As we passed the wicker offering basket around the circle of teenagers, one by one they rustled through their pockets or purses and placed in the basket...their cell phones.
The youth ministry at my church is led by a team of five volunteers. We lead the monthly youth events, weekly Bible studies, and summer servant events for the high school youth. It's our goal to create positive, mentoring relationships with the teens and help them grow in their Christian faith. We take turns planning and leading the Sunday morning Bible studies, but the entire team is present and helps facilitate discussion. Over the past few years we have noticed an increasing level of distraction during these Bible study times. Cell phones ring, and youth text and check phone messages during group discussion times. These distractions began taking their toll on the group dynamic and on our patience as leaders. After spending hours carefully planning a Bible study, preparing activities, finding video clip illustrations, and making discussion sheets to help youth interact with God's Word, it can get pretty frustrating to see youth totally disengage from the group to answer a text message.
The youth ministry team spent time during several planning meetings trying to figure out what to do about the digital distractions. We understood the youth's need to feel connected to their friends and have a sense of control over their own communication, but we also wanted them to make the most of the Bible study time and be fully engaged in discussing God's Word. First, we tried asking the youth to turn their phones on vibrate or off during Bible study, but the temptation was too great; some just couldn't ignore their phones. We tried talking privately with specific youth and explaining why we wanted them to be part of the discussion, but it didn't seem to make a difference. As adult leaders, we talked about taking away their cell phones during Bible study, but we didn't want to treat them as if they were naughty children who couldn't be trusted. We tried just ignoring the problem and seeing if it would go away--but it just got worse.
"It's like they don't even realize how rude it is to everyone else in the room!" Then it dawned on us; maybe they don't see it as rude. Maybe they are so used to looking for affirmation in messages and texts that they don't realize they are missing the benefits of face-to-face interaction and the blessings of a group discussion about God's love for them. Maybe they don't realize what they are doing.
As the conversation progressed we decided to do a Bible study about stewardship--not of our money, but of our time and attention. We wanted to help the youth see that being a steward of God's blessings included giving their attention to focus on Bible study, just as giving money in the offering basket is being a good steward of God's material blessings. We weren't sure how they'd respond or if they would get it, but we knew we had to do something.
It was Steve's turn to lead that Sunday. He talked about the three T's of stewardship: time, talent, and treasures...and then added a fourth T--"aTtention". I watched the faces of the youth as he presented the idea of giving our cell phones as our offering during Bible study. Some seemed interested, some looked terrified at the prospect of being separated from their constant connectivity, and others were too busy texting to even notice. As Steve continued the youth came to the consensus that it was worth trying. I could tell that they didn't love the idea, but they trusted the adult leaders enough to at least give the idea a chance and try something that they weren't quite comfortable with. Everyone agreed to put their cell phones in the basket until after Bible study and then claim them again at the end. The youth sitting next to me was one of the few who didn't have a cell phone; I let him put my phone in the offering basket as it went around.
We continued the lesson without the click-clacking of texting or the snapping of phones opening and closing. By the end of the hour we agreed that we would give the offering of our attention by putting our phones in the basket not just for that week, but each week. Every Sunday we would begin our Bible study by putting our phones in the offering basket and giving our full attention to each other and to God as we read and discuss Scripture, talk about how our faith impacts our lives, and pray for each other.
Not everyone pays attention the whole time and not every lesson has them on the edge of their seats, but the distractions are fewer and lately we have had some of the best discussions in months. Sometimes they even forget to reclaim their phones as they leave the room!
Published July 2011