‘God’s Influencer’ Carlo Acutis, is tipped to become the first millennial saint. Rev Chris Lee reflects on visiting his shrine, and why sharing the gospel online is worth navigating the pitfalls


Source: Alamy

The beatification ceremony of Carlo Acutis paves the way for the canonization of the first saint of the millennial generation

One summer’s day in 2019 I was walking in my parish thinking: How do I use Instagram to communicate the gospel to an online audience? I had been sharing some thoughts on the internet for a while, but I wanted to be more intentional about it.

Back then, Instagram videos were limited to 60 seconds. I’m not a vicar who gives especially long sermons, but 60 seconds? How do I squeeze a sermon into that? But that was the time limit, so that’s what I did. Sometimes I would do it before or after writing my Sunday sermon, trying to crystallise my main point into a minute. Other times, they were off-the-cuff reflections, filmed as I walked along.

“Let down you nets here”, I felt God say, “tell them about me”

The format resonated with people. Sixty seconds was enough time to make a simple point and give encouragement. I think it also felt authentic, in the sense that they’re not particularly polished or produced. In fact, if I record a few versions its always the first one that has the most spark and doesn’t sound over-rehearsed.

I often finish with: “Bless you, know you’re loved.” For me, this is always the main thing I want to say. The way I approach social media isn’t particularly strategic, in terms of thinking about scheduling or algorithms. It’s more that people take a moment on Instagram, on their own, and that can be a place where something simple and encouraging can resonate.

John Wesley said: “The world is my parish” when talking about travelling to preach. Now we could all say this when talking about the internet. The Covid-19 pandemic forced the global Church to find new ways of keeping church going in a digital space. The rise of social media and ‘influencers’ has created a step change in the way the Church does evangelism.

God’s influencer

The Catholic Church recently named Italian teenager Carlo Acutis (informally known as “God’s Influencer”) as the first saint of the millennial generation. He was also named a patron of last year’s World Youth Day in Lisbon because of his “important role in evangelisation through the internet”.

Carlo tragically died of leukaemia in 2006 at the age of 15. His body was moved to Assisi, where I unintentionally came across him in early 2019 with a group of Young Franciscans. Born in London, he grew up in Milan where he managed the website for his parish and later a Vatican-based academy. He also used his computer skills to create an online database of Eucharistic miracles around the world.

So what should we make of it all? Is the internet really a place for mission? Or are we encouraging yet more people onto platforms that are a net loss for humanity?

Fishing for men

Recently, Bishop Graham Tomlin said in an article in The Sunday Times: “the true currency of the modern age is attention”. When I started to get more attention online, I found it a little confusing. Was this OK? Should I be looking to gain more ‘followers’? Even that word felt strange. So, as a Christian, I prayed about it.

One day, I was reading Acts 17, which records Paul going to Athens. We read that he went to the Areopagus and preached to the people about an unknown God. It is a well known evangelism story, but it was the little bracketed note attached to verse 21 that caught my attention: “(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”

I realised this was an almost-perfect description of social media, a place where the nations gathered, shared the latest thoughts and ideas, and did nothing. “Let down you nets here”, I felt God say, “tell them about me.”

Jesus called fishermen. Their boats take them to where the fish are. Perhaps, today, we are sometimes guilty of building fish tanks and not boats. My phone was a boat that brought me to a great ocean of people. I was going fishing!

The internet and social media are not universally good. We know all too well the dangers of echo chambers, ever-increasing radicalised views, the ‘us and them’ rhetoric from all sides.

The rise of social media ‘influencers’ has changed in the way the Church does evangelism

There are many websites and social media accounts dedicated to tearing down and not building up, highlighting the weaknesses and ‘heresies’ of those who do not agree with them. There are also the personal pitfalls: the effect on mental health, identity, becoming fixated on the number of ‘likes’ a post receives.

My reason, simply put, for continuing to be present in the social media space is to point people towards God and encourage their faith to grow. I don’t need them to come to my church, but I do encourage them to go to a church, wherever they are. Local community and real-life relationship will always be the best place for Christian flourishing.

There is an opportunity to be light in an online space, and to communicate the gospel as best we can to all people in all places. Let’s get in our boats and go.