He's young, he's talented, he's claiming the digital world for Christ
Nearly three years ago Brandon Vogt was named one of the “Top 30 Catholics Under 30” and one of the “Top 24 Catholics to Follow on Twitter” by Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), who claimed Catholics should elect him “New-Media Commissioner,” if such a thing existed.
It’s no wonder. After launching a successful blog and writing an award-winning book on new media in 2011, Vogt, who is now 29, was invited to the Vatican to talk with Church leaders. In 2013 he created StrangeNotions.com, an online space for Catholics and atheists to dialogue, and in February 2015 he launched the “Read More Books Now” Video Course, which thousands of people have used to double their reading and remember what they read. He initiated the Africa eBook Project, which raised thousands of dollars to send digital libraries to seminarians across Africa, and Support a Catholic Speaker Month, where 11,000 people joined to promote new and upcoming speakers.
A popular blogger, national speaker and new-media consultant, Vogt has even more projects under his belt and more on the horizon. He’s currently working on his sixth book and is the content director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Vogt never saw any of it coming. Born and raised a Protestant, he entered the Catholic Church in 2008 while a senior at Florida State University. A nominal Christian until his junior year, his faith came alive after joining a Methodist men’s Bible-study group. But his high school sweetheart, Kathleen, was a Catholic, and had rediscovered her faith in university too, so before they graduated he decided that if they were going to marry he should check out Catholicism. He joined RCIA and converted, married Kathleen, became a father (now to five, one still in utero) and worked as a mechanical engineer for five years before becoming, in essence, a full-time Catholic media czar.
But lest Vogt’s plethora of accomplishments fool you into thinking he’s spinning faster than a whirling dervish, the guy has his feet planted squarely on the ground and carefully discerns his priorities. He spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky about how the Holy Spirit is inspiring him to use new media to evangelize, and what Catholics can learn about reaching people with the joy of the gospel.
Zoe Romanowsky: When you entered the Church in 2008 did you have any inkling that evangelization through media, particularly new media, would be your mission?
Brandon Vogt: Not at all … wasn’t even on the radar. In fact, immediately after I became Catholic, I was terrified to tell people, afraid they would challenge my faith or offer some objection or criticism that I wasn’t prepared to respond to. At the time, I was doing all I could just to learn about the Catholic faith and become a good practicing Catholic. But after I had some time to get comfortable in the waters, I began swimming out a little deeper. A Protestant writer I like named Frederick Buechner has this great quote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And that’s how I found my place in the Catholic Church. I realized my gifts—which have to do with new media, technology, web sites, and now, evangelization—were precisely the intersection where the Church had a need. I plugged those puzzle pieces together and off I went.
You’re not even 30 yet and you’re everywhere—books, blogging, websites, conferences, and now directing all the content for Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire. You’re also a husband and father. Are you bilocating, or what? How do you juggle all of this?
I can neither confirm nor deny the gift of bilocation. (Laughs)
I very intensely discerned what God that wants me to do and what he doesn’t want me to do. In fact, the hardest thing in my life is saying “no” to a lot of really cool ministries, projects, and opportunities that I’d love to do or be part of, but they just don’t fall in line with the mission God has given me. I think clarity of mission is key to anyone working in the field of evangelization. My vocation is first as a husband and a father, so I know with surety that anything that threatens that is not part of God’s call for me. And second is this call to evangelization, new media, etc. … If something falls within that realm, then it’s probably from God; if not—great though it may be—I have to pass. Saying no has paved the way for me to focus.
You weren’t a writer, but you came out with your first book The Church and New Media in 2011 and donated all the profits to a mission project in Africa. Tell me more about that.
The book came about shortly after I became Catholic. By chance, or by Providence, I connected with Bert Ghezzi, a well-known Catholic author who was instrumental in the Catholic Charismatic movement and now works as an editor at Our Sunday Visitor (OSV). After entering the Church, [my wife], Kathleen, and I moved back to Orlando and started going to the same parish Bert attends. He had either read one my blog posts or listened to one of my talks, and he said, “I really want to work with you and mentor you.” And at first I thought, well, this is a creepy—I don’t even know this guy and he wants to meet with me every week! (Laughs) But we really hit it off. He’s now one of my best friends and was the very first one to plant the seed that I was really gifted with this new media stuff and that the Church really needs help. He invited me to write a book for OSV. My first reaction was “not me,” but he said, “No, I really think you can do this.” As much as I knew about the new media, though, early on we decided it would be a better book if we brought together the experts on each tool and platform to contribute a chapter. This made it a much more powerful, helpful book, I think.
Then, I was speaking at Catholic Relief Services and had a beautiful moment of clarity: If this is a book is about new media, why not use it to facilitate the Church’s use of that? I didn’t need the money—God had provided me a good engineering job, and my family was more than cared for. CRS said they had the perfect project—they were building a new computer lab in the Archdiocese of Mombasa, Kenya. They had the building but needed to furnish it and buy 25 computers and all the software, hire an instructor, etc. I asked them how much would that be and they said about $5,000! It was a no-brainer. I thought this book could do tremendous good for Catholics in Africa and help them get onto this digital continent and give them access to all kinds of resources. So 100 percent of the book royalties goes to that. And I think CRS has started building a second center with the proceeds.
You launched StrangeNotions.com, a website for Catholics and atheists to engage in respectful dialogue. Why were you interested in reaching out to atheists in this way?
When I became Catholic in my 20s, most of my peers were going in the opposite direction. The latest PEW research shows that for every one person that enters the Church, 6.45 leave. The numbers are masked by immigration, so it looks like we’re stagnant, but in reality, we’re hemorrhaging people … and a surprising number of them are becoming either atheist or agnostic. This troubled me.
Around that same time I discovered the books of the “new atheists”—people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. At first, I was somewhat confounded by their arguments—I hadn’t been exposed to the rebuttals, or the rich realm of natural theology, which includes arguments for God, and I could see how these people could be persuasive to a young person. In response I began reading all the books on the other side—the great philosophers and theologians, both from the past and today, to see how they answered this atheism and realized that, man, the arguments are all on one side. And it’s not even close. I was frustrated that so many young people haven’t seen both sides, have only been fed one side. So I wanted to set up a place online where Catholics and atheists could come together in dialogue to pursue truth. A place that’s respectful, charitable, well-meaning, where serious-minded discussion could take place. I brought on 40 different thinkers, some of the best. We’ve been live now for about two years and have had two million visitors and close to 100,000 discussions.
You work with Bishop Robert Barron now—how did you get that gig?
It’s a dream job in so many ways. After working on a few different projects together, at some point Bishop Barron said, “Why don’t you just come work for me?” And I said, “Doing what?” And he said, “I don’t know, but we’ll figure that out!” The ministry is based in Chicago, and my wife and I were leery of leaving Orlando, so they were gracious to test out the situation of my working remotely, and I think both sides would agree that it’s worked out really well. I started as the content director, which essentially means I’m in charge of Bishop Barron’s content—all of his articles, videos, homilies, websites, social media, all of that. I coordinate it all, I edit books for him, come up with new projects—it’s kind of a jack-of-all trades position.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned there so far?
My biggest lesson has come from Bishop Barron and Fr. Steve Grunow, the CEO of Word on Fire, and it’s summed up in a phrase that Bishop Barron has taken as his own—and he wrote a book with the same title—The Priority of Christ. I’ve never worked with a group of Christians who, in everything they do, constantly ask the question,”How does this glorify Christ? How does it facilitate people to encounter Jesus Christ?” With everything we do, that question is asked in some form. Are we doing this just because we think it will be popular, or it will get a lot of views, or sell something? Or does it in some way help people to encounter Jesus Christ? The “priority of Christ” is the lens through which we view our efforts and it has transformed the way I view my own life, my marriage and my personal projects.
What do you think others, especially clergy and diocesan and ministry leaders, can learn from what Word on Fire is doing?
One of the driving principles of Word on Fire is to lead with beauty. Bishop Barron often says that in today’s world, a lot of people are disenchanted with truth and goodness. We live in a relativistic world, so “what’s true for you is true for you,” and vice versa. And we live in a morally relativist world, so “don’t tell me how to behave; I’m free to live however I want.” So if you start evangelizing with either truth or goodness, you often hit a brick wall. Instead, we try to lead with beauty. … We want to put the Church’s beauty on display and use that as a lure to draw people to the true and the good. We want people to become captured by the beautiful.
I think a lot of times in the Church we assume that we have a good message and good content, so it doesn’t matter if it’s horribly designed or we’re using cheesy clipart graphics or we’re filming stuff on an iPhone. But the beautiful is important, especially as people ignore the good and the true. So, lead with beauty.
How do you think the Church is doing in her efforts to reach out to people using new media? Where are we right now?
There’s been a big shift. When I wrote my book in 2011, I spoke all over the place, and my biggest challenge was convincing Church leaders that the new media was important. Never even mind how to use it, I had to convince them that this is something the Church needs to take seriously, that it’s not a trend or a fad and is not going away, and it’s something the Church should put resources into. Now, I don’t have to make that case. Everywhere I speak, people realize we should be doing this they just don’t know how. So there’s more receptively, but not a lot of training.
To help with this, four Catholic new-media experts, including myself, created the Digital Church Conference, which is a prepackaged daylong conference that any diocese can bring in, and we do everything—give the talks, provide the workbooks, do all the training. It’s a turnkey solution for any diocese. We’ve been to almost 20 dioceses so far and have many lined up for 2016. We need more leaders and innovators to help the Church.
Should we even be calling it “new” media anymore? Is it just media now? Or is it constantly new so we should keep using that word?
I think you’re on to something. Maybe just calling it media would help it become more saturated in people’s minds, like the air we breathe. I still talk to people who don’t like the phrase “new media” because it insinuates that TV and radio and snail mail are old and outdated. So we now delineate between new media and what we call “traditional” media. But yeah, I think if we removed the bifurcation, if we just believed that all of these are normal ways we communicate now, that could go a long way in helping people be more comfortable.
Who are your role models?
My biggest one is Bishop Robert Barron. He’d shoot me for saying it, but I think he’s a living saint. He’s had such an influence on my mind, on my heart, on my faith. It goes back to what we talked about earlier—the priority of Christ. I’ve yet to meet a person who is as completely devoted to helping people encounter the Lord Jesus. So he’s a great hero of mine.
There are many others. I’m a bibliophile, so I’m addicted to reading, and many of my greatest friends are dead authors. They would include Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who’s long been a hero.
I’m also a huge devotee of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Italian layman. I discovered him when I was 24, and Frassati died at 24 so it was kind of a kick in the pants to say, “Look at all this man achieved in 24 years—what are you doing?” Here was a man who illustrates what I call “both/and Catholicism.” He was a master of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. He was a great friend of the poor and would give the coat off his back; he would give away his bus money. He was also a deeply pious man—deeply committed to the Eucharist and prayed the rosary every day. It’s rare we find a saint who’s both a social justice person, but also a spiritual master, so I love that about him, and he’s become a great model for who I want to be.
Pope Francis … What stands out most to you in his message?
It’s the title of his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, “Joy of the Gospel.” I don’t think anyone in recent memory better illustrates this than him. I think people are desperate for joy—especially in our culture, which is so devoid of joy. You see the symptoms everywhere. … People are full of sarcasm and criticism, frustration and rage. We lack joy. When you see a person like Pope Francis who radiates joy, you want to know, where does he get it? What’s the source? People are drawn to that like a magnet … I think the joy of the gospel is what he has reintroduced into the Catholic consciousness and it’s something he’s pushed me to be more forward about. Catholicism isn’t just set of propositions or a dry list of theological abstractions, but an invitation to a joyous encounter, and if that encounter doesn’t bring you joy, you haven’t experienced it yet.
What’s next for Brandon Vogt?
On Tuesday I launched a free four-part video series on how parents can lead their children back to the Church. The videos will culminate in a huge project I’ve been working on for several months called RETURN, which won’t all be live until mid-Nov. There will be a 16-part larger course, with a book, as well as a series of 10 interviews with experts like Scott Hahn, Jennifer Fulwiler and Chris Stephanic, and also a private online community for people to join.
This will be a main focus for the next year or two because I think it’s the pivotal problem in the Church—so many of our young people have been baptized, many have been catechized, but few have been evangelized. They’ve never encountered the Lord Jesus in the Catholic Church. Some of them leave the Catholic Church and encounter the Lord in Protestant communities, but many never encounter him at all. So I think the biggest problem for us today is helping people to encounter or reencounter the Lord. That’s what I hope the RETURN project will do. I want to approach the issue though the angle of parents as I think they are in a privileged position to help their children. There is something about the parent-child relationship, a certain bond and trust there. Even if that relationship is damaged, there are ways of recovering it that can make it a fruitful avenue for a child to return.
Looking at this trajectory so far, it will be exciting to see where you’ll be five years from now.
Yes, five years ago if you had told me I’d be working at Word on Fire, and doing all these projects, I would have laughed. When I became Catholic, I was convinced the Catholic faith was true, but I thought I’d live out the rest of my life as an “ordinary” Catholic husband and father, and go to Mass on Sundays, and that would be it. I had no idea God would use me the way he has. I constantly ask myself, “Are you kidding me? How did I end up here?” I never imagined it.
This is the second installment in Aleteia’s series on Catholic innovators. You can read the first one about Lisa Hendey here.
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video curator for Aleteia.