Teaching the Spiritual Using the Digital

by Brent Lacy

In the last decade, huge advances in technology have allowed us to do what previous generations never thought possible. We can use it to record our favorite shows commercial-free, send video instantly to the other side of the world, or to heat and cool our homes more efficiently.

One school district in my area has even used technology to replace textbooks in classrooms. That’s right. No textbooks, anywhere. Every student has a touchscreen netbook, equipped with open source software and curriculum.

This departure from traditionalmethods has other districts and churches in my area watching very closely. I believe that in our ministries, we can intentionally use this available technology to teach the unchanging message of the Gospel.

In student ministry, you can use technology to help busy students stayconnected. Often times, students miss Bible study due to work, sports, and even other ministry obligations in the church.

You can use Facebook chat throughout the week, Skype, the ministry website, and other Social Media to keep students informed. I work with a busy student  who uses the resources on the youth website and social media to have spiritual conversations with friends, applying what is being taught in youth group. It is truly a blessing to have an instant connection to provide help finding scripture about a certain topic or to simply pray for the situation.

So, how do you begin to implement this new learning style in teaching spiritual matters? How do you teach students to transition technology into spiritual tools? I am learning as I go, but here are some key principles to help bridge the gap from the digital to the spiritual:

1. Use tools that are cross-platform. 

A great example of a cross-platform tool is The Bible App from YouVersion . YouVersion is available on a wide variety of devices from desktop computers to Java-enabled “Dumbphones”. You have access to over 300 translations in 150 languages.

The Bible App also has the ability to share and sync  notes, bookmarks, and highlighted passages between multiple devices. This feature is one of my favorites. You can also post Bible verses and notes to your Facebook and Twitter feeds from within the Bible App.

We also use Youversion’s Live Event platform to distribute notes and resources. Whether it is a student or parent choice, today’s teenager is incredibly overcommitted and for many, church becomes “a casualty of the calendar.” There are so many sports, clubs, and other activities that take students’ time and attention away from spiritual growth, so ministries must be intentional about keeping students connected.

The Live Event Platform is convenient because it is built into the Bible App that many of them already use. They can also go online with a computer to get the notes and keep in touch with what is happening. In today’s youth ministries, being able to get information to students who miss Bible study is very important. It’s a way you canshow that you care about their spiritual growth, regardless of whether they are able to be at church or not.

Another tool I use is our youth ministry website. It is specifically designed for use with smartphones, desktops, and tablets/iPads. The site is also designed to be a resource in connecting with the church ministry and with other available resources.

Our website includes a calendar of events and Bible studies, as well as integrating Social Media. Students can also use the site to sign up for text information alerts that we send using SYM Tools. On the resource page, we provide ways for students and parents to find out more about the current and upcoming curriculum and events.

There are also links to blogs, game and idea sites, and tools that can be utilized by our church and other
ministries. Staff and students also use the site as a vehicle for sharing the Gospel with a Gospel presentation video produced in-house called “the Plan” . Links to this page have been distributed by Social Media, attached to Frisbees and water bottles, and included in candy bags handed out at local events.

2. Set clear expectations. 

Most of the time that I have been in youth ministry, I have expected students to keep cell phones unseen and unheard. Going from a strict “no cell policy” to embracing the use of technology in the youth room has been a change I never expected. Teenagers, like cattle, need good fences; therefore, setting expectations may be the most important principle when implementing technology into your youth group.

The device and Internet should never distract you or your neighbor from Bible study. The Bible says:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. -Matthew 22:36-39 ESV

In our youth group, I set the expectation that the device is a tool to help the students gain a better understanding of the text of God’s Word. We use the technology to funnel spiritual material into their heads and hearts. I require silent ringers and notifications, no taking calls during Bible study, and no checking Facebook, etc.

3. Bring your own device. 

In the business world, Information Technology Administrators shudder when you mention BYOD. It can be challenging to support multiple devices in one network environment.

However, in a ministry setting, I encourage it. We have several students that bring their own iPod touch or smartphone. They use a Bible app and connect to Wi-Fi as needed. Truth be told, this is an area where my pre-youth ministry employment comes in handy. I have an IT background, so I don’t mind helping configure their devices.

It also gives me more opportunity for one-on-one interaction with each student. I am a firm believer that God never places you in a situation or job that you are not going to use later (except maybe advanced calculus).

4. Make the technology accessible. 

It is important to provide “hands on” opportunities for students to use technology to help enhance their Biblical literacy and spiritual growth. There is such a vast amount of Biblical resources at their fingertips. Not everyone has access to printed volumes of scripture commentary, but they are now available online, often for free.

Our church actually purchased a few Android tablets a couple of years ago. We have taken a “one device per table” approach. We have four students per table in our youth room so they can work together for research and discussion. They can pass their device once or twice and everyone can see what is on-screen.

As a ministry, you have to find what works for you and your students. For some, there may be budget limitations. You do not always have to buy new equipment. Some universities have technology auctions, where you can find some great deals. Years ago, buying new was the only way to get a warranty. Some refurbished equipment now includes a short warranty. There are also companies such as SquareTrade that offer a warranty on used equipment for a small fee.

Your church may even be in an area without reliable Internet. One option could be a Mobile Hotspot that converts a cellular signal to a Wi-Fi connection. Costs and service plans can be tailored to your usage and budget needs. Another option might be a monthly meeting someplace with Wi-Fi, such as a local coffee shop, restaurant, or church member’s home.

5. Making sure you prepare. 

Where I serve, we had to increase the WiFi coverage by adding additional wireless routers. We also added an open-source Linux-based server that works as a web filter and firewall for our network. There are some great options out there that will help keep your network and students safe. Some are very expensive, while others are free/open-source. You will have to find what works for you.

Another important consideration is making sure that there are enough software licenses available for antivirus packages and office suites (if needed). Software and antivirus companies all vary in how many licenses are included in the purchase price, so know what you are buying. Both office suites and antivirus packages can also be obtained
online for free. In addition, make sure that the license covers ministry/office use and not just home/personal use.

I also recommend that you secure the devices while not in use. Keeping the devices under lock and key protects the church’s investment and deters temptation. You can lock them in the church office, buy a locked cabinet, or do like I did and enlist a woodworker in the church to build a cabinet. Our cabinet has holes for charging cables and for heat dissipation.

6. Don’t give whiplash. 

Although there are great benefits to using technology in ministry, it can become overwhelming if it is used in every youth meeting. If you make the decision to integrate technology, it is not a point of no return. The technology should be an enhancement of what you are already doing. You can still use Bibles, paper notes, and other methods to reach students. Teaching using a variety of methods also helps engage students with different learning styles.

The Bottom Line

No matter how much you agree or disagree with its use, the implementation of technology is only going to increase. Whether it is employed for economic, vocational/technical preparation or personal use, technology continues to change the way our students learn and spend their time.

As youth workers, we have to be willing and able to utilize newly available tools for sharing the Gospel’s message and helping our students to grow and mature into the disciples that Christ desires for them to be.

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin is high school pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. He’s the co-counder of DownloadYouthMinistry.com and host of the Youth Ministry Garage Podcast. He's authored more than 20 youth ministry resources and is the author of "99 Thoughts for Small Group Leaders" with Doug Fields. Josh is a father of 4 who speaks a little, podcasts a little, Twitters a bit, and blogs a lot. You can find him at DownloadYouthMinistry.com!

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