On media: Compassionate disruption: Being a digital missionary

By Helen Osman
Guest Columnist

A bishop at SXSW (South by Southwest)? A real bishop? And he’s from the Vatican? Indeed, there he was, deep in the heart of the cultural event Austinites seem to simultaneously love and hate, 10 days that make downtown traffic even more unbearable, but also have put Austin on everyone’s radar ––  even the Vatican’s.
While I appreciate the incongruity of an ordained minister of the church rubbing elbows with the eccentrics who have helped Austin to embrace the motto “Keep Austin Weird,” at the same time I’m saddened so many are startled by the concept.
Saddened, because as a Catholic communication professional, I see the generational divide becoming more pronounced in my church. Although I’m not privy to any readership surveys the Diocese of Austin has done in the last decade, I’m guessing the Catholic Spirit’s demographics are like those surveys I have seen, whether in Pennsylvania, Iowa or California. Bluntly, if you are reading this, you are most likely over age 55. 
While the church’s legacy media –– print, TV and radio ––  have a loyal and dedicated following in the older crowd, we are just not engaging younger Catholics at the same level as their elders. Indeed, they’re not just missing as consumers of Catholic media. They’re not showing up on Sundays, or any other time, at our parishes or in our outreach efforts, at the same levels as previous generations. The research is clear on that.
What’s less clear is why. I pray the universal Synod, scheduled for October 2018 and focusing on the aspirations of those under age 30, sheds some light on this. In the meantime, it became abundantly clear to me during SXSW 2017 that it wasn’t because young people weren’t interested in the church. Our panel presentation, “Compassionate Disruption,” was well attended, and very few gray-headed folks were in the room! We had interview requests from NBC, NPR and BBC, among others, who sent teams of young journalists to SXSW. The ultimate indicator of this interest, in my opinion, was the fact that a couple of people told Bishop Paul Tighe after our presentation that they had stumbled into the room unintentionally, but stayed to the end because they found the conversation interesting!
There were a handful of other “faith-based” presentations at SXSW, and I heard how pastors and other church ministers understand the “digital natives” have a different approach to faith. One university chaplain talked about how college students will look online for answers to faith questions, before they come talk to him ––  if they even engage in a face-to-face conversation with him. I have found similar responses when I conduct focus groups with young, engaged Catholics. These are people under age 40 who are active in their faith. When I ask them where they go when they have a question about the church or their faith, they look at me as if I am clueless. “The Internet, of course!” “I search online.” “I have a couple of websites I trust.”
Bishop Tighe said this is a generational difference us older folks need to put behind us. “We need to get over the idea that there is a ‘real’ world and a ‘virtual’ world,” he said. “It is all the same.” Instead of dismissing the digital culture, if we really care about its members, we need to meet them where they are ––  online.
Over the centuries, the Catholic faith has become part of many cultures, embracing customs and behaviors that allowed Christ to become present to those for whom those customs and practices were normal life. As someone who lives in the “digital continent” (a term coined by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), I believe I am called to be a missionary in this culture. Instead of dismissing social media as shallow or divisive, I want to learn about its altruistic side. 
SXSW has become one of the major, international cultural events for the digital culture. Although I hate the traffic jams and find other aspects unsavory, it seems to me people of faith cannot ignore SXSW. We could very well be missing our modern-day chance to preach at Areopagus.