Youth and Social Media: Digitally-Integrated Faith Formation

We are revisiting some posts from the last year, in case you missed them. This post was originally published on November 19, 2015, and does an excellent job thinking through our digital responsibilities as teachers and worship leaders.


My nine-year-old son is learning to play the clarinet. Pray for me.

Finn is in fourth grade and has just joined his elementary school band. In addition to Thursday morning band practices at school, he regularly practices at home in the afternoons. Even as I write this, he is squeaking and squawking his way through the song “Hot Cross Buns.” Hey, that’s a religious tune, right?

One of the differences I notice from my elementary school band days (I played the trombone—poorly), is that each of his practice assignments include YouTube videos. After he assembles his clarinet (that was Lesson One), Finn navigates to his teacher’s website, which has links to videos for different instruments and levels of experience, and finds his.

Today, as I write, one of those videos is taking him through a series of breathing exercises. As the video plays, he lays down on the couch on his back, practicing breathing from his diaphragm and then exhaling through his mouth using lip articulation exercises that sound like he’s blowing raspberries. Finally, all those gross boy sounds he’s been making for years have paid off.

I see this kind of digitally-integrated approach to learning in all my kids’ school work. This year, my daughter, who is in 7th grade, received a basic Chromebook through our school district, and all of her classes have an online component through Google Classroom, a digital learning platform. On Google Classroom she can view class materials, follow links to supporting online materials, and complete assignments, all online. Even my first grade twins go online to learn through educational games recommended by their teachers. (Then again, maybe they are all just secretly playing Minecraft.)

Whereas I only had one online course in all of my years of school, college, and post-graduate education, my kids are growing up with technology and online learning as an integral component to their education. These days, it is increasingly rare to find someone who hasn’t had an online class or turned to the internet to further their education or understanding, if only to settle a debate among friends about who was the greatest hitter of all time.

Such is the digitally-integrated educational milieu of these early days of the twenty-first century. However, it is a shift that has yet to reach our most of our congregations.

How are these digital technologies reshaping the way we learn, and perhaps even form faith? As a parent, teacher, and pastor, I notice four things:

Learning is on-demand. We have become accustomed to having information and answers at our fingertips whenever we need them. We go to YouTube when we need to know how to unclog a drain, fix the dryer, troubleshoot computer problems, or better understand world events. As the old Kung-Fu saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” These days that teacher more often than not appears on our smartphones.

It’s available 24/7. Learning happens continually in a digitally-integrated world. All of our kids’ classes have websites that they can access anytime. These websites have links to educational activities and games, and they can access those materials whenever they want. Even when school is out, the digital classroom is never closed.

It’s portable. We can take all these materials with us on our digital devices. This isn’t to suggest that we should forego face-to-face learning. The best learning is relational, and there’s just no substitute for face-to-face engagement. That, and the snacks at confirmation class. Mmm, snacks. However, between our face-to-face gatherings, or when face-to-face isn’t possible, we can engage from our homes or on-the-go.

It’s participatory. The ubiquity of these digital tools and their interactive, social nature has made education and learning interactive. As Jim Hazelwood, ELCA Bishop of New England Synod, who does Talk and Text conversations with the youth in his synod, has said, “We no longer live in a world of presentations; we live in a world of engagement.”

School teachers (even at the elementary level) have learned to integrate technology in their classrooms and now extend that learning to our home and mobile devices. In the same way, those of us in Christian education who hope to help form people in the faith—particularly our youth—ought to integrate technology in the life of faith.

Educators Douglas Thomas and John Brown describe these and other shifts in their helpful book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change and encourage their readers to “stop thinking of learning as an isolated process of information absorption and start thinking of it as a cultural and social process of engaging with the constantly changing world around us.”

Inspired by my kids, this year I have been experimenting with an online learning component to complement our weekly in-person confirmation classes. Following each class, we upload our PowerPoint slides, YouTube links, photos, and other supporting materials to the website, so youth who missed, or even those who were present, could review the class materials—and so that we have an archive of our work together. We are using a free cloud-based learning management system (LMS) called Canvas by Instructure. Other services like Moodle also offer free learning solutions.

Getting up to speed with these technologies can be time consuming at first and feel a little ahead of its time, at least in the parish—but they are right on time for the ways our youth, and even adults, are learning today.

As a Lutheran, it is also, for me, a recovery of one of Martin Luther’s core purposes in writing his Small Catechism. Luther wrote and designed the Catechism for use in the home, where parents, whom he called the bishops and bishopesses of the household, would instruct their children in the faith. Luther’s catechism was portable. It was visual. It was pithy and to the point, and he leveraged the new technology of his day, the printing press, to make it widely accessible. In contrast, our approach to faith formation has often been highly professionalized and compartmentalized. Perhaps these emerging digital technologies offer a corrective and a return to a holistic faith formation that bridges the digital platforms and physical gathering places in our lives.

New digital technologies are rewiring not only the ways we connect through social media, but also the ways we learn, in profound ways. School teachers (even at the elementary level) have learned to integrate technology in their classrooms and now extend that learning to our home and mobile devices. In the same way, those of us in Christian education who hope to help form people in the faith—particularly our youth—ought to integrate technology in the life of faith.

Have you experimented with online learning in your ministry setting? What has worked for you?


Check out the rest of Keith’s series on youth and social media:

In the first post of this series, we looked at how youth enact identity, relationship, and shared discovery through social media.

In the second post of this series, we looked at the visual languages of social media and digital spiritual practices.


Keith new smallKeith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.

#NoFilter: Parenting Teens on Social Media

Social media is a lot like hardcore drugs.

Stay with me. Here’s the thing. I totally understand if you don’t want to develop a drug habit. There are a lot of downsides. Sometimes there are physical/behavioral problems that develop. You may not like having your day-to-day moods and aspirations driven by cravings. There’s the whole law of diminishing returns on consumption vs. high. Not to mention the tremendous financial burden. I get it. Drugs just aren’t you. Fine.

But guess what: if your kids are using, it’s not cool to ignore that just because it’s not your deal.

It’s one thing to give them their space; it’s another to give them all of the space… It’s not about control and it’s not even all about protection… Parents don’t necessarily need to kick their children off of social media, but they must be willing to walk with them.

I’m gonna show my age here, but Instagram wasn’t always a thing. Any time a new point of digital interaction emerges, a new batch of parents has to face off with their own fears and misgivings about tech and kids and these days. With Insta particularly, I remember having a conversation with one dad in which I realized he had drawn a line in the Inter-sand over which he had no intention of following his teenage daughter any further. He was on Facebook; I think he may even have had a newbie Twitter account with the big-white-egg profile pic. I mentioned something about some life event I’d seen on Insta from his daughter. He shook his head. “You don’t follow her?” I asked.

“I don’t…” he began, but trailed off. “I’m not on it. I don’t even want to know.”

I have never been able to understand that.

I have kids. My boys are 9 and 11. We don’t let them play on our phones. They don’t have phones of their own yet because they don’t have jobs. YouTube is not a third parent in our home. No social media, apart from the Twitter account I set up for them when they were 4 and 6 to keep track of the awesome things they would say (@shatnermysonsay). It’s not because we’re trying to shelter them from “bad things.” I took each of them on consecutive spring break trips to dive into the rabbit hole of all the bad words. All of them. We made a list. A hierarchical chart, actually. Think poop is a junior crap is a junior… and you’re on the right track.

But the Internet, and by extension social media, is different. My kids can’t comprehend yet that there are people that would do them evil just for the sake of doing it. So maybe we’re being a little protective at the outset, but we’re hoping to carry it to the logical conclusion of them being able to one day set their own safe and appropriate boundaries online. To know not to post a picture that could one day cost them a job. To call a bully a bully and know not to participate. Perhaps it’s hokey, but we want them to know that their online personas are an extension of Christian living, not an escape from it.

All that’s to say I cannot imagine intentionally checking out on their digital interaction.

I get it. Youth are complicated and culturally evolve at a remarkable pace. Youth ministry itself changes faster than most pastors or personnel committees could ever imagine. But for parents to adopt a “no point in steering now” attitude just throws in the towel without a fight. As we are able, we’ve got to encourage parents to stay in it.

Here are three quick points to give parents some footing they may feel like they’re losing:

1) It’s your phone.

And in all likelihood, it’s your computer, too. It’s one thing to give them their space; it’s another to give them all of the space. Wanting to trust them is a great instinct, but parenting means building them and guiding them into being trusted people. You don’t teach a kid to drive by tossing them the keys. (Though that’s roughly the process in the state of Georgia for getting a motorcycle permit.) Technology is a rapidly advancing field. New forms of social media appear overnight. It’s your phone. If you brought it into your home, you’re not allowed to check out on it.

2) You are the parent.

This fact gets lost pretty often, somehow. Parents parent. This doesn’t mean a sudden foot-down attitude with no explanation. If you have to take back ground regarding technology that you gave up previously, find a way to do it with grace and keep your kids in the conversation. You haven’t suddenly lost trust in them if you start reading texts or monitoring social media posts. It’s the ages old who-are-you-hanging-out-with standoff, and it’s still an important question. Though the friends-you’ll-never-meet now come with helpful bios.

3) You’re not on your own.

If you feel like you’re up Kik creek without an Omegle, reach out. Ask your school (or church!) to bring in a tech/social media person to explore current trends in social media use and abuse. Talk to other parents. You’ll be surprised how common frustrations transcend what apps are actually in play. There’s also this thing called Google; it knows basically everything.

It’s not about control and it’s not even all about protection. In the case of the dad from the beginning, he was missing out on a chance to help his daughter love herself without social approval of her body type. Parents don’t necessarily need to kick their children off of social media, but they must be willing to walk with them.

 


AltonKevin Alton is a writer, author, and speaker on all things spiritual and age-level Christian ministry. He’s the co-creator of Youthworker Circuit, a lectionary resource for youth ministry. Kevin also currently serves as content curator for Science for Youth Ministry, a Templeton grant funded effort of Luther Seminary. Kevin lives with his wife and two boys in the Georgia woods just outside of Chattanooga, TN. You can connect with him on most social media as @thekevinalton.

Some Much Needed Empathy for Networked Teens

This is a review of Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation by Andrew Zirschky (Abingdon 2015).


When it comes to teenagers and social media, many of the headlines and much of the prevailing conventional wisdom—including within our churches—is that social media is a danger and a threat. This not only defies much of the current research on the subject, it often completely misses the realities, longings, and faith practices of teenagers.

In his excellent book, Beyond the Screen, Andrew Zirschky provides welcome guidance to doing youth ministry in a digital age. Drawing on the latest research and Zirschky’s twenty years of experience in youth ministry, Beyond the Screen illuminates the emerging ways we connect, relate, gather, believe, and practice faith in our digitally-integrated world. I consider it one of the best books not just on practicing youth ministry but any kind of ministry in a digital age.

What I appreciated most in Beyond the Screen is the empathy Zirschky expresses for teens. As they live into this new reality, they face demands and pressures that even those ministry leaders like me, who are just a generation older but relatively conversant in digital technology, can miss.

This is not a book about how to use social media to lure more teens into your youth group. Instead, this book is something far more needed: it is about supporting and loving teens as they make their way in a networked world, where adolescence is lived out across digital and local networks, much of it quite publicly, and at light speed.

Teens are at the vanguard in the church of this digitally-integrated life and faith. They are often the most technologically savvy people in our churches. And so, they are leading the way—whether they, or we, know it or not— about how we are the church today and into the future. As Zirschky writes,

“living in a networked culture does not describe merely the technology we use, but in fact the very social configuration of our culture: We have moved from traditional ‘communities’ of family, villages, and voluntary associations to ‘personalized communities embodied in me-centered networks,’… Today, the image of individuals being contained within bounded, hierarchically organized, discrete groups (think tribes, churches, towns, clubs) to which we belong ‘one group at a time’ is largely an image of the past and does not adequately describe what we find on the ground” (53).

As Zirschky observes, ready made groups—including churches and church groups—are not as essential for navigating or succeeding in our newly networked world as they once were. Today, success in any area of life—business, scholarship, activism—requires wide-ranging overlapping networks of various relational and affinity groups. Those associations and belongings are incredibly fluid, which we see in the recent studies on the shifting nature of religious affiliation.

He writes that youth are “searching for a community of persistent presence that is more robust and dependable than many of the transitory communities they encounter in-person on a daily basis” (20). That can and often does include church. However, churches can also be found wanting in the authentic relational interaction youth seek in its see-you-next Sunday mentality. Our current model of church and youth ministry simply do not need the needs of teens as they once did, and so teens are often left to sort the rest out on their own.

Some Much Needed Empathy

What I appreciated most in Beyond the Screen is the empathy Zirschky expresses for teens. As they live into this new reality, they face demands and pressures that even those ministry leaders like me, who are just a generation older but relatively conversant in digital technology, can miss.

In chapter five Zirschky clearly outlines what this new networked reality demands of teens. They have to 1. Create a personal network, assembling friends and followers into a personal network of their own making. 2. Keep the networked engaged. It’s not enough to cobble together a network, you have to maintain it through constant interactions, and managing your personal profile, what Zirschky calls “impression management,” to keep people engaged and engaging with you. 3. Grow the network large. Large networks are not just a popularity project. Larger networks provide access to more expansive help and support. 4. Be socially selective. Teens not only need to craft networks of friends and followers that reflect well on themselves and project credibility, but are also useful as sources of personal support and advancement.

Koinonia is a matter of grace for youth. It offers a body, the Body of Christ, in which they are already accepted just as they are, and from which they will never be turned away, rather than a network they must create and sustain themselves.

For teens, the stakes in maintaining these networks could not be higher. They fear losing the network, and, by extension, their very identity. “Fail to please the audience and you might find yourself without an audience. Lose the audience and you have lost your network. Lose the network, and at some level you lose the community that affirms and creates your very identity” (106-7).

The struggle is real. And the results have serious consequences for our youth.

A Call to Koinonia

In the theological heart of the book, Zirschky contrasts the emerging networked living—what Berry Wellman and Lee Rainie have coined as “networked individualism”—with a Christian understanding of koinonia (the Greek root of communion and community), which he calls “the church’s operating system.” I have to confess a certain resistance to ancient church models, though, ironically, I draw on them myself. They often feel forced and can quickly bump up against their own understandable limitations. However, Zirschky does this quite effectively—not as a way of calling for a reboot, as many do, to first century Christianity or the so-called golden era of the 1950s, but toward an authentic way of being church and community today. Drawing the contrast between these two operating systems (which are both technological and theological), he writes,

“networked individualism functions on a sort of karmic, ‘you will get what you give’ kind of basis. As such it is far different from the operating system of grace upon which the church as the body and koinonia of Christ is meant to operate.” …  “In an economy of grace, finding a place in community is a grace received, not an accomplishment of the self” (107-8).

Koinonia is a matter of grace for youth. It offers a body, the Body of Christ, in which they are already accepted just as they are, and from which they will never be turned away, rather than a network they must create and sustain themselves. Koinonia is the network of beloved community that God created, maintains, of which we are all part, and can never lose. Since we are so loved and accepted, we can extend that same love and concern to others.

In this way, digital ministry is not a new kind of ministry, but calls us back to the very best ministry practices, what Zirschky calls epicletic practices, which he defines as, “any human activity that functions as prayer by pointing toward and participating in the very transformation we hope the Holy Spirit will enact in us.” It calls us to empathy, compassion, community, and hope. As he writes,

“For youth in a networked culture, the ultimate answer to their fears and anxieties is not the network they create, but a community that embraces and includes them as its own [where] teenagers are able to realize that they are not loved and valued because they are good enough, but because God’s love is enough” (140).

Such practices may or may not involve social media, but are always networked in character, empathetic, compassionate, and humane. I’m grateful to Andrew Zirschky for reminding us of this and for pointing the way forward.

 


Keith new small

Keith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.

Youth and Social Media: Digitally-Integrated Faith Formation

In the first post of this series, we looked at how youth enact identity, relationship, and shared discovery through social media.

In the second post of this series, we looked at the visual languages of social media and digital spiritual practices.


My nine-year-old son is learning to play the clarinet. Pray for me.

Finn is in fourth grade and has just joined his elementary school band. In addition to Thursday morning band practices at school, he regularly practices at home in the afternoons. Even as I write this, he is squeaking and squawking his way through the song “Hot Cross Buns.” Hey, that’s a religious tune, right?

One of the differences I notice from my elementary school band days (I played the trombone—poorly), is that each of his practice assignments include YouTube videos. After he assembles his clarinet (that was Lesson One), Finn navigates to his teacher’s website, which has links to videos for different instruments and levels of experience, and finds his.

Today, as I write, one of those videos is taking him through a series of breathing exercises. As the video plays, he lays down on the couch on his back, practicing breathing from his diaphragm and then exhaling through his mouth using lip articulation exercises that sound like he’s blowing raspberries. Finally, all those gross boy sounds he’s been making for years have paid off.

I see this kind of digitally-integrated approach to learning in all my kids’ school work. This year, my daughter, who is in 7th grade, received a basic Chromebook through our school district, and all of her classes have an online component through Google Classroom, a digital learning platform. On Google Classroom she can view class materials, follow links to supporting online materials, and complete assignments, all online. Even my first grade twins go online to learn through educational games recommended by their teachers. (Then again, maybe they are all just secretly playing Minecraft.)

Whereas I only had one online course in all of my years of school, college, and post-graduate education, my kids are growing up with technology and online learning as an integral component to their education. These days, it is increasingly rare to find someone who hasn’t had an online class or turned to the internet to further their education or understanding, if only to settle a debate among friends about who was the greatest hitter of all time.

Such is the digitally-integrated educational milieu of these early days of the twenty-first century. However, it is a shift that has yet to reach our most of our congregations.

How are these digital technologies reshaping the way we learn, and perhaps even form faith? As a parent, teacher, and pastor, I notice four things:

Learning is on-demand. We have become accustomed to having information and answers at our fingertips whenever we need them. We go to YouTube when we need to know how to unclog a drain, fix the dryer, troubleshoot computer problems, or better understand world events. As the old Kung-Fu saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” These days that teacher more often than not appears on our smartphones.

It’s available 24/7. Learning happens continually in a digitally-integrated world. All of our kids’ classes have websites that they can access anytime. These websites have links to educational activities and games, and they can access those materials whenever they want. Even when school is out, the digital classroom is never closed.

It’s portable. We can take all these materials with us on our digital devices. This isn’t to suggest that we should forego face-to-face learning. The best learning is relational, and there’s just no substitute for face-to-face engagement. That, and the snacks at confirmation class. Mmm, snacks. However, between our face-to-face gatherings, or when face-to-face isn’t possible, we can engage from our homes or on-the-go.

It’s participatory. The ubiquity of these digital tools and their interactive, social nature has made education and learning interactive. As Jim Hazelwood, ELCA Bishop of New England Synod, who does Talk and Text conversations with the youth in his synod, has said, “We no longer live in a world of presentations; we live in a world of engagement.”

School teachers (even at the elementary level) have learned to integrate technology in their classrooms and now extend that learning to our home and mobile devices. In the same way, those of us in Christian education who hope to help form people in the faith—particularly our youth—ought to integrate technology in the life of faith.

Educators Douglas Thomas and John Brown describe these and other shifts in their helpful book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change and encourage their readers to “stop thinking of learning as an isolated process of information absorption and start thinking of it as a cultural and social process of engaging with the constantly changing world around us.”

Inspired by my kids, this year I have been experimenting with an online learning component to complement our weekly in-person confirmation classes. Following each class, we upload our PowerPoint slides, YouTube links, photos, and other supporting materials to the website, so youth who missed, or even those who were present, could review the class materials—and so that we have an archive of our work together. We are using a free cloud-based learning management system (LMS) called Canvas by Instructure. Other services like Moodle also offer free learning solutions.

Getting up to speed with these technologies can be time consuming at first and feel a little ahead of its time, at least in the parish—but they are right on time for the ways our youth, and even adults, are learning today.

As a Lutheran, it is also, for me, a recovery of one of Martin Luther’s core purposes in writing his Small Catechism. Luther wrote and designed the Catechism for use in the home, where parents, whom he called the bishops and bishopesses of the household, would instruct their children in the faith. Luther’s catechism was portable. It was visual. It was pithy and to the point, and he leveraged the new technology of his day, the printing press, to make it widely accessible. In contrast, our approach to faith formation has often been highly professionalized and compartmentalized. Perhaps these emerging digital technologies offer a corrective and a return to a holistic faith formation that bridges the digital platforms and physical gathering places in our lives.

New digital technologies are rewiring not only the ways we connect through social media, but also the ways we learn, in profound ways. School teachers (even at the elementary level) have learned to integrate technology in their classrooms and now extend that learning to our home and mobile devices. In the same way, those of us in Christian education who hope to help form people in the faith—particularly our youth—ought to integrate technology in the life of faith.

Have you experimented with online learning in your ministry setting? What has worked for you?

 


Keith new smallKeith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.

Youth and Social Media: Lessons from a 15 Passenger Van

Youth and Social Media: Lessons from a 15 Passenger Van

In the first post of this series, we looked at how youth enact identity, relationship, and shared discovery through social media.


Each year our congregation takes about twenty-five high school youth on a mission trip to volunteer at the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a program that helps families in need by making their homes warmer, safer, and dryer. We repair roofs, install siding, rebuild decks, replace windows, and much more. However, at the heart of our ASP experience is relationships—with the families we serve, our work teams, with volunteers from other churches, and with God. We describe it as “relational ministry with home construction on the side.” These days, this relationality is mediated and extended by digital social media, as youth and adults alike share their experiences with friends and family back home and followers around the world.

Each year that I’ve gone to ASP, I have learned more about social media and how teens use them. There’s nothing quite like spending a week with that many teens to teach you “what the kids are doing on social media these days.”

Three years ago our kids taught me about the still emerging photo sharing app, Instagram. They documented and shared their experiences by posting photos of their work site, completed projects, group photos with other volunteers and the families they served—and countless pictures of themselves using power tools. Throughout the week, they used photos to tell the story of their trip and God’s work in the world. Kids who might have been reluctant to share their faith with someone face-to-face offered a profound witness through social media.

The following year, they introduced me to Snapchat—a photo messaging app in which pictures only appear to select recipients for up to ten seconds and then disappear. On the nine-hour van ride home from southwestern Virginia, the youth in our van snapchatted for hours (between naps) with each other and the kids in the other three vans in our caravan. Their uproarious laughter at the fleeting pictures, or “snaps,” sped along the long ride home.

These mission trips— along with a great post I read around that same time by Josh Miller called Tenth Grade Tech Trends, inspired by his fifteen year-old sister—spurred me to explore Instagram, Snapchat, and other emerging social media platforms, and not to remain content just using Facebook and dabbling on Twitter. (Today, I love Instagram and use it often, though I’m still learning the ropes on Snapchat.) What I’ve learned is that the old financial investment advice, “Diversify!” goes for social media too, especially when it comes to teens.

That anecdotal evidence is confirmed in the April 2015 Pew Research report, “Teens, Social Media, and Technology” that shows that among teens 13-17 years old the most popular platforms are: Facebook 71%, Instagram 53%, Snapchat 41%, Twitter 33%, Vine 24%, Tumblr 14%. The numbers also show that Facebook’s demise among teens has been somewhat exaggerated. Teens reported that the platforms they used most often were Facebook 41%, Instagram 20%, Snapchat 11%, Twitter 6%.

(By comparison, Pew reports that while adults are on par with teens in being on Facebook at 71%, they are well behind on Instagram—only 26%—and Twitter—23%. Data for Snapchat use among adults was not available, which itself seems rather telling.)

Ministry leaders who work with teens need to pay attention to emerging social media platforms and continually be looking for authentic and appropriate ways to connect, specifically on Instagram and Snapchat, which have outstripped Twitter among teens. I encourage people new to social media or these specific platforms to learn to use them using the “buddy system”—practice with a friend, follow people that already use the platforms well and understand what they do, and experiment. When it comes to social media, we are all learning as we go. And sometimes, as the old prophecy goes, “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

Visual Languages

Another thing that Instagram and Snapchat have in common, along with Pinterest, is that they are visually driven. Pictures are primary while text takes a supporting role. The rapid growth of these platforms—and the higher levels of engagement on pictures and videos on Facebook and Twitter—reflects a shift toward visual content. This seems to function as a kind of visual language system in the same way that stained glass, church architecture, and iconography have done for centuries in the Church. (This shift may also account for the exploding popularity of emoji—the little visual characters used in texting. For a good laugh, check out the brilliant Emoji Theology account on Twitter.) ?

Reformation traditions, including my own Lutheran tribe, tend to be far more comfortable with text than images. Blogging and tweeting tend to play to our strengths, but today putting the Gospel in the vernacular doesn’t mean translating from Latin to German as Luther once did. Instead, it requires a recovery of the ancient Christian tradition of visual languages, not only online, but in our preaching and teaching.

Digital Spiritual Practice

Furthermore, what if we were to see the activity taking place on these platforms as a form of spiritual practice where joy, peace, wonder, curiosity, and faith are captured and shared—where evangelism, stewardship, and love of neighbor are communicated to the ends of the earth? Where relationships with others and God are at the heart of life, no matter the content we share or the platforms we use? How can we help teens see the divine through the capturing of everyday moments?

To start, we need to find meaningful ways to inhabit these digital gathering spaces and enter them with the expectation of encountering the divine. And don’t be surprised if you’re the one being evangelized by your teens.

 

Keith new smallKeith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.

Youth and Social Media: Identity, Relationship, and Shared Discovery

Youth and Social Media: Identity, Relationship, and Shared Discovery

Earlier this year, I handed down my old iPhone to our twelve year-old daughter. She is our eldest, and, as with every first born child, her portion in life is to be a human parenting experiment. Parents in a digital age face new choices about what devices, which platforms and setting levels of Internet access. At the moment, our daughter isn’t on social media, and web browsing is just for school work. So, she mainly texts and listens to music on iTunes and Spotify.

As I watch her on her iPhone, wrapped in its hot pink case, listening to music on her oversized white headphones, I am reminded just how much our tweens and teens are shaped by music and, of course, relationships. I’ve been transported back in time more than once to my days of recording songs off the radio onto cassette tapes on my boom box—songs that I felt captured the very essence of my adolescent soul. And I remember waiting my turn to call friends on the black rotary phone in our basement. (Am I sounding old yet?)

The day we placed that iPhone in our daughter’s hands we realized that we were not just gifting her a new device, but placing the entire world in her hands. All of a sudden, she had her friends, music, information, and, it should be noted, countless silly apps right at her fingertips. The whole thing conjured in us great excitement as well as serious trepidation. (We found Janell Burley Hoffman’s post on Gregory’s iPhone contract to be a helpful way to have conversation about our mutual responsibilities and appropriate behavior.)

In A Digital World

Part of our responsibility as parents—and as ministry leaders—is to help youth navigate this digital world, a world that can seem as foreign to us as it seems completely natural to them.

In her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, youth and technology researcher danah boyd (intentionally stylized in lower case) reassures her readers that “by and large, the kids are alright.” But her findings range far beyond just teen’s use of social media. She observes how much of the world that was once available for teens to explore has been closed off to them. In my childhood, for example, we’d explore our neighborhood and play for hours at a time with no phones to check-in. Those days are gone. Instead, youth explore the world through digital gathering spaces, what boyd calls “networked publics.” She writes:

Teens simply have far fewer places to be together in public than they once did. … Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace are not only new public spaces: they are in many cases the only ‘public’ spaces in which teens can easily congregate with large groups of their peers.

The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades. What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now.

Digital Ministry

Much of the conversation in the church about teens and social media is driven by fear. The vast majority of the top Google search results on the topic are about setting boundaries, and just as IRL (in real life) ministry boundaries are vital. However, it also speaks to our anxiety over teens moving into the public sphere, be it physical or digital, and how best to accompany them. To minister effectively in a digital age, we must move beyond fear and help youth navigate the world, these “networked publics,” not just safely, but faithfully. boyd’s work invites us to respond with compassion and understanding for our teens—and perhaps also for our own once-upon-a-time awkward teenage selves.

It can be tough out there both online and IRL. boyd writes:

Teens are struggling to make sense of who they are and how they fit into society in an environment in which contexts are networked and collapsed, audiences are invisible, and anything they say and do can easily be taken out of context. They are grappling with battles adults face, but they are doing so while under constant surveillance and without a firm grasp of who they are. In short, they’re navigating one heck of a cultural labyrinth.

Ministry leaders have an important role to place in this digital time. Three areas seem particularly important: identity, right relationship, and shared discovery.

Identity

Identity is in constant flux during one’s teenage years, which is what can make it such an awkward time, but also so filled with promise and potentiality. Our identities are shaped by relationships and the feedback of our peers, which, in a digital world, can sometimes become reduced into how many likes, retweets, and comments we get. (It’s worth noting that the same can for go for adults too.)

Ministry leaders should be present in these digital spaces not in order to police behavior, nor to lurk, but to befriend and come alongside, to companion our youth. To be what a colleague of mine calls a “God person” in this digital landscape is vitally important.

We need to continually remind them that their identity is rooted primarily in their relationship with God. In a recent conversation with our youth about the first commandment, we talked about all the things that can become gods in our lives, including friends, achievement, money, body image, and even ourselves, which can have the effect disorder our desires and twisting our identities so that we don’t hardly recognize ourselves. We can remind them, simply by our consistent and gracious presence, that God who created them as they are and loves them as they are. They’ll fall, they’ll fail, they’ll do amazing things, but above all, they belong to God.

Right Relationship

Social media can be brutal, even among adults. It’s important that we encourage and cultivate a love for our digital neighbors—not only to refrain from piling on and bullying, but to be positive and express care for others. We can help model what it means in digital spaces “to love our neighbors as ourselves,” to “not bear false witness.” The formation of good, positive, healthy friendships, which today are also digitally mediated, are vital for teens development and well-being.

Shared Discovery

The digital revolution has empowered youth and amplified voices from the margins. It has flipped many of our assumptions about the roles of teacher and student, mentor and learner, minister and parishioner. Teens are often more knowledgable and savvy than their elders and so lead us in these digital spaces—just as our daughter helps me figure out how to use emojis. ? Today, knowledge is not as much transmitted as it is discovered, negotiated, and shaped in relationships. We need to be willing to listen first, understanding that we, too, have much to learn. A ministry stance toward shared discovery will lead us into deeper relationships and truth.

Together, we can find new ways and rediscover ancient practices to be faithful at any age in this new digital world. As boyd concludes, “Collaboratively, adults and youth can create a networked world that we all want to live in.”

 

Additional Resources

Listen to danah boyd’s interview with Krista Tippet for On Being

Anderson’s blog post Helping Our Youth Become Digital Disciples

Pew Research Report: Teens, Technology and Friendships

Pew Research Report Technology and Romantic Relationships

 

Keith new smallKeith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.