One morning last fall, I excitedly headed to a local coffee shop to meet with one of our congregation’s college students, lamenting that I could not get coffee with most of our other students because they attend schools around the country. The distance has made ministry very hard, and I have watched students become more and more disconnected from the church while I try to figure out how to reach out in the best way. I started to think about how I could meet with them virtually. That same afternoon, I found out that I could pay for a membership with a virtual meeting platform for roughly the same cost as the two coffees earlier that morning. The next week I hosted our very first “Virtual Coffee” with my college students.
Well, I tried to host Virtual Coffee. No one logged on! I hosted a few more, staring at only myself. I sat there one afternoon wondering why my college students were not logging on, and I sent a Facebook message to a few of them to check in. The response to that message was immediate, unlike the response to my invitation to have coffee. I asked what they thought about having a Facebook group for just the college-age members of the congregation, and they seemed supportive. I spent more time laughing with them that afternoon than I had in months. The Facebook group has provided a connection point, not just between the church and the students but also among the students, who miss their time with one another.
The lesson I learned with my college students is one that I have written about many times with young adult ministry in mind but never applied in my own context: We can’t just act out of our own ideas for others. We need to involve the groups we are doing ministry with in the dreaming and implementing processes.
After my attempt to host the first Virtual Coffee, the wheels began turning about how I could carry this into other parts of ministry, specifically with over-scheduled youth. I rarely see my high schoolers due to their school, work and study schedules, so I began thinking about what a mid-week virtual Bible study would look like. I also wondered what role a weekly video devotion could play in the youth ministry of our congregation. I continued to develop and adjust my weekly email and the way that I use social media for communication with families and with the congregation. Even with minimal participation, the use of technology almost became addictive. I wanted to do more!
With so much technology available, it is easy to get caught up in the rush and try to implement everything we see. I learned the hard way that when we seek ways to incorporate technology into our ministry, it is important to pause and ask if we are trying to “get with the times” and be “cool” or striving to meet our people where they are. Is our use of technology clearing a new path for communing with God and one another?
Technology becomes essential
When I was first asked to write this article, it was a different world. Using technology for youth ministry was something I was excited about, but it regularly took a back seat to the more immediate needs of the day. I already used it for communication and registrations, but adding things like virtual Bible study and virtual pastoral care were goals to be attained later on, after plenty of research and committee meetings. Today, though, I sit here listening to updates about the coronavirus pandemic while drafting plans for virtual youth ministry that may last for three weeks or three months. The idea of faith formation in a digital age is no longer something that I daydream about between emails — it fills every waking thought as I discern and implement a new and necessary form of youth ministry.
Weekly pastoral care has moved from the local doughnut shop to a virtual meeting space. Sunday school is a bit more complicated but still a part of the Sunday routine, thanks to virtual meeting space. Youth group is rescheduled as a mid-week virtual check-in, devotion and activity. I am posting video check-ins on social media to encourage my youth and remind them that even in this uncertain time, God loves them and is present with them through the church and one another. As we begin to settle into our new routine, I return to my question: Am I just adding stuff that is “cool,” or am I implementing new forms of ministry that will help clear a path that we can all walk on together as we seek God in an upside-down world?
There are many resources out there that can help our church look fancy and exciting. But the people must be at the root of our efforts to find the technology. We need to think about people’s needs and relationships with God and one another. Right now, my people are confused and upset. Youth have seen their school year come to an abrupt halt. Parents are seeking ways to help their children, not just with schoolwork but with big God questions. Virtual gatherings might help some connect (even when we’re beyond social distancing), while texting and phone calls can be reassuring to the youth who need to hear an encouraging adult voice other than their parents’. A simple discussion guide can turn family time spent watching movies into conversations about relationships with one another and with God. Regular emails may provide comfort and reassurance that the faith community is still active – and even thriving – when everything else is being shut down.
Before the pandemic, the use of technology in ministry was an exciting idea and a way to show the youth that I am “cool” and know what is “cool.” Today, technology in ministry is an essential tool for my community. Over the next few weeks, our ministry landscape will take on a completely different look. Some of what we do might even last beyond the current pandemic and become a regular part of our ministry. In a time with so much uncertainty, our youth need to be reminded of the most certain thing in life — God’s love for them, shared through the church and one another. I am grateful that we have access to technology that helps me remind my youth of God’s love. But I long for the day when we can return to good old-fashioned face-to-face ministry – no phones or computers needed – because nothing can replace the relationships formed when we focus on one another and not on the devices at our fingertips.
Digital resources for youth ministry
A former professor taught me that life isn’t about what we already know; it is about how we use our resources to learn what we don’t know and help others do the same. With that in mind, here are some of the ideas and resources that I use regularly in ministry. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I encourage you to do your own research to find what works best for your community.
- Weekly email. I send this out every Tuesday morning and include the weekly schedule, registration information for upcoming activities and other ways to be involved with our youth ministry and around the community.
- SignUpGenius. All of our activity registrations are done through SignUpGenius. The paid account allows the church to have different pages for different groups and to host multiple sign-ups in one place. Security settings allow you to hide the names of participants as needed (especially useful for those under 18).
- Google Forms. I use this platform mostly to collect personal health and contact information. Trip registrations are now incredibly easy with the combination of a single form completed at the start of the year, registration through SignUpGenius and online payments. Google Forms is also a great way to create applications for scholarships and leadership positions.
- Virtual meeting space. Most of us are becoming very familiar with this idea right now. There are several platforms available (such as Zoom), and I am excited to be using one for Bible study, fellowship-based check-ins and all gatherings.
- Presbyterian Youth Workers Association (PYWA). This incredible group offers support and resources for youth workers. It is worth the investment to become a member and join the conversation about youth ministry in this ever-changing world.
- Big Ideas in Youth Ministry. This Facebook-based group includes youth leaders of many denominations and backgrounds. The ideas are always flowing!
- Online safety policy. Please make sure that before you implement digital ministry, your congregation has a policy for the online safety of all individuals. For example, our policy states that no adult can meet one-on-one with a young person in a private space, and that youth leaders should not be “friends” with youth on social media platforms. Your policy should also spell out how personal information and photos of youth are shared virtually.
JORDAN B. DAVIS is associate pastor for youth and young adults at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church in Cary, North Carolina. When she isn’t planning the next youth group or Bible study, you can find her acting as sous chef in the home kitchen or birdwatching in her backyard.