more:

If we don’t see explosive growth in evangelization, it will be our own fault.

Now when I say that it will be “our” fault, do not misunderstand me. I don’t mean that it will be the fault of the Catholic Church as an institution—one more thing that we can grumble about, and blame on the bishops. No, I mean that it will be our fault, dear reader. Your fault; my fault. If we don’t see explosive growth in evangelization, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

A generation or two ago, the ordinary Catholic had virtually no access to the means of social communication. An energetic layman might evangelize his friends and neighbors and colleagues, but he had no way to reach a wider audience. Today we can all reach a world-wide audience. And if we are prudent, we can do so without sacrificing our all-important opportunities to share our faith with those who are closest to us.

Think back, if you can (that is, if you are old enough) to the 1960s, when the “mass media” in the US consisted of urban newspapers, radio stations, and three national television networks. If you happened to be one of the few people working as a commentator for one of those outlets, you could broadcast your opinions to the world at large. If not, you couldn’t.

Oh, you might call a press conference, issue a strong statement, and hope that the media would carry your message. But your success in any such effort would depend on the cooperation of the mass-media outlets, and those outlets did not always cooperate. As the years passed, it became increasingly evident that the mass media did not love the Catholic Church. Critics of the Church found it easy to garner publicity; stalwart Catholics did not.

So what could a faithful Catholic do, to bring the message of the faith into the public forum? A few enterprising laymen decided that if the existing media would not pay attention to us, we needed mass-media outlets of our own. Their logic was impeccable: ”If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” But the barriers to entry were formidable. To start up a newspaper would cost millions of dollars; to start up a television network, hundreds of millions. Some admirable Catholic entrepreneurs have set up special-interest magazines and small local radio stations and alternative newspapers. But with the single exception of EWTN, no Catholic media enterprise has even begun to rival the power of the major outlets. Unless you have the luminous faith and charisma of Mother Angelica—and who does?—it’s simply too expensive.

But today, those “barriers to entry” have fallen. We no longer need to rely on the mass-media outlets to deliver our messages to the world. If you are reading this, you have access to the internet. And if you have access to the internet, you have the means of communicating with billions of people all around the world. The size of your audience is limited not by your bank account, but only by your ability to attract new readers.

So what am I saying? That all good Catholics should begin writing essays and circulating them over the internet? No, not at all. If you happen to have the talents of G.K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis, then you definitely should be writing brilliant works of apologetics. But—no offense meant!—you probably don’t have that sort of talent. Don’t worry about it. Now that the barriers to entry have fallen, we don’t all have to be old-fashioned essayists in order to capture the attention of readers. We can use whatever special talents we do have. You can find your own niche—the people who share your interest on other matters, maybe—and gradually, subtly, work the faith into the conversation. The keys are to find ways to communicate with people, to find people who are on the same wavelength, and to find ways to bring them to Christ. The internet solves the first two problems. Now we—each one of us—must solve the latter.

I don’t have all the answers; I don’t know how to go about this great project. Still, for the past 15 years, I have made it my daily task to address an audience on the internet—to try to give readers a clear and reliable vision of how the world looks each day, viewed through Catholic eyes. That’s my small contribution to this great effort. What’s yours?

Think about it. Imagine what would happen if each one of us used the new media to reach just a few dozen people every week, and gently communicated some Gospel truths. You can do the math yourself; can’t you? If millions of Catholics are sending out millions of messages to millions of readers—who might forward those messages to millions more readers…

The point is that you can’t do the math yourself. The numbers quickly get too big, and increase too quickly, to allow for computation. The truth goes viral.

Imagine it: Tens of thousands—no, tens of millions—of Catholics encouraging each other, exhorting each other, reassuring each other to the task at hand. Tens of millions—no, hundreds of millions—of Catholics inviting others to read the Gospel, to consider the faith, to enter into the sacramental life of the Church. It’s a beautiful vision, isn’t it? So what’s stopping us?

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Aug. 13, 2011 12:19 PM ET USA

    The video of BXVI beginning his online presence is a riot [available online]. As an avid reader of JPII, BXVI and Paul VI [Humanae Vitae/a mere 15 pgs [very short by Papal standards] the challenge to Papal sharing has been fun to watch our a 140 character world [twitter]. My FB links to the Vatican Facebook page [News.va] and Ask a Catholic Nun. A smallish beginning, but the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step...

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Aug. 13, 2011 11:53 AM ET USA

    Mother Angelica's story is not so well know or the fact that her ministry fundraising began with the sale of fishing lures. Each package of lures [75 cents each] arrived with this message: "We pray that fishermen will have big catches, will learn to fish with the Great Fisherman, and will be protected from accidents." A dear fishing bud of mine picked her up at LAX and shuttled her about Los Angeles in the early days. She believed: "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed..." [Mt. 17:19]

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Aug. 12, 2011 11:35 PM ET USA

    Truly a magnificent vision!!! All of us should say with St. Paul, "I believe, therefore I speak." ...And, "woe to me if I don't preach the Gospel!"

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Aug. 12, 2011 7:46 PM ET USA

    Phil, you are basically right, the opportunities are enormous. We need some evangelical/social campaign approach such as "See, Judge Act" of YCW days of the 50s and 60s translated into the current media.Gospel readings and their application ointo the social milieu pf today. How would Christ respond to the many challenges of today's world. It would also have be done fearlessly in our cynical world.

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