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Cultivating the gospel in social media

Ministry with young people is irreducibly technological. Perhaps it has never not been so (after all, Paul’s letters to young Timothy employed technology: writing). Yet given the rapid mass adoption of mobile social media technology by teenagers and young adults in North America, sometimes ministry can feel practically limited to the realm of the technical.

In the face of this condition, some of the ministry-with-the-young guild have fled to bunkers of social media avoidance, restricting access to their Facebook profiles for the teens and 20-somethings in their churches, perhaps even creating separate personal and professional profiles. They don’t tweet or snap or otherwise digitally message their young congregants. They are analog holdouts in a digital youth loft, the only young adults in the bar who, either by choice or ignorance, don’t know the Wi-Fi password.

And who can blame them? Ministry is work, and nobody can deny that focused, intense work (what author Cal Newport calls “deep work”) happens in inverse proportion to the amount of time we spend with social media technology. The time you spend chasing the members of the young adult fellowship around Instagram is time you’re not planning that retreat or visiting with one of them face to face over coffee.

Boundaries are also a real concern. When pastors follow students on Twitter or Instagram, they inevitably see pictures and statements that, though public, are not composed with the pastor in mind. As researcher Danah Boyd helpfully explains in her book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” teenagers in particular participate in multiple publics on social media. They’re not always great about remembering who can see which of their posts. Being audience to the relationship drama of young people, for example, puts ministering adults in an awkward position. You can’t unsee it. But what do you do with it? Comment? Send a private message? Ignore it?

These bunkers, though, may be hard to maintain for long, even for the most disciplined – and not for reasons of convenience. If social media platforms are where young people are living their lives – working out identities, trying on opinions, stepping into discipleship – is pastoral avoidance of these spaces justified?

Consider interactions like this (real) one. The phone of the associate pastor for young adults buzzes. One of the young adults in her ministry has sent her a Snapchat: a dimly lit clip of a dark, wet street where fire has gutted a beloved local diner. The text overlaying the video expresses her young congregant’s hope that this community gathering spot might rise from the ashes.

Social media interactions are easy for pastors to dismiss. Yet in doing so they may miss important glimpses into the happenings, thoughts and feelings that populate the lives of the young people with whom they serve. They might even be closing their eyes to visions of a neighborhood diner as God’s new heaven on earth.

Social media can’t do it all, of course. The hard, time-consuming tasks of ministry make church the life-giving “third space” that social scientists like Ray Oldenburg have described. These are, after home and work, our main sources of meaning and spaces for connection. Third spaces require more than likes and shares to thrive.

Yet while local churches persist as third spaces for some, many are too busy or have too many attractive alternative options to find a place there. Churches don’t compete well with other third space options. They are devoid of the rich array of food and entertainment of the bar and cafe. Some are not easily accessible. The list of deficiencies goes on. For a growing plurality of young people, almost every metric for measuring communal spaces makes church a less attractive “third space” than social media networks.

It’s clear: Social media networks are, for many younger church members, the “third space” of their lives. They’re already there. Do pastors join them?

Probably.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, when it comes to an increasing number of adults (young or otherwise), a pastor’s unwillingness to engage on social media equals an unwillingness to engage people in ministry. Period.

This does not point to an uncritical adoption of technology for ministry. Pastoral ends do not justify invasive or clumsy technological means, and some of these tools are downright nefarious. They’re built for addiction, and they reduce the palate of relationship experiences down to a binary of likes and shares. Ministering to youth and young adults through these tools requires keen sensitivity to these dynamics and the toll they’re taking on young people.

That toll is not hard to measure. Ask youth about the pressure of nonstop texting with their friends. Pastors to teenagers can detect anxiety, even shame, when their digital bids for attention go ignored (even as they do the same to others – teenagers confess the “sin” of missing a 3 a.m. text from a friend).

Or, convene a conversation with young adults about dating as a Christian in this new reality. App-based dating feels like a game, but it’s hardly fun. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting to “always be on,” to be constantly judging while being judged, and to try to build trust and connection out of nothing more than an algorithmic output. Young people are subject to harsh emotional and spiritual tests in their networked journeys. They are in real need of appropriate encouragement and support.

Leaders of ministries to teenagers and young adults need to manage their own relationships to emerging technologies, too. If they don’t, how can they help a high school youth struggling with online bullying or a 24-year-old professional navigating healthy boundaries between his work and his personal life?

It helps to think through things like how to handle that inevitable inappropriately shared pic in advance. As they always have, pastors in the social media age aim to sow health in damaged relationships and not, for fear of violating boundaries, run away from them.

Youth and young adults need the social media personas of their pastors in their feeds. They need adults who care about them to help, in Boyd’s phrase, “navigate a networked world.” Without the social media accompaniment of their pastors and youth leaders, a generation of young disciples is being abandoned to the tyranny of the “likes” of their peers and Google algorithms.

This is about more than keeping pastors out of trouble online. Emerging generations are, like their predecessors, searching out truth, but in networked spaces. Pastors and youth workers should participate in this with young people and not leave them to their own devices and the profit-driven whims of the corporations running the networks.

Maybe social media networks are the new Areopagus, where (to return to Paul) the tech-savvy apostle put a gospel stake in the social media ground of 1st-century Athens. Perhaps ministers to young adults and youth can help sift through the mess of the marketplace in a similar way, lifting up what is good and true and beautiful and helping young people connect these things to a truth that merits so much more than liking.

HARDY H. KIM is associate pastor for evangelism and young adults and ROCKY SUPINGER is associate pastor for youth ministry. They both serve at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

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