Archive for September, 2010


connected, but unable to connect

September 5, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced the Twilight Zone in Sunday School. Even though the room was full of students, there was this strange silence. At first, I couldn’t tell what was happening. I know that Sunday School is early, but as I looked around at the group, I could tell it wasn’t that everyone was tired, or even bored. Friends were sitting next to friends and everyone seemed fine, except for me. As I looked around the room again, I realized that everyone had their phones out and were texting away, many of them texting each other!

I experienced a similar phenomena while I was with some family friends for their daughter’s wedding. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college, had all her brides’ maids together at the house for some hang out time before the rehearsal. This group of girls had been great friends throughout college and loved being with each other. Now that these girls were together, reunited, instead of laughing and story telling, the room was quiet with just the soft sound of typing while all of them updated their Facebooks with their laptops and phones in front of them.

These are just two antidotal encounters of groups of friends who are together, and instead of relating in human-to-human contact, they easily choose to connect through texting and Facebook. Technology has always been changing the ways in which we communicate. But this new development is fundamentally changing the ways in which we communicate and connect and is even changing the definition of the word, “friend.”

I don’t want to come off like an alarmist proclaiming that the sky is falling. I know we are never going to get back to the days of hand written letters. In fact, we might never even get back to the days of Email. But this continued evolution in communication and social networking brings with it some pit falls that those of us who love students and who work with them should be aware of. And in doing so, we can help them navigate their world and develop socially in a way that reflects their God-given nature.

1990-2000 was an amazing decade in the advancement of electronic communication. Car Phones and Email first show up on the radar in the early 90’s, the World Wide Web becomes a viable tool by the mid 90’s and by the end of the decade, email, websites, and cell phones became part of our every day experience. In August of 2003 MySpace enters the scene and the social networking phenomena was underway. MySpace rose in prominence through the 2000’s until Facebook took over in 2008. And for the last two years, Facebook has been the number one place for students to connect, to share life, and communicate the large and small parts of their lives with each other.

This incredible rise of social networking is an astonishing thing all by itself. But right alongside this development is the rise and proliferation of cell phones. When I talked to the students I work with, many of them have had cell phones since middle school (2006 or so) and our middle schoolers have had cell phones since 4th and 5th grade. And from the moment they got their cell phones they have been texting, and texting at an amazing rate. Many students are texting in the 3000-5000 per month range, and some much higher. It is simply how communication is done. When I asked them about how many cell phone minutes they use, the overwhelming response was “hardly any.”

Gone are the days of sitting on the phone and talking for hours, staying up late and talking with your friends about anything and everything. Now everything is communicated is small little snippets, 180 characters at a time, disconnected from any real face time or contact. The big question is, “What does this sort of disconnected contact and lack of conversation do to social development?”

The upside is that students have all the space in the world to try on new personas. They can expand their “friend” base with many people as they have time to request. And this is hundreds of people more in their lives then their predecessors had even a decade before. Another positive is that students can find people with similar interests and values with just a click of a button.

The downside is that all of this communication is happening with very little connection. All of these interactions are done in isolation, separate from human contact. At the very moment adolescents need community and connection to work out their identities and to develop social cues they are becoming even more and more isolated.

Our students are having so many experiences and processing them in compete isolation. When bullying happens, when depression is overwhelming them, when they engage in risky behavior, when they try to figure out romantic relationships, feelings, and expressions…all of this is done in private, in seclusion from the adult world and even with out the knowledge of their peers around them.

This isolation, at such a vital time in their social, emotional, and spiritual development is dangerous. The ways in which experiences are shaped or not shaped are vital for healthy development. As adults who love students, we must be keenly aware of the hidden life where students are communicating and help them actually connect in healthy and genuine ways.

In the very fabric of who God is, the Trinity, there is community and connectedness. God is community, God created humans to be in community with each other and with God. In Christ we are connected, we are actually family, and even more. We are one body. It is in our very core to be connected with other humans and with God. When we provide space and opportunities for this to happen, transformation actually occurs.

It is similar to taking a group of students who have only lived in an urban context camping for the weekend. Away from their normal context, these students are surprised and amazed by the new sights of brilliant stars, towering mountains or the powerful ocean. When the awesome power and creativity of Creation is experienced by these students, they experience a taste of who they were created to be by interacting with things made by God and not human hands. In a similar way, when students experience true connection with human to human contact there is a realization that there is a shallowness to the faux versions of connection they had been used to.

There are many simple things to do to accomplish the goal of genuine connection, and many of us are already doing them. But if we can get our head around some of the added benefits of these activities and use them more purposefully for connection, students will develop a taste for community and crave more and more of it.

Youth group games and mixers, sports, and board games are all designed for fun. But on a very basic level these games are tools of social development. These games and mixers teach students appropriate ways of interaction and how to communicate with one another. And the best part is that none of this is done in private. All this interaction and awkwardness happens in plain sight where other students and adults can help give shape and define social cues so that we actually get to walk alongside students to help them love and connect in ways that honor God.

Many student ministries have some form of small groups. And these small groups are our ministries’ bread and butter when it comes to helping students actually connect. There is space in these groups for students to share their stories to get support and prayer. And while most of the time we are content with students sharing their stories and the rest of the group listening and waiting for their turn to share, we can give our small group a larger purpose. We can make these groups a place of true connection. We can help our students learn how to really listen, how to ask follow up questions, and how to remember details and check in later. As adult leaders we have the privilege of hearing these stories, and we also have the responsibility to help shape these experiences. Instead of working these experiences and issues out in isolation, we can walk alongside them encouraging them to work it out using the wisdom and care of their community and scripture.

It is true that texting and Facebook are here to stay and for the foreseeable future will be the norm in communication. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can use our piece of the pie, our place of influence, to draw students out of isolation and a false sense of connection and into a warm community with true connection. We have the opportunity to take these students out of the city and into the forest and give them a taste of true community. And once you have experienced true connection with other humans and even more with God, texting and Facebook will become just the tools they were created to be, avenues for connecting, but not replacements for true connection.


adolescent theology

September 5, 2010


Kenda Dean has written a really challenging book titled, Almost Christian. And CNN wrote a really fair review of the book and her study:

Dean’s conclusion is simple and profound: “Your child is following a ‘mutant’ form of Christianity, and you may be responsible . . . more American teenagers are embracing what she calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’ Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.”

My conclusion: YIKES!

Student Ministry is a really complicated calling with an even more complicated application. For their entire personal, emotional, and spiritual development until adolescents has been without the ability to understand abstract concepts or ideas. Their world is concrete and they are the center of it. Everything that occurs happens with them in the center. In fact it is actually impossible, developmentally, to see outside of this reality. And for better or worse our children’s ministry and our student ministry fit this developmental framework as we come along side them and help them see that in this world of theirs there is a God who loves them desires a relationship with them. Jesus loves ME this I know!

As children transition into adolescence, they can actually being to conceptualize a world outside themselves. I know that any 5 minute conversation with a teenager might cause you to question that statement, it is true. Chap Clark summed up a ton of complicated sociological work into the term individuation. This is the process in which students are sorting out their own identity. And this process can only happen by separating yourself, by developing an identity as someone other. And to do this, means that for the first time students can begin to conceptualize a world outside themselves, and even a God that might be about more then their world.

While I so appreciate the hard work that Dean has done, and agree with her conclusions, I am not quite ready to throw out youth ministry, the church, or parents in the process. This is a reality that is well documented, and to address this “mutant” form of Christianity, we need to first recognize some of the significant obstacles in helping our students develop good theology.

1) Adolescent development means that their natural inclination is to have an ego centric view of theology. And as adolescence lengthens the chances to really tackles this is even more difficult. Where middle schoolers were developmentally ready to work out their theology just a generation ago, high schoolers are just at the beginning of this process. So instead of six solid years to work this out, we are looking at maybe one or two years where students can realistically develop a theology that is healthy and centered around God and not themselves.

2) Our American Christian Culture. At the very core of our national identity is this deep strain of individualism and self-reliance. And this has impacted our theology. We come out of a tradition where Jesus saves me, where Jesus heals me, where Jesus blesses me. And when Jesus doesn’t come through for me, many have a crisis of faith.

These two obstacles are enormous contributors that leave students with a self-centered view of faith. And this is not a faith in a the personal a specific God found in the Bible, but the generic, moralistic, therapeutic deism that Dean has observed. While this may be a fact, this doesn’t have to be the end. This study is a very helpful indicator of the context in which we are called to do student ministry.

Every context in every time has obstacles, and this “mutant” from of Christianity is one of ours. Now we get the opportunity to find ways that work in our context to help students develop emotionally and spiritually in a way that paints a world view where Jesus is in the center, not them. Confirmation Curriculum, The Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, Reading Through The Entire Bible, and Short and Long Term Missions, are time tested ways to communicate that the Jesus we follow is so much bigger than we are and so doesn’t need us in any way, but invites us to go with Him, to where He is going.

In the midst of our amazing lessons with great theology, we mostly get the privilege to graciously walk through life’s ups and downs. And as we walk alongside them, we get to help students frame their experiences with a theology that the church has affirmed for thousands of years and will serve them their entire lives, no matter their context or circumstance.