Surprising lessons from YouTube viewers Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Just last month, my media ministry Word on Fire marked a milestone: 10,000,000 views on our YouTube channel.

This achievement fills me with gratitude both to God and to the many people who watched one or more of the videos I've produced. It also provides the occasion for me to reflect a bit on both the pitfalls and advantages of evangelizing through the new media.

An experiment

When we commenced our outreach through YouTube seven years ago, we did so in the manner of an experiment. YouTube had just come into being at that time, and it largely featured crude, homemade videos of cats jumping off the roof and babies gurgling for their mother's camcorder.

I thought we should try to invade this space with the Gospel, and so I resolved to make short video commentaries on movies, music, current affairs, cultural happenings, etc.

We had absolutely no idea whether anyone would watch, and at first, our offerings garnered just a small audience. I remember being thrilled when one of our videos passed the 500 views mark for the first time.

Building an audience

But over the months and years, word spread, and we began to build an audience.

The first video of ours to go viral was my response to Bill Maher's awful movie Religulous. In the course of a few weeks, it had been seen by 100,000 people, and it continues to perform well, even to the present.

In fact, the atheists have been my most active friends on the Internet. Whenever I do a video on Maher or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, I get a strong reaction and lots of views.

Value of interactivity

One of the features of YouTube that I appreciate the most is its interactivity. At first, I didn't realize that people could comment on videos -- but I quickly found out.

Most responses are negative. There are an awful lot of people in the virtual world who hate God, religion, the Catholic Church, priests, etc., and they come after me with some energy.

I have come to enjoy the give-and-take with my detractors. On a number of my forums, quite lengthy and sometimes sophisticated arguments have unfolded, somewhat in the manner of Platonic dialogues.

We have been able to determine that the vast majority of our viewers are young men in their 20s and 30s -- the very group that the Church has a notoriously hard time reaching.

Communicating the faith

The format that I have chosen is the short video commentary (eight to 10 minutes), based usually on a column that I have prepared for publication in the print media.

Some communications "experts" advised me to lose the Roman collar and appear in civilian clothes. I never took that advice. I always want it to be clear that I am a Catholic priest speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church.

Some of my academic colleagues have been skeptical that any serious communication of the faith can take place in a popular forum. I was trained as an academic and have spent nearly 25 years teaching and writing, but I emphatically dissent from a position that would effectively remove the Catholic voice from the wider cultural forum.

John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, C.S. Lewis, and Fulton Sheen all wrote substantive but accessible articles for the mainstream press, and YouTube is a comparable arena today. If intellectually serious believers absent themselves from the wider conversation, the public space will belong to the atheists and secularists.

‘Affirmative orthodoxy’

As to my general approach, I have tended toward what Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York calls "affirmative orthodoxy," emphasizing what the Church is for rather than what it is against.

I have also adopted the patristic method of seeking out semina verbi (seeds of the Word), hints and echoes of the Gospel that can be found, often in distorted form, in the high and low contemporary culture.

I have argued that Spiderman, Superman, True Grit's Rooster Cogburn, Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski, The Shawshank Redemption's Andy Dufresne, and Frodo the Hobbit all convey some dimension of Jesus Christ; I have maintained that Christopher Hitchens’ essays and the Twilight films speak inchoately but surely of the longing of the human heart for God.

Importance of social media

We find ourselves at a moment in the history of communication comparable to the early 16th century. The printing press constituted a revolution in the propagation of the Gospel.

Something similar, but even more explosive, is at work today. The social media provide tools for announcing the Good News that Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Newman, and even Fulton Sheen never dreamed possible.

The best way I can celebrate the 10,000,000 views on YouTube is to invite others to join me in declaring Christ from the rooftops, on the laptops, and to the ends of the world.


Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org Visit Father Barron's YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/wordonfirevideo