By Mike Hayes
What does it mean to be a mentor in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace? One might think that access to the vast store of online information would lessen the need for mentors—after all, those with more life experience are likely to have less experience with the new media. There’s more at stake, however, than mere access to information. Mentoring in the internet age has a lot to do with trust. And discernment. Finding one’s way online is not an easy task at any age. Thus the real question for mentors is, will we meet the challenge and learn to engage the youth on their turf, using their media?
With the evolution of new technologies, young people are constantly bombarded with media from a variety of sources. The availability of free-flowing information has made it difficult to keep one’s attention on one thing and to discern reputable sources. This situation, ironically, affords professors and pastoral ministers a major opportunity to connect with youth immersed in these technologies.
Young people have responded to this glut of information with their own filters. Much of the information they seek is self-selected or recommended by another trusted source, a friend or reputable mentor.
The first job of any teacher or mentor, therefore, is to prove themselves worthy of being a trusted source.
The relatively recent rise of social networking illustrates how online activity goes well beyond information gathering. In fact, services like Facebook and Twitter enable users not only to share information with friends, but also places these friends in a different role: that of peer review.
When someone shares an article with friends on Facebook, the implication is clear: this is important—or interesting, or funny, or just plain weird. Posting unimportant information (like the result of a mind-numbing quiz that isn’t funny) can also lead to a backlash of disapproval from the virtual shouting crowd. In essence, young people want to get the message, but only on what they really care about. That is why becoming a trusted source is so important, both for peers and for mentors.
This makes even more sense to me, as a pastoral minister, in the context of recent world events. From Columbine, to September 11th, to natural disasters like Katrina, the world has proclaimed itself to be a precarious place. Religion has re-emerged in the lives of youth because they have had significant spiritual experience amid the world’s chaos. They seek clarity from traditions like Catholicism, Buddhism, or Judaism, hoping there is something to believe in beyond the madness they have witnessed.
Because many people among the web-savvy generation have little or no knowledge of religious traditions, and have had few religious mentors in their lives, many become spiritual seekers and use the internet in their quest for information and understanding.
Many young Catholics have found affinity with the catechism and with the Code of Canon Law, which they now have access to at the touch of a button. But most people, young and old alike, have no idea how they might start exploring Catholicism at all beyond a rudimentary Google search.
Therefore, building web materials that help young people explore even the basics of a religious tradition is something sorely needed.
My own podcast, the Busted Halo Cast (which I co-host with two colleagues), tries to give people answers to one faith question each week. Admittedly, we often spend a good deal of time chatting about other things in our lives beyond the question at hand. While our personalities are engaging and entertaining (at least we think so), we probably lose listeners in our own chatter at times--or at the very least, they skip ahead to the answer that they downloaded the podcast for in the first place. Yet striking a balance is crucial, as many of the sources that engage materials well seem disinterested in the pastoral dimension of religious tradition, in favor of a more pure form of indoctrination. It seems that a religious “big brother” needs a kinder tone.
Today’s youth realize that they need to embrace mentors more than ever, both in secular and spiritual areas of life. Homilists and religious educators hold the key to helping the youth make sense of the mysteries of transcendent experience and religious tradition. In doing so, we will not only gain trusted converts, but more importantly, we become the trusted sources who often become the face of religious tradition for those who long for a taste of the sacred and continue to come to the table, longing to be fed heartily. Embracing new technologies places us on the threshold of a new religious movement in which young people find relevance. How many of us will navigate our way into their world?
Mike Hayes is the author of the book, Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in Their 20s and 30s (Paulist 2007) and the co-founder of BustedHalo.com®. A noted expert in the field of young adult ministries Mike also pens the blog googlinggod.blogspot.com. Mike lives with his wife and a blogging Chihuahua, Haze, in Queens, NY.