Before school started this morning, my youth group students met together, even though they attend several different schools and some are homeschooled. We met online—at Facebook.com.
“I check my Facebook at least every morning,” says Kelsey Sturza, one of my church’s teens. “I like using this group because it is an easy way for us to get reminders of things that are happening in our youth group. The group also helps us have fellowship with other believers, when we would not otherwise be able to. Plus the group is a good way of showing others what we believe.”
Facebook started in 2004, when a college student at Harvard launched the site for Internet networking. Originally the site was limited to Harvard students. But two years later the rules changed so anyone thirteen or older with a valid e-mail address could become part of the Facebook network. Due to this change, the website’s ranking grew from sixtieth to seventh between September 2006 and September 2007, according to Alexa.com. The site’s growth opened the door for people of all ages all over the globe to communicate, share pictures and videos, write notes, and participate in discussion groups. Among the youth culture, this form of communication is growing—some say it is preferred—as it enables quicker and easier dialogue.
As a youth pastor, I have seen online communication benefit my own youth ministry in two ways.
If you have not participated in a social networking site, you might find it odd that online messages can help build relationships. Yet for teens, being able to communicate, keep up with people, and have conversations and discussions electronically is real and effective. Commenting on students’ photos or videos is encouraging to them and is just another step in developing a relationship in order to minister to them.
Students are busy, so it is not always possible to talk with or see each student every week. Shawna Davis, another teen at my church, says, “I use Facebook to keep in contact with people who I don’t see every day. The youth group page helps me to know what’s going on in our youth group, and we can get notices during the week if anything that is coming up wasn’t mentioned on Sunday or Wednesday.”
The Internet, particularly Facebook, gives me an additional touch into the lives of my students.
The Internet has well-known pitfalls. Teenagers and college students are very willing to share information about themselves and their lives. Sometimes they communicate too much information, and in ways that are inappropriate for a believer. Many students feel open to say what they really mean on the Internet, when face-to-face they may not feel so comfortable. We could debate the merits of this fact and suggest that it is wrong for students to say one thing on the Internet and another thing to our faces. But if a student is going through a difficult situation, we need to know it and be ready to minister to it.
On a number of occasions I have had opportunities to call students out on certain issues. These cases all led to real discipleship times, personal accountability, ministry opportunities, and teachable moments. And our teens seem to enjoy this contact with me. Shawna calls the Internet “a very dangerous place for a teen,” but she adds that everyone “can see what’s going on in our lives and what we’re doing—like accountability. We can post a question if we don’t want to make a lot of phone calls yet want many opinions or feedback on something, and you can send a message if you’re not going to be able to contact someone another way.”
One of my youth group’s recent graduates, Jocelyn Stevenson, uses Facebook to stay connected with the group now that she is in college, saying, “I’m feeling very old right now because none of this stuff was around when I was thirteen.” She still is wary about the Internet, adding, “My mother is still freaked out by the idea of someone finding me.:)”
Jocelyn mentions that “Facebook and MySpace have the option to make your profile private. That way, only people you allow into your friends can see your page.” She adds, “Some parents also like to get pages themselves so they can watch over and keep track of their children.”
Online security continues to be an issue. My youth group set up its Facebook group as a “closed group,” meaning no one can join without an invitation by me, the administrator. No one can see any information about our teens unless they are part of the group.
For many in youth ministry, Internet communication is still uncharted territory. I know online communication is not news, yet there are tremendous opportunities for us to take advantage of. Those of us in ministry need to be prepared to help our students navigate these unique times for the glory of God.
Marc Herron is assistant pastor of First Baptist Church, Caro, Michigan.