Social media changes the world of youth ministryA couple weeks ago freshmen attending First English Lutheran Church in Appleton went on a weekend retreat where they were asked to give up (collective gasp) their cell phones.
By: Cheryl Anderson, The Appleton Post-Crescent, Superior Telegram
APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — A couple weeks ago freshmen attending First English Lutheran Church in Appleton went on a weekend retreat where they were asked to give up (collective gasp) their cell phones.
"And it was like prying their fingers off that cell phone to give it up for less than 18 hours," FELC youth and family pastor Andy Moscinski said. "There were young ladies, bless their hearts, that we saw on their phones getting on the bus (who said), 'I didn't bring my phone with me.'"
In the end all those attending did give up their phones and spent quality time separated from the rest of society in the company of God and each other. The ability to access the world with a call, click or text is one of the challenges faced by today's youth pastors. But social media also can be a huge blessing.
"When we try to put technology away we realize how connected to it we are," said Moscinski, who has been working full time at FELC for four years. "At the same time, it's the quickest way to communicate in the form of communication most kids relate to, everything from Facebook to text messaging."
Social media is one of the biggest changes in the world of youth ministry, agreed Celia McKee, coordinator of youth ministry for the last 10 years for St. Mary and St. Joseph parishes in Appleton.
"Facebook, in particular, has been our biggest thing to go on to and see what's going on in (students') lives," McKee said. "If I wouldn't have gotten on Facebook I think I would have been behind the times. The kids were the ones that pushed me. They started a page and put me as administrator."
Parish youth ask for prayer requests, tell of family members who have passed away "or you find out if they're getting their driver's license or find out if they broke up with somebody so you can quick make sure you're going to minister to them and try to help them heal," McKee said.
Facebook and CaringBridge.org, a nonprofit organization providing free Web sites to connect family and friends during a serious health event, was especially helpful to students and parishioners when the Rev. Mike O'Rourke, St. Mary's pastor, died Feb. 22.
"It was huge, and (students) were on there sharing stories left and right, and it was the perfect venting for them; it was the perfect place," McKee said. "And about several young people who have died among our youth. They are putting it out there so we can jump in and say something. It's a support group, a total support group."
Moscinski is friends with about 300 students on Facebook, which allows him to instantly acknowledge birthdays rather than checking through records.
"On one hand it feels cheap, but it's the way they communicate," he said.
Event cancellations due to a snowstorm, for example, can be instantly posted on Facebook and Twitter rather than making individual phone calls. Moscinski also will send off holiday wishes or reminders that students are loved.
For Rachel Emrick, youth minister at Our Saviour's Lutheran in Appleton, Facebook is a great tool to keep in touch with students.
"I'll see on my news feed one of my kids won at their volleyball game or something like that, so it's a good way to keep updated, things when I see them I might not think to ask or tell me that they're really excited about," Emrick said. "And it's nice to be able to just drop a line if I know one of my students is struggling with something that I'm thinking about them."
That's not to say Emrick doesn't have to issue rules before gatherings such as the weekly confirmation class so students don't text message while they are there.
"I generally try to remind them at the beginning of something that they aren't able to use them. They know that's my expectation," she said.
Students at Our Saviour participating in the summer service trips also are not allowed to bring phones along, which is difficult for some.
"We try and make them understand why they're not bringing them so that they can be present where they are and be able to spend time with each other and bond that way," Emrick said.
Social networking may take away a little personal face-to-face time, but Moscinski, Emrick and McKee are quick to acknowledge it's not the primary way they communicate with kids. It is supplemental.
"With any of this communication it goes back to the responsibility of the person to engage in it," Moscinski said. "I can send all these beautiful things on e-mail or Facebook, but if a kid doesn't open his Facebook account for two weeks he could miss something that was there. ... So technology is always a challenge, but it's also a blessing because it's a way to reach kids in a different manner."
Just as youth activity rooms in churches are slowly evolving away from the used furniture, pool or ping-pong table feel of the '70s, keeping youth connected to their faith also has been modernized, and youth directors need to keep one foot in the mix.
By using social media to keep in touch with kids, youth directors aren't only trying to keep youth interested in church, they also want to help them take the gospel away from church and to make them comfortable enough to share the message in a locker room or backstage during a drama rehearsal or in the classroom or on a bus ride home.
"That they feel comfortable to say to somebody, 'By the way Jesus loves you. Or because Jesus loves me I'm here to listen to you.' ... We aren't there to lead them somewhere," Moscinski said. "That's what God's doing. ... My goal is get them to feel like somebody's with them ... in their joy and in their sadness."