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 and on Twitter @prkanderson.

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