Youth Ministers are always looking for more effective ways to communicate with teens. There's nothing better than a face-to-face conversation, but first, we need to use media to get us there. So what do you use to keep your youth group up-to-date on upcoming activities? Printed media? Too slow. Phone calls? Those can be time consuming. Email? The only reason most teens have an email address is so they can sign up for Facebook! Facebook and other social media tools are great, but if users have their notifications turned off, your message still won't arrive. It's time to fully harness the power of faxing. Just kidding. Let's talk about text messaging!
I'm sure many of you already understand the importance of texting, but stick with me for a moment while I get everyone else up to speed. Most traditional communication methods require the recipient to check their mailbox, answer the phone or sit down at a computer. Not so with texting. Most teens carry a mobile phone with them at all times. On many mobile phones, text messages are automatically displayed to the recipient and must be dismissed in order to use other phone features. The recipient has almost no choice but to read your text. The Pew Research Center1 confirms that texting is widespread amongst teens. Their research indicates that 72% of all American teens both own a cell phone and use text messaging. In addition, it is now the primary way that American teens communicate with one another. It's hard to believe, but 54% of teens will text a friend daily, compared to just 33% who will speak with a friend face-to-face on a daily basis. You might even go so far as to call it an addiction; one in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day! Clearly, texting is the most widely used communication tool amongst teens. In addition, text messages are sent and received within a matter of seconds, so texting is one of the quickest ways to spread the word. While the quality of text communication is debatable, it is almost guaranteed that your message will be read quickly. Yes, these short bursts of text that are slowly taking all of the vowels out of the English language can actually be useful.
However, there are a few challenges to be aware of when using your personal phone to text your youth group. How will youth sign up for your text updates? Are you comfortable giving out your personal cell phone number to everyone in the group? How will they unsubscribe? You could spend a lot of time managing your list of subscribers and telling your youth group not to text you back at 2:57am. Plus, if you lose your phone, you lose your ability to send texts. Furthermore, if you leave your church, your replacement will have to start from scratch.
One tool that I have found to be extremely beneficial is EzTexting.com. This service (and others like it) allows you to manage large groups of text message subscribers and send mass texts. Here's how it works:
- You sign up for the service and select a unique keyword. For example, you might choose "stjohnyouth".
- Your youth manage their own subscription, by texting "stjohnyouth" to 313131. They can text "stop stjohnyouth" to 313131 to unsubscribe.
- You can send messages to anyone who has subscribed to your keyword, either from your computer or cell phone. You can even schedule messages to be sent at a later date or time. It's a great way to let your youth know about an upcoming event, or that you're canceling youth group because you're going to the Justin Bieber concert.
EzTexting.com costs $25 per month per keyword, plus $.05 per message that you send. Your youth are not charged by the service, but they may have to pay for any messages they receive, according to whatever texting plan they have with their mobile carrier. Sure, it will cost you a little, but I would argue that it could be one of the most effective methods for distributing small pieces of information to large groups. I encourage you to consider if such a service would be beneficial for youth ministry in your context. It's also a great tool for church-wide communication. No, I don't own any EzTexting.com stock. Why do you ask?
The implications of texting are huge. Not only is it a potential communication gold mine for your youth group or ministry, it is a social issue that needs to continue to be examined. These questions are just the tip of the iceberg:
- How can we help teens who are addicted to texting? It seems ironic that such a powerful communication tool can become an obsession that hinders more meaningful social interaction. Many teens (and adults) even text while driving, which is extremely dangerous (and illegal). I recently heard someone say, "Distraction is the new DUI." Surely, texting can be destructive on and off the road. Obsessive or inappropriate text messaging can also indicate more deeply rooted issues.
- How can we help parents teach their teens to text responsibly? The Pew Research Center has identified mobile phone use as a major cause of conflict and anxiety between parents and teens. I'm sure many of you can corroborate this from your own experience.
- Should teachers and youth leaders ban texting? No doubt there are circumstances which make it appropriate to eliminate this distraction in order to facilitate social interaction. However, I think that our efforts will be more effective and long lasting if we focus on instructing teens to value social interaction and monitor their own texting habits voluntarily, as responsible young adults.
In closing, I hope that you will seriously consider employing text messaging in your Youth Ministry. I think you'll find that it will help more youth get to your next event, or remind your youth group to share the awesome message that in Jesus we have forgiveness and eternal life! I also hope that you'll ponder some of the important questions related to texting and keep a pulse on this evolving element of teen culture. Recently, Google announced that Google+ will facilitate group texting. We can expect new developments to change how teens text. Let's continue to encourage the responsible and God-honoring use of texting as we seek to share the love of Jesus.