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.

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