This is the seventh in an eight-week series on Youth ministry and social media.
I once heard one of the foremost thinkers in today’s youth ministry culture say something to the effect of this—that handing Internet access to our young people without support or guidance is the equivalent of handing a sixteen-year-old the keys to a brand-new sports car with no driving instruction and saying, “Have fun!”
I almost threw up. And then I thought, “Merciful God, what have we done?”
It was the most helpful and the most damning statement I’d heard before or since regarding youth and technology. Helpful because it made me see things in a new light. Damning because it made startlingly clear the failure of the church to get ahead of the curve when it comes to young people and faith and social media.
Cliché notwithstanding, social media in all its forms is the ultimate double-edged sword. One edge blessing and one edge curse. Whether we like it or not, it is here to stay, here to proliferate even, so the trick, I’ve learned, is to embrace the blessing.
When it comes to youth ministry, embracing the blessing is not always an easy thing. Most of our youth know much more about social media than we do—at least, in terms of how it works and to navigate it. What they often don’t know is how to harness it for a greater good.
They don’t know how to take the long view when it comes to what they post or Tweet or Instagram. Because they still have cognitive and emotional developing to do, they often make really awful decisions about how to use their Instagram account, Facebook page, or Twitter feed. Lest we box our youth into a corner here, let me be clear that adults often times make the same sort of mistakes when it comes to their own social media usage—but that’s another blog for another day.
In short, youth often don’t know how to practice healthy boundaries when it comes to social media.
For those of us charged with working with youth in the church, I’ve found that that there are three key points to keep in mind as we seek to offer patient and supportive guidance to our youth: 1) Stay informed. 2) Stay connected. 3) Stay firm.
1) Stay informed. I believe it is paramount for those who work with youth—especially, perhaps, in the church—to stay informed. Don’t know what Reddit is? Find out. Have no idea how to compose a Tweet? Ask a youth to teach you. Don’t understand the latest round of Facebook privacy settings? Do a little research. Have no idea what it means to “Instagram” something? Find that out while you’re learning about Reddit, too.
If you are going to do good youth ministry, you need to at least have a working knowledge of many of the various forms of social media—it’s a vast landscape, and you’ll quickly get lost in conversation about it if you don’t at least map out the major destinations.
Even better, while you’re working to stay informed, learn to use social media yourself for good (embrace the blessing!). Make a closed group for your Sunday School class or have the congregation follow your high school mission trip on Twitter. Blog daily from camp for those back at home or reach out via Facebook to a youth who is pretty shy but who might respond to a non-threatening “Hey there—glad you came on the retreat! Have a great week!”
2) Stay connected. Keep fostering connections with the youth you work with; connections that don’t depend on social media. For example, when you receive a private Tweet that says, “Can we talk?” Respond, “You bet. How about we meet for coffee after school tomorrow?” Chances are whatever needs to be addressed is going to take much more focus and intent than rapid-fire 140 character exchanges can provide.
Relationships cannot thrive in cyberspace alone. And our young people are craving authentic relationship. They want to be known. And if no one is willing to reach out to them in person, they’ll find someone online who will (which can have its own set of damaging and dangerous consequences).
Ask them questions about what they’re doing with their Tumblr, and see if maybe one of them will start a youth group Instagram. Let them know that even if you don’t entirely understand their fixation with it all, you’re at least curious about it. If you do, when things go badly for them in their social media universe, they’ll be much more willing to seek you out for help.
3) Stay firm. Create some rules around technology and Internet usage in your youth ministry programming, and covenant to all follow those rules.
Maintain your own boundaries, too—firmly. Sure, most of your kids follow you on Twitter, but it’s easy enough to have two accounts—one for them and your relationship to them as their youth minister or leader, and another entirely to vent your personal angst and random thoughts, or to share photos of you and your friends at a tequila tasting.
One of the things people often fail to understand about social media is that it is, in fact, a space. A digital space to be sure, but a space nonetheless, and how you operate in that space matters. The same standards that apply in “real life” interaction (should) apply in social media interaction. It is every bit as public, every bit as dynamic, every bit as charged with personalities and politics as is our face-to-face life, and it has a history that can last longer than most our memories. Understanding this is crucial.
At the end of the day helping youth develop healthy boundaries with social media is about modeling. It’s about staying involved. It’s about presence. It’s about not discounting it all as some “kid thing,” and instead doing our best to both understand and work within a new cultural context.
And these things, truthfully, are all any challenge to faith development and ministry has ever been about.
Julie Richardson Brown is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Her passion has long been youth ministry. She serves as Team Minister for Youth Ministry for the Christian Church in Indiana and does some speaking and consulting with congregations regarding youth ministry training, development, leadership, and issues. She writes and can be reached at www.julierichardsonbrown.net.
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