By Marcy Wright, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Creating and sustaining a vibrant youth ministry that engages and encourages youth in gospel discipleship is undoubtedly important, but it can often seem elusive for even the most seasoned ministry veterans. The advent of the social media age and the proliferation of apps and platforms facilitating digital engagement have given rise to persistent laments that our youth are too invested in phones, gadgets and apps, rather than the people and real life situations that surround them. In his book, Beyond the Screen, Andrew Zirschky challenges the notion of the disconnected and disaffected youth, offering a counter perspective that relocates the relevant issue from the types and number of social media outlets youth consume to why they are digitally connected. The answer for many will be surprising: it’s all about relationships. Zirschky asserts that contrary to popular opinion, “teenage use of technology does not ultimately point to adolescent gadget hunger, but instead a ravenous appetite for relationships—the deep, heart aching, knowing relationships that increasingly seem difficult to find in a fast-paced society separated by distance, speed and sheer busyness.” (5) For Zirschky, understanding the “why” then leads to questions and possible answers that can actually address the needs of our youth and their faith formation in a more profound way. Instead of wondering whether technology is good or bad, we can focus our attention on how the church can respond to our ever-changing technological landscape in a way that expands youth’s participation in the body of Christ.
Skeptics could question Zirschky’s claim that youth want to engage in deeper relationships when one can note how often you see teens with their noses deeply buried in their phones and other devices. In fact, statistics bear out that youth “own 3.5 personal digital gadgets and spends 10.5 hours per day in mediated ‘screen time.’” (5) But those numbers only tell part of the story. Zirschky illuminates how being digitally connected creates opportunities for teenagers to establish “full-time intimate communities that provide for ‘always-on communication and relationships’” (13) Teens, Zirschky asserts, are seeking to “maintain relationships and build full-time intimate community with friends they’ve met offline and online…they’re interested in friendship.” (17)
Ultimately, Zirschky states, teens are seeking relationships of presence and “reject the notion of completely on-line community…a vast majority still prefer in-person communication to communicating with friends via social networking technologies.” (19) Zirschky believes that the challenge for the church is to offer an alternative to our current social configuration of networked individualism and “personalized communities embodied in the me-centered networks” that encourage the building of large networks, yet fosters fear and anxiety at the loss of any member of those same personal networks, (67) while also demanding excessive “impression management” (masking one’s true self) to ensure maximum acceptance from the group. (68) Zirschky sees the counter to this operating system as “koinonia” or communion, that engages youth in relationships that invite them into “the cloud of witnesses and the body of Christ. In koinonia, belonging does not depend on personal effort (67) …it can release individuals to be themselves, as they find acceptance and love as sharers in Christ.” (68)
Zirschky’s language in describing koinonia is striking, and I appreciated him locating the discussion around the work of the Holy Spirit and our commitment to others, “Communion is the work of the Holy Spirit incorporating us into the body of Christ, such that we become one with Christ and with one another. Communion is expressed in social equality, selfless self-giving, diverse unity, and the pouring out of our gifts and selves in the care and love for others while following a pattern set by Christ who handed himself over.” (83) What an amazing image—how do we enable youth to “hand themselves over” to one another? To others in our world, so desperately in need of love and reconciliation?
Many of the suggestions for practice that Zirschky offers to help build koinonia among youth and the entire body of Christ are things that I can imagine using in my own ministry. I have worked with youth for well over twenty years and admit to often being stymied by how to best engage them. I truly appreciate Zirschky’s discussion of adults’ dismissal of what they consider the mundane and meaningless chatter that youth engage in over social media–the use of one-word text responses and emoji’s—as non-authentic communication. Zirschky’s reframing of this “phatic communication” as sincere bids for attention, “Are you here? Do you remember I am here?” (44-45) adds a poignant dimension to the discourse that reminds us that our job is to truly be present for each other so that we are always assured that “Yes, I see you and yes, I am here for you,” and even more importantly, yes God sees you and is there for you too. Rather than using the “basket mentality” and asking youth to check the phones at the door (51) I can envision encouraging them to bring their cell phones to class to invite their online friends to join in with discussions and including them in prayers. The use of social media has done a good job of eliminating the need for physical proximity in order to communicate meaningfully, using it in youth group settings can also help eliminate emotional distance, increasing intimacy and building true and authentic communion.
When I think about the struggles we often voice about our work with youth, I am reminded of the 1992 book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which suggested that relationship problems between men and women stemmed from each sex being from different “planets” with their own norms and social customs that often didn’t mesh with the other, particularly in problem solving. While I know many youth workers who might believe that teenagers are indeed from another planet—another galaxy even, as Christians invested in the faith formation and social relationship development of our youth we are called to remember that we all come from God and that part of our task in embodying communion is to “include, integrate and bring in.” (136) For me, that is exciting! Rather than limiting my ministry options, it opens up a whole range of ideas that can be employed in the church and out of the church to build community, including intergenerational activities and yes, using social media. That’s something to tweet about.