Digital Natives and Why It’s Impossible to Do Ministry Where Your Students Live
Remember the good old days?
Back in the 1970s Young Life dramatically changed how the church has done student ministry. With two key foundations, go where students are and earn the right to be heard, countless teenagers have come to know and love Jesus! The church was a little slow on the uptake, but by the time I started doing youth ministry in the late ’90s those values had become the bedrock of church based student ministry as well.
Twenty years later youth ministry has really taken it on the chin. We have declining numbers for programmatic ministry, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to an effective model, and there seems to be less and less money for staff. It may seem like the sky is falling, and it is, but not for the reasons stated above.
The reason for alarm is that even with all the challenge in front of those incredible people called to love students right into the family of God, it has become next to impossible to do the one thing most of us have been called to do. To make contact with students, meet them where they are, and earn the right to be heard as we love them and point them toward Jesus.
You are no longer welcome in their world!
The brutal reality is that as adults, we are no longer welcome nor can we really find the spaces where students are so we can do contact work and build a friendship. There are no longer common sporting events, band concerts, skate parks, coffee shops, arcades, fro-yo shops, you name it. No longer can an adult who loves kids show up in a space where kids are and build relationship with them.
For all the right reasons, some of that contact work was shut down because some adults abused their positions of power and took advantage of students, and/or developed inappropriate relationships and friendships with minors. For these reasons, I am glad that the barriers are higher and our students are protected. I am glad that my kids, who are now teenagers, are more protected from predatory adults. This is an ugly factor, but it is factor number one.
The second is the technological world our students live in. As the world has changed and every student in your ministry has a smartphone and multiple social media accounts to manage, and a variety of texting options, their real life is no longer happening in front of you. What you see, the interaction you see, the conversations you have, are now the facade. Their real life is in the cloud.
The reverse used to be true and we could simply ask our kids to put their phones away and they could slip back to the flesh and bones world we call home. But that is no longer the case. Their flesh and blood interactions are the things they tolerate and have to manage so they can get back to their real life, their life in the cloud.
This life in the cloud is not for you. You are not a native to this world, and you are not really invited. Texting a kid or liking an Instagram is being a spectator in their world, but that does not make you a fellow traveler in it. And in this new reality, how are adults, youth workers, supposed to connect with kids, make contact, build relationship and earn the right to be heard.
This is the $1,000,000 question.
Are you prepared to be a true cross-cultural missionary in an unexplored context?
As adults, we know that humans need real human interaction and they need to connect with God to fully live the abundant life we were designed to have. The total lack of human connection has to be a large factor in the exponential rise in anxiety, depression and suicide.
The church, student ministries, have never been needed more. Adults who will see kids and love them unconditionally right where they are at are in short supply.
You are a cross-cultural missionary in a mission field that nobody understands and where nobody has gone before. You, as a faithful youth worker, are a pioneer. So treat your calling and your ministry as a pioneer, as an outpost.
Quit doing hospice work to a dying model of ministry and be innovative, share your thoughts and findings, and teach the church how to be the church in this new world.
This article originally appeared here.