Diana and I recently returned from Australia where I gave a keynote presentation for the Christian Initiation Australia Network (CIAN) National Conference. The topic was New Tools for a New Age. My goal was to describe how to use the tools of social media to enhance the catechumenate process.
As soon as I learned what the topic was, I knew I had a challenge ahead of me. I’ve known for a long time there is a cultural divide between digital natives and digital immigrants.
We’re speaking in a foreign language
The term “digital native” was coined by educator Marc Prensky in 2001. Prensky had noticed teachers were having trouble teaching because their students were thinking “digitally.” And the teachers were teaching in, essentially, a foreign language.
Fifteen years ago, most teachers (and business leaders and pastoral ministers) thought of computers and the Internet simply as faster tools. But anyone born after the 1980s doesn’t think of “tools.” They have been born and raised in a new reality — a new culture. When a baby-boomer teacher asks a millennial child to put away his smart phone, it’s like asking a boomer to stop speaking and thinking. It doesn’t make sense to the child.
There are no tools
So that was my challenge. I had been asked to speak to a gathering of mostly baby boomers (born 1945-1964) and some gen-xers (born 1965-1984) about how to use the “tools” of the millennial generation (born after 1984). And I knew that for the millennials, there were no “tools.” There was just the way things are.
Fortunately, smarter people have already been struggling with this. Loyola University of New Orleans professor Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, in her book Connected toward Communion, speaks about the reality and challenges of the new digital culture. Citing Pope John Paul II’s 2005 apostolic letter, The Rapid Development, Zsupan-Jerome writes that the pope “summarizes and affirms the Church’s imperative to consider social communication not just as a tool but as a new culture into which the church is called to integrate the message of the Good News” (109).
Why this matters for RCIA
Here is why any of this matters for RCIA teams. There are millions of people who live in the digital culture who need to hear good news. There is a lot that is good about the digital culture, but it has a dark side, just as all cultures do. The natives of the digital culture, young people born after 1984, are much less likely to belong to a church than are their elders. The result is that those who are alienated or wounded or marginalized in the digital world suffer from a loss of dignity and hope.
We have a message that can restore their dignity and give them hope, but most of us do not speak the language of the digital culture. Our challenge is to become digital immigrants, to immerse ourselves in that culture, to learn its language and customs, and then begin to share the good news of Jesus’s message.
This won’t be easy for most of us. It may even be risky. It’s not really the job most of us signed up for when we joined the RCIA team. But Pope Francis has asked us to be bold. He said:
It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator. Christian witness, thanks to the Internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence. (Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter)
What is your experience?
Do you consider yourself a digital native or a digital immigrant? What strategies have you used to evangelize in the digital culture? What challenges have you experienced?