A few weeks ago I was talking with a former youth group student who is now in his late 20s. He was sharing with me how it is really difficult trying to find a quality woman who loves God now that he is out of college, and in a community with few peers. For the New Year he has decided to take the plunge and take his chances with a dating website. As culture continues to change and as media becomes more and more personal, it seems that the trend is for people to hunker down and live out their lives online. Gone are the days where people actually go outside, meet up with friends, and do something together. Everything has become centered on the individual.
Individualism is king!
This trend is great when I think of the shows, movies, music, blogs, and news that I like to consume. I don’t have to bother people around me who would be annoyed with my passion for old skool Amy Grant. But for building community, for making new friends, and for finding a potential spouse (for my friend) this trend is making these things increasingly difficult.
Most of the younger youth workers I am in contact with have grown up in this culture and are totally comfortable doing a lot of their contact work through Facebook and Twitter. They have a strong presence online and are actually really involved in the online lives of their students.
But the more I have reflected on this trend, the more I am convinced that people in general, and youth workers specifically, are choosing to invest their time online. It makes sense: that is where students are and we want to meet them where they are at, so online it is. But while we can “connect” with more people more efficiently online, we are missing a huge part of the ministry equation.
No matter how slick your online presence is, so matter how empathetic, authentic, hip, available, whatever, it is still a one-dimensional way to connect. It is like my friend who is going to try online dating. He can take the best picture, create the most amazing profile, and actually come in contact with many women to date. But at the end of the day, it will be him, in real life, across the table with a young woman, who will determine if there is a future.
It is actual human interaction that creates the "sticky" in relationships:
Sometimes the work and effort that is put into websites, graphics, Twitter updates, and Facebook messaging is not that important. While we are attracted to those things at first, and those things often get people in the door, it is the real connections and interactions that provide the “sticky” for students. By “sticky” I mean, imagine the tiny hooks that are on velcro. Those are like relationship connectors, we can’t see them, but we can for sure tell when they are there or when they only appear to be there.
A one-hour lunch with a student, showing up and cheering on the sidelines, goofing off after church … these are the things that actually create relationship. In real relationships there is loyalty, empathy, love, joy, and potentially pain. These are the things that we must not give up in pursuit of this new generation.
Students think they don’t need other people and that their online community satisfies their needs. But that is not true. They are like a group of people who have never encountered salt. Sure, they know food, but they don’t know, know food. Add spices to your recipes and your food is transformed from a utilitarian exercise for calories, to an eye-opening experience.
With all our access to social networking, let us not succumb to culture too much in our attempt to connect with students. Let’s go old skool and bring back human interaction. It is much more difficult, but the connections and relationships that come from human interaction will be much deeper and stronger. And it is in this incarnational connection where God knits students to others and to himself.
So, let’s close down Facebook, grab some students, and go have some fun!
The Gigantic Time Suck: Have you ever sat down and kept track of what you do with your time? It is an awful exercise. It is awful because if you do it honestly you will probably come to the same conclusion I did, which is I waste an incredible amount of time. Think about how much time you spend surfing the web, checking Facebook, checking email, reading blogs, watching YouTube. Now, instead of thinking about how much time you spend doing it, I would encourage you to actually log it. If you do, you will be horrified at how much of your day gets lost into the black hole of the internet.
I get that we live in an era where the internet is vital to our lives and vital to our jobs. In fact I love the internet, and think that it's an amazing tool for communication, information and ministry. But if we aren't careful, the internet can become just a gigantic time suck; a distraction from the real life and real things that God has called us to do.
God Tricked Me:
Over this last year, God has been inviting me into a new season of growth, of discipline, and of ministry, and He did it in the trickiest of ways. This last spring I finally got my iPad, and was now armed with all the technology I needed to be a 21st century, tech-savvy, ministry machine. I was committed to getting my entire life on this device so I would have all the documents, emails, notes, and books together in one compact, (and might I add), beautiful piece of machinery.
My favorite app has turned out to be the Kindle app. Instead of carrying around the three to four books I'm reading, I could switch effortlessly between them, and even squeeze in a game of Angry Birds when I needed a break. I went on a shopping spree that, I am sure, has made a noticeable impact in the quarterly earnings report for Amazon.com execs.
One of the books I bought on my amazing new technology was called The Next Story. It is a fantastic book about how technology shapes our worldview. But more than shaping our world view, technology actually shapes the way we process information and ultimately impacts our understanding of Faith. I love this book because the author isn't screaming that the sky is falling or that YouTube is ruining a generation. He is simply pointing out that social media and technology are impacting our understanding of faith and our concept of community. It's incredibly interesting to say the least.
An Invitation From Virtual To Actual:
But through the combination of evaluating how I use my time and reflecting on this book, God has been inviting me into a new season of growth and discipline. In order for me to be the man that God has designed me to be, I must be present and available. I must be able to quiet my mind and be willing to reflect. But this is becoming more and more difficult as more and more of my mental space is consumed with virtual things. Because of that, I'm missing out on some of the most important things in my life.
I am very much invested in the culture of consumption. For the longest time, I thought of consumption simply in terms of food, energy, materialism, etc. But even more than a consumer of all these things, I am a consumer of information. For whatever reason, technology has tricked me into thinking that I must be on top of all the latest and greatest. Why does it matter to know all the political discourse that happens throughout the day? Why do I really care about the goings-on of mere acquaintances? What do I think I will miss if I don't watch the latest YouTube? And worst of all, why do I think people should care about my comings and goings as well?
I have fallen a little too far down the rabbit hole of the virtual world. I am consumed with consuming information: information about the world, about friends, about culture. But all of this consumption has just made me fat and lazy. And for this reason I am going on a strict diet.
Going From Consumer to Contributor:
For the last month, God has been slowly reorienting my heart, soul, and mind, to the point where I am looking forward to dying to my consuming lifestyle. To pull this off, I am turning off the internet. At first this seems like an impossibility, but that is only at first. I just watched my students unplug for a week, and I watched this amazing transformation happen as they were actually present. Being present allowed them to fully engage. They built new friendships, had to work through conflict, lengthened their attentions span, and even connected with God in new and deeper ways.
By turning off the internet, I am looking forward to being present. I am tired of being tethered to a world that has little to no bearing on my real life. My real life is here in flesh and blood, with my friends and family. It is a crime that I can not engage them because I am thinking about things and people who are--for sure--not thinking about me in the slightest.
By turning off the internet, I am looking forward to contributing to the world. Consuming all this information online has this way of tricking us into thinking we are participating in some grand conversation. But we are just consuming, and affirming the consuming by others. By turning this off for a while, I will be forced to take a break from consuming, from wasting time, from being inefficient. And without the distraction of the internet, I will be able to produce, to contribute. I will be able to get my work done in a timely manner, and be present with the people I love and care for.
I will have to grow up and mature as well. Whenever the conversation grows stale or I have some time to kill, I have traditionally used that as a cue to go online and check facebook or read a blog. Now, I will have to grow up and re-learn how to have conversation, how to ask questions, how to share my life. I have to show up and contribute.
See You In A Month:
The internet is not a bad thing, in fact it is a great thing. And in no way am I saying that the sky is falling. I have just simply noticed that for me, I have transitioned from being a contributor, to participating in this weird form of idol worship known as consuming information for the sake of consuming it. For me, I have been reminded that my real life is with the flesh and bones of the people in my proximity, and that they need me to be more present than I have been in a long while. For me to grow in the ways I need to grow in my walk with God, I must have more mental space to be quiet and listen and not fill it with nonsense from online.
For these reasons, I am accepting this invitation from God to mix up my virtual diet, for the purpose of personal, spiritual, and professional growth. I am trusting that God will use this dramatic increase in spare time to connect with my family, to love on my kids, and to actually be present in conversations. I am trusting that God will use this free space in my mind to prune the dead and dying things and cause new growth, to actually allow God to search me, know me, test me, reveal any offensive ways in me, and direct me along the path to everlasting life. And professionally I am looking forward to contributing. I have some real work that has to get done around the office, some planning and preparation for this upcoming year of ministry. I have a writing project that is half done that I will be trying to wrap up this summer. And by using my time more effectively with these projects, I will actually have more time and energy for the part of the job I love the most, being with my students and enjoying life with them.
So, with all that being said--
I will see you in a month!
One of my favorite resources for student ministry is youthministrygeek.com. They recently posted a video by ignitermedia.com. They produced a similar video for Christmas, and once again they have hit a home run with their latest video. I hope you find it as compelling as I did. Happy Easter.