By Sara Sommers, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
The front cover’s gray-toned photo of sad-faced boy staring at a faceless phone suggests a disparaging bias. Yet, its all capped titled BEYOND THE SCREEN promises that this book on “Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation” is more than just another rail against social media’s impact upon our youth. To be fair, Andrew Zirschky (Ph. D. Princeton Theological Seminary and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Youth Ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary), is novel and astute in naming his qualms with modern technology. His premise? If we in the church think just “using technology” in our ministry is going to make us relevant to teenagers, we are mistaken. Zirschky isn’t so much opposed to social media as he is frustrated by the church’s orientation towards it. Instead of focusing on technology in the church as a kind of “teenage whisperer” that will draw the screen-focused youth to Christ, he boldly petitions we emphasize the intrinsic value of “koinonia,” deep and meaningful Christian communion, set in the context of “times such as these” — the digital age.
Zirschky maintains that the demands of egocentric “networked individualism” are undermining the real desire of youth: deep relationships where people “live present” to one another. It takes a great deal of energy to build one’s social network. Teens curate their lives to manage their social status, to be “likable.” Where we used to live in “traditional ‘communities’ of family, villages and voluntary associations,” now, we have the capacity to create and convene “personalized communities embodied in me-centered networks” (53). Today’s social operating system derived from personal effort and performance evokes anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out). In contrast, practices of the church “subvert the common markers of difference (or perceived social usefulness and value), such as class, ethnicity, wealth, education or age” (112). In Christian communion, we experience a unity bound by open invitation to all. No one is excluded at the table of Christ. Koinonia is turning outward, not inward, embracing Spirit-infused (epicletic) prayer and practices that channel the transformative, creative love of God and send us “into the world in the strength of [the] Spirit, to give ourselves to others” (139).
Zirschky’s point is well taken. Youth seek presence. Seek meaning. Seek being seen by their peers. They aren’t trying to hide behind their phones. They are trying to connect. So with the help of social digital network, they formulate makeshift moments of connection, hoping for “full-time intimacy.” Zirschky argues that the downside of all that energy expenditure to create and maintain these social orientations outweighs its benefits. It’s up to the church to point teens to the real source of connectedness. Christ. It’s up to the church to demonstrate how social media can be used for good, to stand up to bullying, for example, or embolden another with a prayer emoji, or maintain communication when separated by geography or other commitments.
But, I wonder, how much his yearning for the church to prioritize meaningful communion with one another is really a reaction to the digital age? As he points out, even the church in Corinth had its trouble living in right relationship with one another as they practiced Christ’s flip-flopped new world order. Prioritizing living in Communion with Christ, acknowledging Christ’s indwelling power within ourselves and another is not just a 21st century proposition arising in reaction to social media. Testifying to the Gospel’s powerful capacity to turn the world upside down in love and grace should be the thrust of every church community, as it was in Corinth, as it was during the Reformation, as it is in our day and age and in the days to come, no matter the technology.
I am with Zirschky. Let’s figure out how to use digital media to advocate for the Body of Christ and not just for our teens, but also in the name of our tweens, adults, seniors and all variety of peoples. But, let’s not shy away from exploring the lure of technology in and of itself. I am not afraid or ashamed to exploit with as much creativity and prayerful thoughtfulness every possible social media practice or gimmick or tweet or photo competition or snap chat or food festival or whatever new fangled idea surfaces if it attracts, even if only temporarily, a young mind to sashay through the church door, be that door physical or digital. Let’s bow our heads in prayer and seek God’s inventive guidance on how we can use all the novelties and imaginative technological wonders to “whisper” our teens to church. For what good is it to proclaim the good news of koinonia if no one is there to hear it?