According to a recent Pew Research Study, 92% of teenagers reported going online at least daily, and 88% of teenagers have or have access to a smart phone or cell phone. Teenagers are spending most of their online time being social. American teens are connecting with one another, and in a variety of ways. Fully 71% of teenagers use Facebook, 51% use Instagram, and 41% use Snapchat, and most teens do not use one platform exclusively. Over 90% of teens who have or have access to a smart phone or cell phone send and receive text messages, and almost the same number of teens have access to game systems¹. Whether using social media platforms, texting, or playing online games like World of Warcraft and Minecraft, teenagers are connecting with one another more frequently and consistently than we have ever been able to communicate with each other before.
What does this have to do with the church? A lot, actually. Dr. Andrew Zirschky, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Youth Ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary, has just released a new book that addresses this very question. In Beyond the Screen, Zirschky examines the communication trends of the American teenager and attempts to discover the theological significance of these new patterns. His conclusions are startling yet hopeful.
Teenagers utilize all these different technologies and methods of communicating not because they are drawn to all things electronic, but because they are drawn to each other. They are desperately seeking genuine relationships and deep connections with their peers. They want to be known, acknowledged, and accepted. (And who doesn’t want that, right?) Teenagers are finding the best way to find those connections and meet these needs is through their social media networks.
Think about it this way. The average teenager may get to spend an hour or so with their peers in any given span of time. They might share a class together, have the same lunch period, participate in the same extracurricular activity, or attend church or youth group together. Those times are usually very structured and controlled. Even though they share presence, they might not get to share connection. Social media provides them the opportunity to be present and connect with their peers, and on their terms. Social media, texting, and gaming helps them obliterate the walls that separate them.
This desire for connection that motivates teens’ attraction to social media is an ancient concept, and one that we find in the Bible. The ancient Greeks called this desire for connection koinonia. It can be translated as fellowship, sharing, or participation, but perhaps the best English translation is communion. The earliest reference to koinonia in the Bible comes from Acts 2:42, which describes the early church who, “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (NABRE, emphasis mine). The Bible presents this desire for connection and community as the fertile soil in which the Holy Spirit plants the church. It should be where we grow, together, into the body of Christ. Zirschy writes, “Christian community is supposed to be rooted in koinoinia, an intimate intertwining and sharing of life in which Christ is present with us as we are present with one another. The body of Christ is a bold vision of ‘full-time intimate community².’” Teenagers are attempting to commune with one another via social media. This is the only fitting outlet they have found for their innate desire for communion.
Unfortunately, the mediums that teens are using to make these connections are fraught with dangers and temptations. Predators and bullies populate the landscape of the social media world, emboldened by the belief that the screen hides their identity and makes them immune from consequence. Many of the connections teenagers make in the social media world are fragile and easily threatened. It is a challenging world for anyone, especially teenagers, to navigate. Teenagers make themselves vulnerable when they use social media to make these deep connections, and other people can easily wound them.
We want our church to be a place where all people – children, teens, and adults – can come to find the deep and intimate connections that are characteristic of koinonia. We also want this to be a place where we can learn about and explore the complicated concepts and trends in social media and communication. If you want to learn more about the complexities of social media, discover strategies to stay safe in the virtual realm, and to begin a conversation about how the church can become a place where teens feel like they can come and make the kind of connections they are looking for, then please come to the Social Media Training Workshop this Sunday at 5 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall.
¹ “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015” (Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Research Center, April 2015) at http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/09/teens-social-media-technology-2015/.
² Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation by Andrew Zirschky (Abingdon Press, 2015); page 21.