My grandma was an incredible woman. She spent her career as a Lutheran teacher (even teaching in a one-room rural school while my grandpa fought in WWII), she taught confirmation, she led small groups, she spent every day in the Word, and there wasn’t a person around who didn’t love and respect Evelyn Fisher.
I was blessed to have this incredible woman of God in my life for 26 years. I would often drive my grandma to her doctor’s appointments and our conversations as I drove her would hit a variety of topics…from pop culture to how my classes were going and what I was learning about youth ministry. I was talking to her one day as we drove about what connecting with students looked like in the 21st century. She said to me, “So what you’re saying is, if you want to connect with teenagers, you have to connect with them in a way they want to be connected with?”
When I told her that was right, she replied, “Well Sarah, you better get to work.”
I believe that we’re in a season where youth ministry as we know it is changing. Because of social media, how we connect with students and form connections with them has completely changed since even ten years ago. There’s a challenge in that but there’s also excitement in that.
But before we go any further, I think it’s important to acknowledge the tension that we, as DCE’s, Youth Ministers, Volunteers, etc. are facing: how we connect with students. We have this balancing act that continuously involves connecting with them when they’re in our buildings, connecting with them outside of church, and showing up to their games and activities. This balancing act looks different for all of us too based off our personality and how we structure our youth ministry program.
But allow me to throw one more avenue for youth connection in to this: connecting via social media.
Social media has changed how teenagers connect with each other and connect with the world around them. Instead of meeting friends through school and the activities they participate in, they now can connect with teenagers from all over the country simply by hitting a “follow” or “subscribe” button. What teenagers appreciate about social media is that there’s a safety net in communicating via a screen. They’re more comfortable having the harder conversations over the phone than in person because that feels easier and safer. This can mean important conversations about life and faith are had online, when in the past they were almost always done face to face.
Engaging with students via social media could be a valuable thing when it comes to relational youth ministry. When you connect with them on the various social media platforms, you’re showing them that you’re willing to meet them where they are. When you’re willing to engage with this part of their lives, you’re making yourself more approachable which can lead to increased trust, connection, and more opportunities to remind them that they are loved by God.
When it comes to social media, it’s hard to know which platforms to engage with, and how to connect with students on them. Allow me to use my own experience with the platforms to help you. I am currently on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. I connect with students the most via Instagram and Snapchat (and talk to them the most on Snapchat). Why just those two platforms? Because Instagram and Snapchat are two of the most popular platforms amongst teenagers right now.
If you were to look at my “Best Friends” (the eight people I talk to the most) on Snapchat, here’s what you would see: My actual best friend, my former intern, and a mix of teenagers who are currently in my ministry and a couple of students who were in my ministry but are now in college. If you were to scroll through my contacts on Snapchat, you would see a mix of teenagers and former students from all of our campuses. These students that have my snap know that they can reach out to me whenever…and they do. Sometimes it’s funny things that they see that remind them of me (usually it has to do with either dinosaurs or Martin Luther), sometimes it’s to help them make decisions (I received one snap a few weeks ago asking for help to pick out a senior quote), and sometimes, they’re wrestling with faith stuff and they need someone to talk to that they trust. By just being present on these platforms, I’m showing that I see them and I’m there for them.
Not everyone will have the same experience on these platforms because we’re all different nor should a presence on these platforms replace any form of face-to-face interactions with the teenagers in our youth ministry. But if you want to simply be a presence, here are some helpful tips to get going:
- Consider how to engage safely. Engage leaders in your congregation and parents about what social media interaction is safe and appropriate for youth leaders to use with minors. Make sure that you balance the risk management concerns with the positive benefits of connecting with youth people.
- Find out what platforms your students are on. Teenagers love to teach about what’s currently popular. By showing an interest, it shows you want to know more about the things they enjoy.
- Create accounts on these platforms. It’s simple and you don’t need to know everything about said platform to be on it. Honestly, teenagers find it entertaining when you don’t know everything.
- Set the example. Be the example of how Christians should behave on social media. Teenagers have the tendency to notice everything we do so allow your presence to be the example and engage in confession and absolution when you miss the mark.
- Pray that God places you in the conversations you need to be placed in. This should be true in all areas of ministry. But as you meet teenagers where they’re at and show them that you are for them, be in prayer that God uses you and gives you the words to say so you can point these teenagers you’ve been entrusted with to Jesus.
We have all been called into a unique position and one that is unlike any other. We get to show up in the lives of our teenagers. We get to play ridiculous games with them, we get to cheer them on from the sidelines, we get to serve with them on mission trips, we get to walk with them through the darkness and mourn with them. But we get to tell them that, in spite of their sin and brokenness, God loves them and forgives them. We get to point them to the cross anyway we can. And with that, all that’s left to say is, we better get to work.