By Melissa Miller, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Fact: Teens are very active on social media. Fiction: Teens use social media because they are addicted to gadgets and as a replacement for real relationships. Andrew Zirschky says, “teenagers use social media to establish ‘full-time intimate communities’ that provide for always-on communication and relationships.” (13) Throughout Beyond the Screen, Zirschky explains the why beneath the activity of digital device use. Though the average fourteen-year-old sends one hundred texts per day, they are mainly communicating with only three to five other people. (17) This shows that teens are investing their time in building deeper, fewer relationships. Concentrating this way expresses a desire for closeness. Granted, much of that back-and-forth is “phatic communion” consisting of little intellectual content and many emojis or quick phrases. (42) Nonetheless, this communication is valuable to them.
Zirschky repeatedly brings theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s belief in community through the example of the Trinity. Moltmann says the connection of humans in true relationships—through communion, koinonia—shows how the work of the Holy Spirit brings about the presence of God in our lives. Zirschky’s viewpoint is that churches are losing and failing youth by not giving, allowing or asking them to engage with each other through this relational model.
“Teenagers live in fear of losing their network…the fear that teens might find themselves abandoned, alone and disconnected.” (105) By continually and constantly using social media platforms to talk with or see their friends, youth are curbing their anxiety that they could be friendless. They spend time self-curating their outward-image to make themselves more likeable. (121) Zirschky’s response to this concerning pattern is that “we must rescue young people from relationships in which their value is based upon their social status and usefulness.” (135)
Self-evaluation is key in accomplishing this. Zirschky says churches have to work on creating environments that include youth more and are open to the “transforming and communion-making work of the Holy Spirit”. (144) Youth pastors and church-goers need to help teens review the motives behind their interactions on social media and show them how to go beyond trivial encounters and use the platforms to show care for one another instead of self-promotion. (148)
Zirschky uses a beautiful story of a girl named Daisy throughout the book to show how a youth group and church effectively welcomed in an ‘outsider’—met through the social platforms of youth within the church—and had a deep influence on her life. In this story, what began as a surface-level social media interaction became a life-giving story for the whole church.
Evaluation & Opinion
The subtitle of his book is ‘Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation’ and I agree that Zirschky is correct that our youth are starving for real, deep connections with others. I also agree with many of the practical examples of how youth leaders, pastors, and other teens can work together to create more caring communities. Our teens are turning to social media for relationships and, yes, we need to respond to that and show them we care in person too.
However, what Zirschky dismisses is the truth that adults in our culture are craving the same thing and acting in the same ways. Adults may not text as much or post as much, but they have the same doubts and fears as this book outlays. Granted, I realize this is a book about youth and so is focused on youth—but the reality is he is only highlighting a problem for our teens that is rooted in our adults.
Our churches do need to self-examine and adjust their tactics of care. We need everyone in our churches to model Jesus’ example of communion in love and care through community…to everyone else in our churches. Adults are just as guilty of acting poorly towards other adults as teens are to other teens. We neglect each other in favor of protecting ourselves.
As I read Beyond the Screen, I was simultaneously excited about Zirschky’s calling out of the lack of deeply personal relationships and saddened by his neglect to limit this call to our teens. Our culture as a whole is bad at caring for people when they are not in a crisis. It is a problem we need to address, and I dare say the church should be leading that movement. If we are committed to the freely given and constantly shown love of God to us that we should be equally committed to expressing that between each other. Our youth are seeking digital relationships, and in-person relationships, that are REAL—we should be thrilled to oblige them, not shocked that they want the something more we ourselves crave.