By Owen Gray, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Andrew Zirschky’s Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation pulls no punches in its criticism of superficial youth ministry programming. Specifically, the book systematically debunks many fads and myths about connecting with youth through electronics and social media. Perhaps most appealing about the book is its easy connection to other ministries of the church, stretching well beyond the youth room walls and into even the most insulated of ministries. Zirschy’s point, in essence, is simple: good ministry is built on good relationships.
The book’s primary point about youth and social media—the ostensibly primary point of the work—is best summarized by Zirschy’s thoughts on the “moth myth.” Like moths drawn to bright light, the theory goes, so too are young people attracted to anything on a screen or electronic device. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, youth are continuously staring at screens, especially their phones. But the attraction isn’t the screen itself; rather, it is the connection, inclusion, and love they feel from those they are connected with that draws them to the device. This is a connection desired and sought by every generation of young people. Today’s generation simply has the luxury of finding it in their pockets.
“Networked individualism” is Zirschy’s term of choice in describing the types of relationships social media has fostered. He helpfully describes how generations of yore had no choice but to find community amongst those they were in close proximity to. My mind imagines the Kansas homesteads of the 1800s in which, short of a multi-day horse trip, a farmer’s social group consisted entirely of the 50 or so folks—smiths, hunters, maybe clergy, and others—who lived nearby. Via social media people today can bypass unpleasant or undesirable relationships and connect with those who are most enjoyable (I can’t help but think those homesteaders would do the exact same thing, if given the chance!). In short, group relationships based on physical proximity are increasingly uninteresting to youth. What is interesting, however, is authentic relationship.
The core of the book’s message is relationship. Youth will rarely if ever engage in activity that seems staged. The youth leader who gives a talk about community but then is content to not connect with those youth until the same hour the next week will surely have a tough time forming genuine connection. If, however, a youth leader can build genuine, open relationships with youth (talking about real-life issues, rather than small talk), or especially if they can foster that type of relationships amongst the youth group itself, then they are on to something. Specifically, Zirschky posits that mundane, daily events are the stuff that youth most want to share with their youth leaders and youth group friends. Devotional talks from the leader are okay; they are most worthwhile when they are spoken to kids with whom that same leader has talked with multiple times during the week about seemingly trivial events. Youths will have hundreds of people like a Facebook post about major life events. They have precious few people who care about their trip to the dentist.
In my opinion, this book hits a homerun in truth-telling. It bothers me profoundly when I see older generations do nothing short of pandering to young people with needless screens and gadgets. While it is, in most cases, well-intentioned folks doing their best to do good ministry, this mindset presupposes that youth are so simplistic as to be tricked into liking Jesus because the church has a Twitter account.
Surely youth are just like every generation before them. What they desire at their core is meaningful friendship. They desire to be loved. The church’s role is to love them and do so in a way that emphasizes that the church loves them because God loves them. With this in mind, the church’s mindset ought to be to find meaningful ways to love kids…and today, doing that will likely involve a cell phone. But using technology as a means of building relationship, rather than an end in itself, is critical.
I would suggest that any ministry area in a church ought to read this book and apply it to their own contexts. Whether it is youth ministry, Christian Ed, Missions, pastoral care, music, or what have you, the goal must be demonstrating Christ’s love rather than any achieving any particular programmatic or numerical goal. Programs are the means to an end, not the end themselves.