By Joel Donofrio
There’s no question that teens and young adults are enraptured by hi-tech gadgets. But for Catholic educators and youth ministers, the message being conveyed along these new forms of media remains more important than the medium.
“Digital technology is the television, the World War II, the Woodstock of this generation. But technology is a tool, a supplement, to the ministry we’re already doing,” said Chris Weber, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Muscatine Catholic Community. He made that observation June 11 during the Diocese of Davenport’s June Leadership Institute at Assumption High School in Davenport
The event, “Ministry 2.0: Embracing Technology to Spread the Good News,” attracted 25 lay leaders and several priests. It featured a keynote address by Weber on the latest online trends among young adults — in particular, “social networking” sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Those two social networking sites have more than 160 million users, including 55 percent of all teens who are online regularly, Weber said. And while many adults have caught on to the convenience of e-mail, young people have moved on to newer technologies such as text messaging and Twitter.
Weber showed attendees his personal Facebook profile, along with his “wall” where messages and photos can be posted by “friends” who are allowed to interact with him on the social networking site. This allows him to stay in touch and interact with kids in the Muscatine Catholic Community’s youth ministry program.
He also gave an example from a recent National Catholic Youth Conference trip where he used Twitter to quickly and efficiently send messages to both kids and their parents/chaperones.
That “quick messaging” aspect of Twitter and other new technologies interests Crystal DeNeve, the director of faith formation at St. Mary parish in Grinnell.
“I just want to learn how to use these tools better,” said DeNeve as she attended the June Institute. “I’d say the majority of our parents have access to this, and it can mean better communication overall with the kids and their parents.”
Both Weber and others attending the institute warned about the limitations of relying on social networking and other new technologies for youth ministry.
Although about 93 percent of all teens use the Internet on a regular basis (according to a 2007 poll at www.pewinternet.org), youth ministers “can’t forget about the other 7 percent,” Weber said.
“We run the risk of the Internet becoming a have and have-not situation, and our ministry must reach out to everyone,” he added.
To close the institute session, Weber pointed out the importance of getting kids to “unplug” from the hi-tech world and focus on traditional and contemplative forms of prayer and reflection, such as the rosary, eucharistic adoration and guided meditation.
He cited a National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry survey that showed only 34 percent of teens have prayed alone, while 70 percent have used online social networking.
“I think there’s a whole generation that has a very limited understanding of our Catholic traditions,” he added.
(To view Chris Weber’s PowerPoint presentation from the June Institute, visit www.2smallcoins.org and click on the June Institute link.)