Social Media Salvation: Priests and Atheists Dialogue on YouTube

By Brandon Vogt

[Editor’s Note: As part of the Patheos Book Club on Brandon Vogt’s new book The Church and New Media, we’ll be sharing three stories of ‘bearing witness on the web’ over the next two weeks.]

When Fr. Robert Barron began uploading videos to YouTube, he thought it would be a great way to get his message out. But he didn’t know quite what to expect.

“When this outreach commenced, I had no idea that viewers could comment on the videos,” explains Barron, a Chicago-based priest. “I quickly discovered that they could. To date, over 40,000 comments have been posted.”

In The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor), a new book on faith and technology, Barron reveals how powerful new media can be for the Church. According to the viewer statistics on Barron’s YouTube page, the most common demographics are 20- and 30-something year old men. The comments themselves reveal that most of these young men are secular-minded, anti-God, and anti-religion.

As a priest, Barron sees the immense value new media provides by connecting him with demographics the Church has traditionally had trouble reaching. “I have an opportunity I would have in no other way, namely, to engage people who would never dream of coming to any of the institutions of the Catholic Church. Many of them are sincere seekers who, perhaps to their great surprise, find themselves in dialogue with a priest in regard to some of the deepest questions.”

In Barron’s videos, he commentates on popular culture, exploring topics through the lens of Catholicism. He might discuss a recent movie like True Grit, review a new book by atheist Christopher Hitchens, or comment on a major news event.

Because YouTube links similar videos together, many unsuspecting viewers stumble on Barron’s videos by chance. A young man watches a video on Bob Dylan when, at the end, YouTube suggests he check out a video by a Catholic priest commenting on Dylan’s Christian-inspired lyrics. After watching Barron’s video on Dylan, the young man then drifts to some of Barron’s deeper videos on the existence of God or the claims of the Catholic Church.

Barron has seen this pattern repeated over and over again. Every day he receives letters and emails from people who claim his YouTube videos and comment box dialogue were instrumental in their spiritual journey. In fact, many of them chalk their conversions up to Barron’s online efforts.

“I’ve written 10 books of theology and spirituality; I’ve taught courses in philosophy and systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary; I’ve lectured business and civic leaders; and I’ve published dozens of articles in learned and popular journals,” Barron confesses. “But I believe that the most effective work I’ve done in this arena is through the Internet.”

Read another Social Media Salvation story here: Blogging Her Way from Atheism to Catholicism

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