(Originally appeared in the Stamford Advocate, Connecticut Post, Danbury News Times, and Norwalk Hour)
Before I became the social media leader for the Diocese of Bridgeport, none of my friends were Roman Catholic.
When I share that with my co-workers in ministry, they are often upset, but not necessarily surprised. For years now, we’ve heard the narrative that people are leaving religious institutions in droves, particularly the Catholic Church. There have been a number of explanations presented by theologians and sociologists alike, but there is not “one” answer for why people are leaving.
In reality, a myriad of factors contribute to the attrition experienced by many faith communities, all of which are alarming to me. While I am just a small part of a much larger effort to rejuvenate the Catholic Church here in Fairfield County, I have spent my nearly three years in social media learning, sometimes through trial and error, how to reach out to members of the Millennial Generation — of which I am one. I have been incredibly fortunate to work for Bishop Frank Caggiano, who has made this one of his top priorities in his ministry here, as well as with Evan Psencik, our Youth and Young Adult Ministry Coordinator, who has worked to develop those communities in Fairfield County.
I was honored to be one of 12 people representing the Diocese of Bridgeport at this year’s historic Convocation of Catholic Leaders. Nearly every diocese in the country sent several representatives, along with their bishop, to discuss the common issues we all face, to identify the best practices already in progress throughout the nation, and to learn how to become “missionary disciples.” This gathering was game-changing for both my individual work, as well as for the church in the United States.
One of the central topics was how to reach out to millennials, specifically those who have already made the decision to leave the church. How do we conduct an outreach to a group that is suspicious of outreach? How do we share our Good News with a group that is apprehensive at best, and skeptical at worst?
One of the items discussed, a premise in which I firmly believe, is the need for authenticity and vulnerability in our different media outlets. Young adults these days are searching for deeper meaning in the midst of their chaotic lives. In a world where lives are lived on social media, where we are bombarded with advertisements and noise, young adults (like myself) crave authenticity. They want someone, or something that is real and tangible. They desire something stable, something comforting, and something that helps them make sense of their crazy lives. As a Catholic, I believe that something is actually someone, and his name is Jesus Christ.
In my role at the Diocese of Bridgeport, we have established a robust social media presence across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We’ve found that young adults on our pages respond strongly to our short videos, authentic reflections (from parishioners), and strong spiritual graphics. Most of all, though, they respond to their Bishop, who is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, posting daily reflections, prayers, and meditations.
Young adults live their lives on social media, meaning they live their lives with an inherent and constant vulnerability. Since they live their lives this way, they expect the institutions they follow to live this way too. That’s why it is so important to have fun on social media, to use informal language, and to show people “the behind the scenes” of the institution. In the context of my work, this allows us to show that the church is made up of people, with all of their triumphs and tribulations, all trying to serve God as best they can. In this way, we are both authentic, and vulnerable.
This authenticity is something that other faiths struggling with the exodus of Millennials have begun to implement. Even secular organizations have adopted this mind-set in their social and digital media.
The church can use social and digital media to articulate the message of the Gospel to a searching world. There is nothing more authentic, no narrative more powerful, and no message more challenging than the Gospel. We just have to share it with people in the right way.
John Grosso of Stamford is the social media leader of the Diocese of Bridgeport.