By Seth Lovell, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
From his opening sentence, Andrew Zirschky calls into question the deeply held belief that teenagers are addicted to technology. In Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation, Zirschky opens by boldly proclaiming, “Teenagers do not want your technology” (5). Zirschky’s thesis that he develops throughout his work is that teenagers are not attracted to technology; they are drawn to relationships, and simply are using technology as a means to an end. For Zirschky, if this statement is indeed true, then it dramatically alters our approach to not only youth ministry, but ministry in the entire church. Zirschky’s goal is to challenge churches and church leaders to more faithfully seek ways to build koinonia, or communion, with one another, and to recognize that technology has a part to play in building this type of community.
This book is a must read for anyone who is engaged in youth ministry. Zirschky debunks numerous myths about teens and their use of technology, and helpfully offers practical solutions for navigating the realities of ministry with youth in the digital age. For Zirschky, technology is not the reason that teens are failing to experience communion within the church, instead the flaws lie with a social operating system that is contrary to the essence of communion the church should be working to facilitate. With this in mind, churches must ask the tough question, “what does it mean for the church to live together as koinonia (communion) in the face of networked society?” (6). This is a question that the entire church must grapple with.
Facilitating and encouraging deep Christian communion within youth ministry isn’t accomplished by having a “no phone” policy. In fact, policies like this can have adverse effects. Zirschky encourages youth leaders to stop viewing technology as an enemy, to stop using technology to appear culturally relevant, and to begin using it to build community. Zirschky writes, “Guided by our understanding of koinonia, we could intentionally and continually use social media to affirm the value of those who find themselves devalued by networked culture” (146). Impactful youth ministry should recognize teenagers craving for deep and meaningful relationships, and should seek to make the church a place where true communion with others takes place.
One powerful challenge that stands out in Zirschky’s work is for youth leaders to move beyond being a “see-you-next-Sunday community” (Zirschky 37). We are called in the church to be a community that cares for one another, and this should certainly extend beyond Sunday morning gatherings. We are called to be actively involved in each other’s lives. Zirschky believes that social technology can help facilitate meaningful relationships throughout the week; however our ability to engage with one another shouldn’t be limited to merely using technology.
Zirschky challenges us to recognize that to truly live in communion as a Christian community, we need to extend our relationships beyond Sunday mornings. Youth ministries often fall into the trap of simply using social media “asocially,” as a means of sharing information. While this may keep a connection from Sunday to Sunday, it doesn’t deepen relationships. Instead, youth leaders should seek to utilize technology in a way that helps build relationships, foster community, and practice true Christian communion. This challenge of building true Christian communion is one that every church leader should be seeking to address in this age of networked individualism.