The Empire Texts Back

beyond the screenBy Matthew White, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In Beyond the Screen, Andrew Zirschky argues that youth ministry cannot succeed simply by adopting technology for technology’s sake.  Calls for “more video” or “more social media” are no more effective in themselves than demands for “more cowbell.”  He rejects both what he calls the “Moth Myth” – the idea that young people are inherently drawn to the bright screens of new apps like moths to a flame – and the “Basket Myth,” which asserts the inverse and views personal electronic devices without exception as impermissible barriers to community in a church setting.  Zirschky argues persuasively that teenagers – and by extension I would suggest likely adults as well – are drawn to social media and other new technologies not for their own sake but out of a desire to find relational communities, and his viewpoint is enhanced by its strong biblical and theological foundation as well as its critical (if sympathetic) stance toward the dominant culture of “networked individualism.”

Zirschky’s insights certainly resonate with some of my own experiences working with youth.  During the past year, I served as one of the teachers for the youth confirmation class at my home parish.  We had a very small group of four students, two of whom were siblings.  Like many churches, our parish experiences a significant cultural divide between attendees of the contemporary and traditional worship services, forming at times almost two quasi-separate congregations. One of the students, Maggie (not her real name), was a regular attendee at the traditional service, while the other three generally came to the contemporary service, and so naturally did not know her well.  During our first class, we invited the students to establish class rules for the coming months, and one of the first rules they came up with was that cell phones should be silenced and only used for emergencies during class.  While it was good that this was a student-initiated idea, I think the relief that I and other adult leaders felt was probably a symptom of the Basket Myth highlighted by Zirschky.

Strikingly, at the end of the first class session, all the students, including Maggie, made sure they had cell phone contact information to text each other outside class.  Each week, before class started, they would sit chitchatting, in many cases talking about texts they had exchanged or videos they had shared with each other during the previous week.  I am convinced that without these digital interactions, our once-weekly class would never have developed the kind of cohesive community among all four students that it quickly did.  I saw evidence of this in the fact that when we began to plan for the actual confirmation service, Maggie made clear that she wanted to be confirmed not at her normal 11:15 service, but along with her three new friends.  These young Christians used texting and social media to develop the very kind of community Zirschky discusses.

In contrast to Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral, Zirschky’s text displays a deep and coherent theology that touches on issues of ecclesiology and pneumatology in particular.  Zirschky draws his primary themes from Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology, and, following Moltmann, he sees the Trinity as both the source and the model for genuine human community or koinonia.  Zirschky’s book is also biblically grounded in a way that Anderson’s is not, and he spends a significant amount of time on exegesis of 1 Corinthians, pointing to similarities between the Roman Empire’s “competitive, stratified system of honor and shame in which individuals jockeyed to distinguish themselves at the expense of others” and our own “emerging system of networked individualism” (77).  In this way, Zirschky shows that new and progressive approaches to ministry can still display a robust theology and a powerful biblical rooting.

As the previous quote suggests, Zirschky is also quite critical of networked individualism, although he is sympathetic to the motivations that impel people toward the construction of social networks (in both digital and face-to-face forms).  Here again his view contrasts sharply with that of Anderson, who is more interested in “meeting people where they are,” which can, as Zirschky cautions, lead us to “adopt networked individualism” as the new model for the church.  In fact, Zirschky concisely but convincingly illustrates some of the most pertinent dangers inherent to networked individualism: the tendencies toward branding and curation of self-image rather than the living out of an authentic self.  I would have liked to have seen some more discussion of how networked individualism also reduces community to an adjunct of the capitalism marketplace (think of Facebook marketing, for example).  Nonetheless, I hope that my ministry can avoid the myths Zirschky identifies, while seeking the genuine, authentic forms of community he envisions, across all forms of media and interaction.

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