Generation Z and Evangelizing the Digital Culture

Last week our diocese hosted its fall Parish Catechetical Leaders meeting. This group is made up of pastoral associates, DREs, youth ministers, and other catechetical and evangelization leaders in our parishes.

Our speaker was Jonathan Blevins (@BeardedBlevins). He spoke about Generation Z (the “post-Millennials”) and how he’s used video games and social media to create an evangelizing community for young people:

Thanks to Jonathan for joining us for the day!

Inculturation, Evangelization, and the Digital Continent

Last month I attended the 2016 Liturgy Symposium hosted by the Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame. The theme of the conference was “Liturgy and the New Evangelization” and featured a great presentation by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome on digital culture and the liturgical capacity of persons.

Daniella’s keynote has me reflecting on the work of inculturation in evangelization and catechesis — and the implications for how the church should approach the emerging digital culture. Echoing Catechesi Tradendae, the National Directory for Catechesis states that

Inculturation is a requirement for evangelization, a path toward full evangelization. It is the process by which “catechesis ‘takes flesh’ in the various cultures.

This is just as true for the digital culture as it is for Hispanic, youth, and other types of culture. While still young, the “digital continent” is already exhibiting a variety of arts, behaviors, and values that could rightly be called a unique culture. Understanding and responding to this culture will mean more than just understanding the mechanics of specific technologies.

For instance, one of the pitfalls I see many parishes falling into is trying to use digital tools without understanding their context in the digital culture. For instance, Facebook is a highly interactive medium which allows for comments and dialog between people. And yet many parishes simple use it as a broadcast medium — in effect making it an electronic bulletin — and never solicit or respond to comments from parishioners or seekers. They are using the tool but in a way out of step with the cultural value of interactivity in digital spaces. As a result their efforts fail to reach people immersed in that culture because they are speaking to a different set of cultural beliefs and practices.

As pastoral ministers continue to adopt new media technologies we must keep in mind that they are not culturally neutral. They embody and speak to specific values and beliefs that have arisen as the internet continues to grow. Discerning what technologies to adopt — and how — will be ongoing work on the digital continent and in the Church.

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What Young Catechetical Leaders Need

A couple weeks ago I responded to a request from a catechetical colleague and friend to consider working on a national project. After thinking and discerning about it I decided to politely refuse but found that, in doing so, I had some things to say. Indeed, what should have been a simple “no, thank you” email quickly blossomed into a 1,300-word essay about the needs of young catechetical leaders.

Below is a highly edited version of that email. I don’t mean to speak for all young Catholic leaders, but I would love to hear reactions from other young adults working in Catholic ministry — feel free to leave a comment or send me a private message via my contact page.

Dear T—-,

Thank you again for your invitation. I am gratified by the words you shared expressing your confidence in me and my gifts.

Unfortunately I find that I can’t muster much enthusiasm right now for committee work. As I mentioned, my experience with national committees is a mixed bag – good, committed, energized people who are often ignored and who do not possess a means of energizing the organization with their ideas. With a new baby, plenty of diocesan work to keep me busy, and other projects I’m excited to pursue, I don’t think I would be effective in breaking through this organizational culture.

In particular I find myself pessimistic about the ability of national ecclesial bodies to attract and tap into the energy, charisms, and commitment of young Catholics, in no small part due to the experiences I have had. In some corners of the Church there is a consistent undertone directed towards young adults that we are there to learn or be learned about, rather than having anything meaningful to say on our own behalf. This was made very clear to me when, at a gathering of national catechetical leaders, a well-known and respected leader in catechetical circles cut me off three times as I tried to respond to a point he was making to me during a hallway conversation before he walked off. At that moment he was the face of an organization that didn’t care to hear my story.

The failure of many national organizations to make good use of new media is also disheartening to me as someone who has tried to educate catechetical leaders on “best practices” for engaging the faithful through new media and who sees it used so well in other corners of the Church (including, surprisingly, the USCCB).

You may recall that, at the end of our conversation last December, you made the statement that “I have a deep loyalty to [X organization]”. I reflected on that afterwards and realized that I have no loyalty to the organization – not because I see it as unimportant or because of my shorter history with it, but because my loyalty is to the ministry of catechesis (as is, I know, yours). Any interest I have in or energy I give to the organiztion is directly proportional to how helpful I see it to catechesis and my role as a catechetical leader.

In this I don’t think I am alone among younger Catholics. Last October Rod Dreher recounted this anecdote following a meeting of friends of First Things magazine:

After lunch, an older Catholic theologian said the morning discussion highlighted for him a “generational divide” among our group. He said that his faction sees the basic problem as one of reforming institutions, which is the approach they inherited from the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, whose reign stretched from 1878-1903. This theologian said that Leo believed that society should try to re-harmonize the three things needed for happiness and a flourishing life: family, community, and church. In Leo’s day, these three had been thrown out of balance by revolutionary economic and political upheaval; he dedicated his pontificate to finding a workable balance.

In the classical First Things approach, said this theologian, the problem is one of bringing the three elements into proper balance in the public square. You can’t return to 1940, but you can bring them into greater alignment. But by the mid-1990s, it was beginning to become clear that the problems were not just a matter of reforming institutions, because institutions were fast becoming optional to American life.

The second, younger faction, this man said, seems to believe that the institutions can’t really be reformed, and that the problem, therefore is more radical. There seemed to be agreement around the table to this notion. One professor spoke quite eloquently throughout the day on the personal crises she sees in her students. There is, she said, an overwhelming sadness to them, an existential angst and fear…

“You can’t imagine how my 18 year old students think about these things,” she said. “No institutions, with the possible exception of their families, mean anything to them.”

This resonated strongly with me – I’m not interested in reforming organizations that have outlasted their usefulness. This is a reality that ecclesial organizations will have to face if they want to attract young adults – insofar as they seem to ignore the concerns of young catechetical leaders (and to be clear, those concerns tend to be very different from the concerns of older catechetical leaders who are driving the agenda), these organizations will appear useless to those young leaders.

I think such organizations have a place in the Church – they have not outlived their usefulness. Indeed, my words here are born out of a place of love and respect for the good work such organization have done over the decades. If I sound harsh it is only because I want such organizations to succeed in the future. But I do not see many of these organizations’ names surfacing in the catechetical circles in which I travel – young catechetical leaders see them as largely irrelevant to their ministry, if they think about them at all.

We don’t need organizations for their newsletter – there are plenty of blogs with more (and often better) content. We don’t need them for their conferences – we can see the same speakers in webinars and have the same lobby conversations on Twitter and Facebook (and year-round, too). We don’t need them to stay connected to the national catechetical scene – we have myriad ways of accessing resources from publishers and the USCCB.

What we need are professional organizations that will acknowledge, listen to, and engage young catechetical leaders as leaders with our own expertise and experiences to bring to the table, even when we do things differently and challenge the “old guard”. This generation is not willing to “wait our turn” – we have plenty of opportunities, thanks to new technologies, to strike out on our own and form our own intentional communities of support and mutual learning. Current national leaders could be a willing partner in those conversations. Thus far they have chosen to stay within their own walls.

Defeating the World by Embracing the Cross: Under the Influence Of Jesus Blog Tour

One of the great gifts of the New Evangelization is the reminder that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to evangelize the culture because, like us, it is in need of conversion. Christians, we know, are called to live, work, and play within the world without taking on the attitudes and habits of that world which — while made by God and declared good — has nevertheless been broken through sin. Thus our weapons are not those of the world. Rather, our weapons are spiritual in nature.

Joe Paprocki makes this point in his new book Under the Influence of Jesus: The Transforming Experience of Encountering Christ. Joe devotes an entire chapter to the power of the cross and it’s power to transform our ways of living and thinking.

By way of example Joe relates the story of Barabbas and the decision by the Jews to ask for him instead of Jesus when offered a prisoner by Pontius Pilate. Barabbas was a revolutionary who sought to overthrow the occupying Romans by force. Jesus, in contrast, was a king with no visible army who did not defend himself.

These two figures continue to challenge us today as we seek to live in a world increasingly hostile to the kerygma. One tempts us to be “realists” and utilize the ways of the world in order to defeat it. The other asks us to renounce those ways in favor of prayer, fasting, and alms giving. In short, we are asked to embrace the cross. Joe reminds us that

As Christians, we formally worship Jesus on Sunday; but all too many of us continue to clamor for Barabbas the other six days of the week. We do so because we trust that his weapons are more suited to the “real world” than are those of Jesus Christ. As a result, we remain enslaved by what I call the “Barabbas cycle.” Whenever we perceive that we are “attacked” by an evil, we are inclined to respond with a bigger, stronger (but in our eyes more righteous) version of the same evil. Ironically, our actions are self-defeating. By perpetuating evil, we are only strengthening the enemy we aim to crush.

The Gospels, of course, tell us that choosing Barabbas is a mistake — that Jesus is the savior we need, and that his weapon, the cross, is more powerful than any gun.

The cross? Cue those crickets again.

Unfortunately too often we fall short of Christ’s call and fall prey to the temptation to fight fire with fire. Whether calling for preemptive war, making disparaging and uncharitable comments online, gossiping in the office, or playing politics while ignoring the common good, the ways of the world lead away from the cross and the Kingdom of God.

Fortunately we can renounce the bad habits of the world and seek to embrace the way of the cross in our lives. Joe offers three suggestions for cultivating “kingdom habits” that will help us embrace our crosses and use them for the spiritual benefit of the world:

  1. Cultivate silence as a means of silencing the ego.
  2. Shift the focus away from our own needs by reducing our consumption.
  3. Focus on others by practicing generosity.

These three habits can not only radically transform our personal lives; they are also key habits for the New Evangelization, which calls us out of ourselves in order to preach the Gospel through the proclamation of the kerygma and the practice of the Works of Mercy.

I highly recommend Under the Influence of Jesus — in fact, I’m giving away a copy to a lucky reader! Check out this blog post for details.

Cardinal Wuerl’s NCEA Keynote: A Way of Seeing the World

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the NCEA conference in Pittsburgh. I had a great time meeting up with Twitter friends old and new, attending great breakout presentations, and giving my own breakout on Catholic schools.

The highlight of the conference was an outstanding keynote address by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C. He spoke on the work of the New Evangelization in light of the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Some notes from that keynote:

  • The New Evangelization consists of the Church going out into the world to share the beauty of the Gospel.
  • The New Evangelization is not a program, but a way of seeing the world.
  • We must recognize the challenges of a secular, materialistic, individualistic culture to the faith. Secularism has swept Western culture like a tsunami, sweeping away family, church, faith.
  • We must be committed to and confident in the truth of the Gospel, then share it with others.
  • Engaging in the the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy is an indispensable part of the New Evangelization.
  • Where do we meet Jesus today? With the only remaining living witness of his life, death, and resurrection: the Church. It is within the witness of the Church that we can be confident in the truth of the Gospel.
  • New evangelists must be bold; connected to the Church; have a sense of urgency; and radiate joy. People must see and hear our joy; this way they may be inspired to follow us to Christ.

My only quibble with what was otherwise an outstanding address is that the cardinal spoke about the importance of both the parish and the school as contexts for passing on the Catholic faith — but failed to mention the family, which seems to me to be the most important context for evangelization and catechesis. This is understandable considering the audience; still, it would have been good to hear the family tied into the parish and the school.

Cardinal Wuerl has been a tireless promoter of the New Evangelization in this country. I highly recommend his book New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today for more of his insights and thoughts.

3 Starting Points for Encouraging Non-Practicing Catholic Families

5139215570_fa0b898570_bMy friend Marc has a challenging post up about what we are teaching Catholic families about who and what they are. After reading through the questions posed for the Extraordinary Synod on the The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization — and its assumptions about the faithful’s familiarity with documents such as Gaudium et Spes and Familiaris Consortio — Marc muses

Is the Vatican so out of touch with the faithful? These are very intellectual questions that assume a lot of knowledge. Do they really think most Catholics read and understand these documents and terms?

But the other thing I thought was–should I have been teaching them this stuff? I’ve never even considered having a class for families on who and what they’re supposed to be. Parents would never come.

But if we don’t somehow teach them, how will they know? How will families understand themselves and what they’re called to be?

I’ve been wondering something similar for some time, although I also wonder if we’re teaching families what they should be doing to practice the faith at home. So many Catholic parents don’t even seem to be doing the basics anymore. And if they aren’t going to Mass on Sunday or praying before meals, do we really expect them to be sharing their faith in any meaningful way with their children?

(I could probably insert a whole sidebar here on the implications of Forming Intentional Disciples; suffice to say that it’s clear most Catholic parents wouldn’t meet Sherry’s criteria for intentional discipleship.)

I don’t think the answer is to hand out copies of Familiaris Consortio to every Catholic family and expect them to read it. So where do we start?

  1. Talk about the domestic Church. We need to remind parents that their families are a microcosm of the universal Church. Just as we gather together in parish communities to celebrate our faith, serve one another, and give thanks to God, so too are families called to do the same. This isn’t an “add-on” or something we do when we have extra time, but an integral part of what it means to be family in a Catholic context. Reminding families who they are — and using the language of the domestic Church — is one way to get them thinking about and moving towards this reality.
  2. Encourage greater Mass attendance. By that I don’t mean haranguing parents to be at Mass every Sunday. Rather, we should encourage them to take small steps towards greater participation. For a family that only attends at Easter and Christmas, maybe that means going once per month. For a family that participants more frequently, moving towards regular weekly attendance. And for families that are already attending every week, encouraging adding a daily Mass every week. The point is small improvements that can build on each other, not going immediately from 0 to 60.
  3. Reinforce family meal time and prayer. We’ve all seen the statistics that show how regular family meal times leads to better grades, a reduced likelihood of drug and gang involvement, and better mental and physical health. So why do so few families practice a daily shared meal? This simple step can help re-prioritize a family’s activities, help make connections to the Eucharist, and expand their faith lives through shared prayer and conversation. Activities such as The Meal Box (which my kids love) are a great tool to facilitate this interaction.

How do you think we can reach Catholics families and help them pass on the faith to their children?

Photo Credit: More Good Foundation via Compfight cc

Notes: Where Two or Three are Texting

Thanks to everyone who joined me for today’s Ave Maria Press webinar “Where Two or Three are Texting: Incarnation and Sacrament in a Virtual World.” Below are my slides, notes, and links to related articles. I will post the video of the webinar here as soon as it is available.

If you have any questions that I wasn’t able to address during the session, please feel free to add them to the comments and I’ll do my best to respond with an answer!




The notes for this presentation are available to view in Google Docs.


Free Webinar: How To Write a News Release

newspaperThe Office for Catechesis of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois will be offering a free webinar in a few weeks on writing news releases:

When getting the word out about your parish, school, or ministry, you have a lot of choices: newsletters, Facebook, email lists, Twitter, etc. But one communications channel often overlooked is the news release. A well written and professional news release can increase the chances that your item will be picked up by your local newspaper or news stations!

Kathie Sass, director of communications for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, will offer a one hour webinar on how to write a news release for your parish, school, or ministry. Starting with what information reporters and news organizations want, she will detail how to craft a professional release that will help you communicate your good news to your community.

The webinar, which we are recommending for communications directors, development personnel, principals, DREs, and other parish leaders, will be offered at two different times on Wednesday, September 18:

We hope to see you there!

Catechetical DVDs are Dead (But Do They Know It Yet?)

In an effort to expand my son’s cultural horizons I recently exposed him to a great one-two punch of classic science fiction:  the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and it’s silver screen sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:

It wasn’t until a day or two after watching the movie that I realized I had hit a significant milestone in media use. Being a fan of classic Star Trek I own all the good movies (II, III, IV, VI, and First Contact) on DVD. And yet, when it came time to watch with my son, it didn’t even occur to me to fish out the disc and pop it into the DVD player. Instead we sat in front of the computer and loaded it on Netflix. I mentioned this on Twitter and found that I was hardly alone in this shift.

This caused me to reflect on the state of catechetical media. I’ve seen a number of big DVD releases from Catholic publishers lately (Fr. Barron’s Catholicism being the most ready example) and I’ve even ordered some for my office’s library. But if DVDs are a dying format we have to ask: what comes next?

The biggest shift in media use has been from physical media to streaming services. Just as I used Netflix to watch Wrath of Khan with my son, more and more people are forgoing physical media in favor of services that give instant access to a large library of titles. This isn’t just true of video; services such as Pandora and Spotify are replacing CD libraries for a lot of young adults. How fast is this shift happening? Let’s put it this way: I can’t remember the last CD player I owned and I don’t expect to buy another DVD player. Ever.

Will catechetical publishers be able to make this shift from discs to streaming? I’m not sure.  I don’t know the details of how media companies get their titles onto Netflix or Hulu or what sort of reimbursement they receive. Suffice to say that, given the size of their market, it will probably be difficult for Catholic catechetical publishers to get their titles onto most of the mainstream services. They may need to look for some smaller streaming providers or develop in-house solutions. This won’t necessarily solve the problem, though, since many people (and parishes) will be reluctant to pay for additional streaming services on top of whatever mainstream provider they are already shelling out their $10 per month to.

I know a few folks in Catholic publishing read my blog and I’d love to hear from them in the comments. Have your companies explored putting video content on a mainstream streaming service? If so, what would be involved? If no, why not?

For catechists and other folks: Would you (or your parish) be willing to pay for a separate streaming service for Catholic content? What about individual services from various Catholic publishers? What features would you look for in a Catholic streaming service?

Publishing Under Creative Commons: A Primer for Parishes and Dioceses

Last week the Catholic Twittersphere erupted when both the Vatican and the USCCB demanded that blogger Brandon Vogt remove e-book versions of Pope Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei from his web site. Brandon had converted the encyclical into a variety of formats, including Kindle, iPad, and Nook, and was making them freely available so that people could access the pope’s writings on their device of choice.

My purpose here is not to defend either party; rather, I’d like to ask why the Church’s treasure of teachings, chant, liturgical texts, and other works are so tightly controlled when there are catechists, bloggers, and media producers who would gladly make use of them to further the Church’s mission of evangelization. That these resources remain unavailable to the Christian faithful in their apostolates constitutes a great disservice to the work of catechesis and evangelization. It’s hard not to get the impression that some in the Church are more concerned with asserting copyright than spreading the Good News.

Fortunately there is a solution that would both allow the Church to maintain copyright of its works while allowing the faithful to make use of them in the mission of evangelization: the Creative Commons license.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) is a standard for creating licenses allowing others to use your copyrighted works. In other words, you give permission for others to use your created works (be it text, images, sound, or video) under specific conditions set by you. As an example, I post everything on this web site under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. That means that anyone may copy my blog posts or images that I create for my site and edit them for their own purposes, provided that they a) attribute me at the original creator and b) do not sell the resulting work or otherwise make money off it.

The four main conditions typically attached to CC licenses are

  • Attribution (the licensee must attribute the original creator)
  • NonCommercial (resulting works may not be sold)
  • NonDerivative (the original work may not be altered or edited)
  • Share-Alike (you can edit the work but must release your creation under the same CC license)

Creators can mix and match the conditions they put on works; CC does not require that all four be used.

It is important to note that a CC license does not negate or otherwise replace copyright. The original creator retains the copyright to their work. Rather, CC is designed to sit along side — and, in fact, relies on — traditional copyright law. It is merely meant to allow others access to the work under the conditions of the CC license.

Why Publish Under Creative Commons?

Publishing under a CC license allows creators to retain the copyright to their works while ensuring that the works may be used by others. In the case of Church documents, this would keep the copyright with the USCCB or Holy See while allowing the faithful to use the Church’s treasury of teachings in catechetical handouts, blog posts, mobile apps, online videos, study guides, and other media.

Utilizing the CC model recognizes that the information and resources produced by the Church are not useful if they cannot be easily shared. The internet and related digital tools have created an environment in which it is able — and indeed expected — that text, audio, and video will be readily accessible and available for editing and sharing. A whole generation of young Catholics, such as Brandon, is already experimenting with new media tools in evangelization efforts. The more the Church can support these efforts the more enthusiastic evangelists it will foster.

Indeed, the USCCB already does this (although not under the Creative Commons name) for many of the resources available on their web site. For instance, the 2013 Catechetical Sunday materials contain this disclaimer:

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

This is essentially a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NonDerivatives license. It allows others to copy the material without alteration for noncommercial use. I’ve reproduced some of these articles in my office’s catechetical newsletter (which is itself released under a CC license) thanks to the permissions granted by the USCCB.

Switching from the generic permission disclaimer above to a CC license would be a powerful signal by the USCCB that it not only allows but actively encourages Catholics to copy and distribute the resources that the faithful, through their generosity to the Church, have funded.

How to Add a Creative Commons License

Once you’ve decided to publish a work under a CC license it’s simply a matter of using the Creative Commons web site’s handy tool ( to choose the appropriate license for the work. The tool includes the relevant text and images to add to the work to ensure that the license is clear; these can be copied and posted directly from the Creative Commons site.

For most Church-related works an Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivatives license will address the most common concerns. This license allows others to copy the work in its entirety and without edits, and redistribute it for free while given proper attribution. A better choice, however, would be an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. This license allows others to edit the work so long as they freely share the resulting work under the same license. This arrangement would have allowed Brandon to reformat Lumen Fidei into different electronic formats without violating the terms of the license.

In either case, as stated above, the creator retains the copyright to the work.

Parishes and dioceses should consider using a Creative Commons license when they create a variety of works, including

  • blog posts
  • catechetical aids
  • online videos
  • original music compositions
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • homilies
  • podcasts

Of course relevant local or diocesan policies should be followed. But it is my hope that more and more pastors, bishops, lay directors, composers, artists, and other Catholic media creators will recognize the value of using the Creative Commons to ensure that the faithful have access to the official teachings of the Church for use in evangelization and catechesis.