“Isolated in a world full of connection.”
This is how a student described herself to me last week in our small group. She was sharing how she feels like all of the ways we “show ourselves” to the world just creates an illusion of perfection, and causes drama among her peers. Someone sees a picture on Instagram of girls at the mall and feels hurt they weren’t a part of it. A mass sea of texts go out accusing the girls (who are still at the mall) that they are “two-faced.”
This got me thinking about just how much relational ministry has changed in the last decade. Honestly, it used to be pretty easy. All we had to do was get students to engage and sit with us face to face in small group setting with no programming or script. There are so many complications to this idea now.
First, we have our technology. As the young lady above described, we like to share the best version of ourselves. Second, our communication has become constant but in a written form that lacks tone. This has created a world of “digital blurting.” A thought comes to our mind and we share it without the thought of if it will have any repercussions or hurt. We then share the flat apology with no real backbone, also via text. We send snip-its and silliness to each other via Snapchat, creating the illusion that because we “heard about it,” we are connecting. This has not even begun to tackle parent ministry. We no longer have to even make a phone call to get permission from parents. A student says, “Wait, I’ll text home and ask. Two minutes later, “Yeah, my Mom says yes.” Other than an occasional form signed or an informational meeting we don’t HAVE to talk to parents anymore, so truthfully we don’t. We bypass them and go to the students in the name of the youth being more “responsible,” then we complain that parents aren’t involved.
“Isolated in a world full of connection,” is a great definition of the world we are part of today. Yet, I think most youth pastors agree that “relational” ministry is still the model that Jesus left us, and it remains the heartbeat behind the way we want to approach ministry.
How do we approach relational ministry in this new complicated world? Here are my suggestions:
Technology Does Not Trump Real Life Interactions.
I have noticed in an effort to “connect with students where they are at,” sometimes we actually miss them in this technologically driven world. In a national survey of teenagers ages 13-18, done by the Pew Research Center, titled, “Teens, Technology and Friendships,” there were many interesting tidbits of information. While texting and instant messaging is the top way students communicate with each other, 83% of teens still spend time with their closest friends at school. Translation? They are interacting with the friends they feel closest to in person AND via technology. Teenagers see technology as way to enhance person relationships, not replace them.
Beware of an Over-inflated Sense of Communication.
Something I have observed in today’s technologically driven world is that since we have so many ways of staying in touch, we believe we are communicating. I have been a part of youth leader forums discussing the best ways to use snap chat to get info out to their students. It’s not that this is bad, actually it’s pretty creative. However, we must remember the ONLY way to guarantee we are heard is through direct face to face communication. On more than one occasion I have sent a text or group text to students thinking, “They are always on their phone,” only to hear, “Wait. I was supposed to do what?” “Did you get the text?” I ask. “Ummm, let me see.” is the answer. Being attached to the ability to hear information is not the same as actually listening to it.
Make Parents Your Advocates.
Since we no longer HAVE to include parents, we forget to outside of permission slips and meetings. We can use the excuse of it being easier to get to know kids from unchurched homes, or a safe way to answer a student’s deepest questions. As a parent, I can’t say it often enough. When I discover a random adult (no matter how well meaning) that I don’t know is texting my child without my knowledge, it creeps me out. If you make ways to get to know the parent, even if you include them in the texts it builds a trust bank with the family. Your relationship with the student can actually have more impact if you include the parent.
Don’t Live in Fear. Live in Wisdom.
Just today I watched a PSA from a local police department describing how sexual predators and human trafficking pimps use Snapchat, dating websites and texting apps to lure teens. Due to issues like this as well as youth pastors gone awry in the news, many churches now have policies about not being alone with students or using private messaging at all. We don’t have to live in fear, but using wisdom and accountability is a must.
We were made for relationship and interaction. Technology can be used to aid this, but the key is to remember it was never meant to replace it.