Youth Ministry And Generation Like

Douglas Rushkoff has produced two terrific PBS Frontline documentaries about youth and media. The Merchants of Cool (2001) and The Persuaders (2004) both analyzed the embedded nature of corporate marketing in media aimed at young people. Now Generation Like probes how the advent of social media has changed the equation.

Essentially, nothing has changed. The media that young people consume is still carefully crafted for purposes of branding. Only now the process of branding has opened up, so that youth consumers of media actually function as marketing foot soldiers for corporations.

Watch the clip below, and ponder this question: what are those of us who minister to young people doing that differs from these corporate marketing strategies? The questions seems absurd, because the difference in the scale of our operations is utterly massive; I don’t know any youth groups with millions of likes on its Facebook page. Yet I wonder if we’re not sharing certain assumptions about the value of youth attention in our efforts to connect with them. Personally, I’m losing. The activities I’m inviting them to participate in, even to like, lag way behind most of their other priorities.

Should that bother me? Does my outreach need to be appeal more to my students’ sensitivity to public perception? Or is the call of youth ministry to soldier on and allow the gap between church-based activities and YouTube driven activity only widen?


Either Teens Are Over Facebook Or Facebook Has Taken Them Over

The high school students who drop by my church after school on Wednesday are all guys. They’re down for some games, some unstructured social time, and some running around. We don’t talk a ton.

I force conversation very briefly by using candy. I’ll ask a student an open ended question about an interest or an opinion, and if they answer it they get a Jolly Rancher. Sometimes they ask the next question.

Yesterday’s question was, “What’s one website you look at every day.”

YouTube (to watch Game Grumps).

Netflix (to watch “How I Met Your Mother”).

Google (seriously, just Google?).

Tabs for A Cause (a fundraising platform for social causes)

Twitter (two of my students tweet. I had no idea).

Tumblr (a blogging platform).

You know what nobody mentioned? You know what zero high school students in my group said they use daily?


I’m guessing that’s due to Facebook’s thorough integration into mobile devices. I bet they’re using it every day, just not online.

Or they’re just not into Facebook anymore?


Texts from Teens

There’s a group of high school guys who drop by the church every Wednesday afternoon after school. For several weeks in a row now, one of those students texts me mid-day to ask, “What are we doing today?” This is strange, because the range of what we do is quite limited, determined almost entirely by the students, and apparently worthwhile enough to keep them coming back. So I never know how to answer. Today I went with absurdity.

Student: What are we doing today

Me: Two words: dog show.

Student: What

Me: Arf

Student: Like Westminster Dog Show

Me: Look at you with the cultured dog breeding knowledge!

Student: I watch it every year with my mom dude

Me: I’ll never doubt you again

Student: But what do we do in this dog show

Me: What dog show?

Student: What are we doing today

Me: Two words: cat acrobatics.

Student: Okay u need to stop

Two things about this: first, my student has clearly never met a question mark, and this I fear portends the end of western civilization.

Second, this kid is great.

Tofu on the Facebook Pizza

I unfriended (Facebook) a family member in December over the poisonous speech of her friends in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. We’ve since re-friended (if that’s a thing), but the episode taught me something about social media and meaningful speech.

Here’s what happened:

Only hours after the shooting, the family member in question posted something to their Facebook wall that amounted to, “Don’t start talking about gun control. Guns don’t kill people . . . ” Now, no one learning the news from Connecticut was in any kind of emotional state to engage in rational conversation about it, yours truly included. I felt compelled to respond, though, so I hastily commented, “How can you defend guns right now? Seriously, how?”

The next several hours unleashed an increasingly abusive stream of comments directed at me. I was accused of insulting this family member. My Christian faith was questioned. I was told to “SHUT THE HELL UP!” All of this came from people I don’t know but who are part of my family member’s social network. As the thread of comments grew, I defended myself. Finally, though, I stopped, and I unfriended my family member. I wanted no part of this network of people.

If you insert yourself into controversial conversations on Facebook, people are going to attack you, probably with more vitriol than they would if you were in the same room. Everybody knows that. Something else has occurred to me as I’ve thought about this incident, though, and that is the notion of pizza. Facebook conversations are less like democratic exchanges of ideas and more like pizza parties.

When we share something on Facebook, whether we compose it ourselves or post it from another source, we’re offering a hot steamy pizza to our social network. Some of our friends will gobble it up, liking it and commenting, “Amen!” and “Thanks for sharing.” Others, though, won’t like it. And their comments effectively throw tofu on the pizza. And nobody likes tofu. Especially on pizza.

It’s as if I showed up to my family member’s pizza party, looked at what she was offering to her social network, and announced, “How can you eat that?!” and then tried to correct its flaws by adding healthier ingredients to it. That was a very unwelcome move to the vast majority of the network. It rendered people unable to assess the nutritional merit of the tofu I’d sprinkled on top of the pepperoni because they were so angry it was even there. I’d ruined their pizza.

I’m friends with my family member again. Only now, when she serves up one her contentious pizzas, I politely decline and move on. Her social network likes pizza that I think is unhealthy. My social network’s pizza tastes are different, and she wonders about them, “How can you eat that?!” But, for my part, I’m done trying to improve other peoples’ pizzas.

Bruce Reyes-Chow and Company Are Planting A Church! Yes! Online? Oh . . .

One of the developments I covered in my Winterfest presentation on churches and social media is an online Presbyterian church start-up that was announced (hat tip: Lesslie Scanlon) last week by former PC(USA) Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow. Peoples’ reactions were generally skeptical. Many were downright dismissive.

And for as much as I quote Douglas Rushkoff and talk about how people in churches need to understand the biases of these digital technologies so that they’re using them in helpful ways and not unwittingly giving up their non-digital assets, I’m interested in this. I’m keeping an open mind about it to see what happens.

Why? Because there are some seriously legit people behind it. Reyes-Chow is no Johnny-Come-Lately technophile; he held the highest elected office in a national denomination. And he’s not doing this alone. He’s gathered a team of Presbyterians: men and women, ruling and teaching elders, racially and ethnically diverse. Of that team, I know Mihee Kim-Kort and Steve Salyards (aka @ga_junkie) the best, and anything those two thought was worth their time and effort has immediate credibility in my book.

Read Reyes-Chow’s blog post announcing the church here and explore their Facebook page here.

Who knows what this could be? What are your expectations?

Portrait of A Young Adult Volunteer (Or, More Fun with Call Recorder for Skype)

A couple of weeks ago I used ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype to have a talk with Miriam Foltz, one of the PC (USA)’s Young Adult Volunteers this year. She’s serving in the program’s Belfast site (of which I’m also an alum), and I spoke with her and her supervisor, Mark Sweeney, about the nature of the YAV program and of her work. We also talked about the site where she’s serving, East Belfast Mission.

We’re going to show this video in worship on Sunday, June 5th, the week before the Pentecost Offering. That special offering supports the YAV program, as well as a number of other ministries with children and youth.

I got the idea to do this at the NEXT Church event in Indianapolis last February. A number of participants at that event lifted up the YAV program as a significant source of vocational formation in the life of the church. I’m a big believer and a major beneficiary of it, so I decided to use my connection with Miriam, who I met at Triennium last summer, to give it just a little push from my corner of the world.

Share this video as you wish. Also, I’m a film production rookie, so I’d love y’all’s feedback.

Twitter Makes The Church Better

This is a descriptive post about the San Gabriel Presbytery vote on Amendment 10-A this past Tuesday, May 10th, a deliberation that was preceded by a matter of mere minutes by the tweeted (and infinitely re-tweeted) announcement of the decisive  10-A vote result from the the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area.

Before out meeting began, I was unofficially charged by the Executive Presbyter to watch for a Twin Cities result, so I spent most of the afternoon checking the #pcusa and #ptca Twitter tags. I celebrated with @mayog that @charlesawiley was with us, addressing our debate and leading our worship. and I broadcast his pearls of wisdom. I trumpeted @revsap’s floor speech to the world. I offered a lighthearted commentary–“scruple is a verb”–and I received in my Twitter flesh the punishment for my sin from @adamwc: “screw scrupling now.”

I wasn’t alone. People all over the room were shamelessly checking their phones. @heysonnie, @trindlea, and @ga_junkie collected and redistributed every update with stunning proficiency.

While moderating the CPM report, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Taking a calculated risk on my perception of the room’s distraction, I checked it:  a tweet from @trindlea in which I’d been mentioned. As in, “@yorocko moderating . . .” I chuckled and scanned the room. @trindlea was hiding in plain sight.

We had the result before our debate began, and although we were prepared to respond if someone should announce the result from the floor during debate, nobody did. We debated for about 45 minutes along all the usual lines of argument, then we used pale green paper slips to vote.

During the dinner break, I used Face Time to call up some of our church’s elders who was unable to attend the meeting. The other commissioners from our church passed the iPad around and updated them about the proceedings.

Also during the dinner break, my colleague had a small audience around her phone, watching a video just posted by the Moderator of the General Assembly about 10-A’s passage.

At the close of worship, we read from an iPad the story from the denomination’s website confirming the success of the amendment before the benediction.

Media connected the church gathered.

Media connected the church separated.

I can unambiguously say that these tools made this exercise better than it would have been otherwise and better than it has been in the past.

My experience yesterday afternoon was a demonstration of the vitality and connection that social media technology can engender in the church. In the face of the doomsday scenarios being advanced already, that experience makes me hopeful and gives me something to point to and say, “Look how we love each other.”

My Church Killed Twitter? Personal vs. Institutional Use of Social Media

Is it better for pastors and churches to use social media institutionally or personally?

I set up a Facebook organization page for the youth ministry at my church several months ago, and it has attracted all of eight followers, most of whom are parents. Most of the content the page features is pushed from a Posterous blog I created to autopost content not only to Facebook but also to a Twitter account and a Flickr photo stream, all of which are “official” church youth ministry offerings.

I’m confident nobody uses those.

By contrast, when I use my personal Facebook page or Twitter account to narrate something going on in the youth ministry or the larger church, conversation reliably ensues.

Personally, I’m interested in people: what they think, what they’re doing, what they want to know. I’m much less interested in organizations. Yet pastors and youth leaders have well-advised instincts to make the things they’re involved in about the organization, the larger collective, and not about themselves. This is standard ministerial competence.

Social media are exposing that, at bottom, things that churches are doing are being done by people, and you can put those people on social map. And that’s okay. In fact, it may be a misuse of social media tools to employ them in the service of organizations instead of actual people.

One of the things from last year’s Theology After Google event that has stuck with me is Monica Coleman’s description of how she came to attend her present church. A friend connected her to the pastor through Facebook, and it was her interest in his theology and vision for the church that drew her to participate in the congregation. It was a person (it could just as easily been an elder or another member), not the organization.

So is it okay to scrap the “official” church Facebook page and instead cultivate the church’s relationship with the world through the personal social media presence of its leaders and members?


Facebook and Proverbs

Tonight we started a new unit on Proverbs with the high school youth group. We’re mostly using Youth Ministry Architects’ Spice Rack piece for this. I’ve had good experiences with YMA’s curriculum, because it’s really customizable and, on the whole, thoughtful.

Part of the introductory lesson has basic facts and trivia about the book of Proverbs, including that there are 31 chapters in the book and that a person could read through it entirely in one month by reading a chapter a day (I did this regularly in college). I hadn’t planned it, but I just sort of blurted out, “Who’s up for that? Who could read a chapter of Proverbs every day for . . . the next seven days?”

Somebody asked if I could email it to them.

“You guys don’t use email,” I answered.

“What about Facebook?” She asked. “Could you put a chapter on Facebook each day?”

That I can do.

Here’s the plan: using the new group I set up last week for our high school youth group (not the CPC Youth organization page I started last fall), I’ll either post the text of an entire chapter on the wall or message it directly to students who want it.

And only the ones who want it. I took down the names of interested students, and there are about five.

I’ll take that all day.

Anybody done anything like this? Does this strike you as a good idea or a bit of techno-flattery?