FARIBAULT, Minn. — Following in the footsteps of St. Paul, today’s evangelizers are taking the message of Christ and his Church to the street corners — virtual street corners.
For youth ministers like Justin Stroh, Facebook is that corner.
As director of family faith formation at Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault, Minn., Stroh oversees the Net Ministry teams that conduct youth retreats and activities for kids in sixth through 12th grade. Net Ministries is an international Catholic youth ministry organization.
When e-mail became a “thing of the past” for the youth and an ineffective means of reaching them, Stroh formed a Facebook group called Net Faribault, which has had incredible results. Not only are the youth responding to Net events via Facebook, they are also staying connected with a vibrant Catholic community of young people.
“We keep a simple calendar on our website and for more information, we tell them to go to Facebook and ask to be friends with Net Faribault,” said Stroh. “We encourage everybody to join that group, and ask for the parent’s permission to contact them.”
The Facebook group is particularly helpful in reaching the kids who are not as engaged with their parents, the parish and Christ. If they end up coming to an adoration hour because they connected with someone in the group, said Stroh, that person can encounter Jesus Christ because of modern communications and the Holy Spirit.
Stephanie Wood interacts with hundreds of youth worldwide as the host of a radio show for young adults on EWTN, and through NextWave Faithful, an online community for youth and young adults. All of them are involved in social networking, and modern communications is certainly moving in that direction for all age groups, said Wood, the daughter of Catholic author Steve Wood.
“It’s not going away, even for Catholics,” she said. “It’s so hard to find connection with other Catholics who share the foundation that we have, and social networking is a way to bridge those gaps.
“There’s a lot of positive ways that young people are using it,” she said, adding that she hosted a seminar at a Catholic university that was advertised solely on Facebook.
Wood, 27, is heavily involved in the Catholic social networking site, 4Marks.com. The site is also an information portico where members can access Catholic articles, blogs and comments, and have a community of support.
“The merging of the two is kind of groundbreaking, and I’m excited to see how it takes off,” said Wood. “It’s nice to see a site that is safe for Catholic families to go and discover social networking together.”
Jeremy Stanbary likes the fact that Catholic social networking sites are forming, but they’re still behind in features offered by the secular sites. He uses Facebook and YouTube to promote his Catholic theater arts organization, Epiphany Studio Productions. He posts performance schedules, and videos on the sites.
“It’s one more means to get our name out there to new people and build up name recognition to a new generation,” said Stanbary, 29. “At this point I don’t know that we’ve received a lot of direct benefit from it, but we’ve got 184 members, and a lot of them find you through mutual friends on Facebook.”
At 37, Clayton Emmer represents an age group that is increasingly using social networking sites. He was finally convinced to join Facebook last fall and now has 80 “friends” in his network, many of whom are Catholics from all over the country, and others from high school that he never would have found.
A Catholic writer and Web content manager in Los Angeles, Emmer thinks social networking offers a powerful opportunity for evangelization, and knows many people who are forming groups and movements through social networking sites to influence the culture.
He even started a Facebook group to pray for the conversion of Tom Cruise and other celebrities.
“You put together a site on Facebook for the life of prayer, and you have a powerful cocktail,” he said. “You’re mixing together the Holy Spirit and Facebook — a public platform where people are listening. It’s going to have a powerful impact.”
Emmer has also been following the online discussions on Dreadnoughters Facebook Group. The group was formed by an Australian Catholic named John Heard, who is public about having same-sex attraction and evangelizes about Catholic teaching on human sexuality through his website, blog, writings and speaking engagements.
“Members who come [into discussions] hostile to the Church, all of a sudden will say, ‘Oh interesting, I’ve never heard that before,’” noted Emmer.
Emmer met a man through the group who works near him. He has been involved in the homosexual network in California, but has seen how devastating the lifestyle can be and can’t get enough of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body now because of Dreadnoughters. He and Emmer are meeting to study it.
Heard said that Facebook provided the ideal place where Catholics, Christians, atheists and others could gather and discuss human sexuality and Catholic teaching in a mode that could be welcoming, but also provide an opportunity to maintain a certain degree of anonymity and distance.
“I was impressed by the number of readers, one in particular in Canada, who professed to be so profoundly alone in their attempts at orthodoxy that they were cut off from the fellowship and brotherhood that Christians have always relied on for filial correction and support,” he said through e-mail correspondence.
“By forming the group I intended to provide an online, virtual home for the sometimes geographically disparate, always diverse collection of committed Catholic readers that my writing attracts, and a discussion forum where we could interact with seekers from other traditions, especially otherwise hostile groups and people.”
The group is now moving toward a more “perfect participation in the New Evangelization,” he said, where Dreadnoughters are open to a reasoned consideration of Catholic teaching on human sexuality and members are committed to applying Catholic ideas to their daily lives.
Heard knows of individuals, groups and programs that are springing up because of Dreadnoughters, and he’s aware of a number of parish groups, diocesan outreach programs and priest support groups that rely on the group for referrals and resource materials.
“Sometimes people just want the contact details for a good solid priest who will hear their confession and apply orthodox Catholic teaching as a spiritual guide,” he said.
Because of the great impact that media and social communications have on modern life, Pope Benedict addressed what’s at stake in his message for World Communications Day, May 4, “The Media: At the Crossroads Between Self-Promotion and Service. Searching for Truth in Order to Share It With Others.”
In it, he cites the need for a new field of information ethics to ensure that the social communications “remain at the service of the person and of the common good, and that they foster man’s ethical formation, man’s inner growth.”
Social networking is at the crossroads. Where it ends up could be in the hands of Catholics and Christians, and their commitment to evangelizing the world.
Barb Ernster is based in