Thursday, May 9, 2013

Texting Your Students. . . A Need for Youth Ministry Wisdom. . . .

Stupid. Now, it seems just plain stupid and risky.

Thirty-five years ago I was a freckle-faced youth ministry rookie. . . twenty-one years old, just out of college, exuberant about ministry, naive, and incredibly naive. I had just signed on to do full-time ministry with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a campus ministry organization based in Pittsburgh. I was single and working about 80 hours a week, splitting that time between ministry on the local college campus and doing youth ministry in a local church. A good portion of our time was spent doing "contact work." That was ministry code for getting to know kids. Being somewhat extroverted, it fueled me. But thinking back to those early days and many of the years that followed, there was a "stupid" component to my ministry. . . in fact, it was a "stupid" component to the way everyone I knew in ministry was doing ministry.

The "stupid" part of our ministry had to do with the way in which we engaged with students. It didn't seem at all stupid at the time. After all, it all seemed so innocent. But filtering our ministry efforts through the framework of life in today's world. . . WOW! . . . I'm not sure it was really all that smart and I'm grateful that my innocence never got me in trouble. For example, the ultimate way to get to know a student was to spend time in their bedroom. The bedroom was the student's space. You could learn a lot about a student's heart, beliefs, worldview, and convictions by looking at their walls, checking out their music collection, scanning their bookshelf, etc. For someone like me who had been trained in sociology and anthropology, this was always an amazing ethnographic opportunity. It still would be a great way to get to know kids if we didn't live in such a dangerous and creepy world. But too much can happen. We know that, especially if we know ourselves. In hindsight, I realize that even the perceived and actual value of all that time I spent in the car with kids - alone and in groups.. . both male and female. . . sure, it was amazing ministry time filled with significant conversations, but I'd never do that today.

In recent years, I've had loads of opportunity to train youth workers in how to get to know kids, how to get to know their culture, and how to do youth ministry in a rapidly changing culture. I believe that it's that rapidly changing culture coupled with the reality of our own fallenness that requires us to exercise wisdom, diligence, and discipline as we set parameters for how we spend time with our students. Time with them is necessary and required. But I have to admit some concern regarding the lack of parameters and boundaries that I sometimes encounter. I've done a complete about-face. . . telling youth workers to stay out of kids' bedrooms and to avoid time alone in the car. You might never do anything or even think of doing anything, but you have no control over what others might do or say regarding that time. It's best to be prudent and safe.

Tim Keller defines "wisdom" as "competence with regards to the complex realities of life." He says that wisdom includes insight (knowing how things really work in the world), prudence (knowing how things really are in the world), and action (knowing what I should do about it). Youth workers need to pursue wisdom and live wisely in the world. That includes how we spend time with and relate to kids. It's about both hindsight (learning from the past. . . both our own past and the past of others) and foresight (anticipating how to live in the world in light of what we've learned from the past).

Which leads to this question: "How can we exercise wisdom in regards to our use of social media with kids?" It's an important question that not only sets good boundaries for our relationships, but it's also instructional as we nurture kids into a lifetime of living wisely in the midst of all the distractions and tools that they've been given.

I have one quick suggestion for how to make that happen. It has to do with text-messaging. My thoughts are prompted by some pretty direct questions I fielded last week from some youth workers who were considering how to set text-messaging borders and boundaries. They specifically asked about what could go wrong, and they had a desire to prevent that from happening. Their question prompted me to think back to my own early years of youth ministry and the fact that asking those kinds of questions never even crossed my mind. I was impressed! I was also prompted to think about wisdom and the need to apply wisdom to life and ministry in a rapidly changing culture.

My suggestion is this: even though text-messaging is the preferred method of communication for students, it isn't the best method of communication for anybody. Face-to-face communication is always the best. . . and I fear that we're losing the ability to do that effectively. That doesn't mean that I'm saying you should stop texting. I don't think that at all. There's a time, a place, and use for texting. Instead, we should be texting wisely. . . even redemptively. We should be texting in an "in but not of the world" kind of manner. That's the way we should be doing everything, right? Here are three quick standards that I encourage you to consider:

  • Don't nurture kids into text-based communication. Always opt for face-to-face communication so that you can communicate deeply while nurturing them into an art that is on its way to being forgotten.
  • Be very careful about texting one-on-one with students. I used to advise against one-on-one texting with students of the opposite sex. I liken it to riding alone in the car. But in today's cultural setting, it might be best to start considering the avoidance of one-on-one texting with students of any sex. If that doesn't sit well with you, just take a moment to contemplate what could go wrong.
  • Make texting one of the ways you communicate with kids. I think there's a great value to mass-texting. Mass-texting your entire youth group is a great way to spread the word.
  • Always, always, always think about your text message before you send a text-message. Is this wise? Is this helpful? Could this be misinterpreted? 
A word to the wise from someone who's been there. . . do youth ministry today in a way that you will never be able to label as "stupid" or "risky" 35 years from now.

8 comments:

joelkime.com said...

Thanks Walt! Great post.
We use Remind 101 for group text messaging and love it. Not only is it free, has no ads, it is also web and app based.

Dave Hubbard said...

Some good thoughts here Walt, but I wouldn't take it so far. I agree with the wisdom issue and face to face conversation, but to suggest not texting one on one is absurd. Be wise with one on one text messages, yes. But to advise others not to use one of the main forms of communication among adolescents - and to do so by slapping a "not of this world" reference on it - THAT'S risky.

Walt Mueller said...

Dave. . . thanks for your feedback. My point here is to issue a warning. I think we are headed into some difficult territory. The reality is that way too much can go wrong. I would suggest that any time you enter into a texting conversation with a student you need to view that as being alone in a room for a conversation with that same student. . . especially since texting is becoming a primary means of communication for kids. I would then ask myself, "What are the risks here? Is this wise?" Make sense? Seriously. . . this all about life on the digital frontier. . . the new arena that's unfolding so very fast and that we know very little about. Regarding the "in but not of the world". . . that's not a "slap-on" . . . I think that should guide all of our decisions here and in every nook and cranny of life. Wouldn't you agree? Have you read Tim Challies' book "The Next Story"? It's a good one that I think could shape some redemptive thinking/living in terms of this stuff. I hope I'm wrong. . . seriously. . . but I think there are some difficult situations yet to unfold around us related to our misuse or cavalier use of social media. Ethical stuff. It's coming. Sadly. Thus, my warning.

BenParker said...

Texting students can both be good and bad (just like any use of social media). I rarely text a student of the opposite sex. Honesty, I only text girls one-on-one to babysit for us so that I can take my wife on a date. I want girls to respect me and my leadership but I don't disciple girls or want them to like or love me. I want them to love my wife and love their female small group leaders. Any communication that needs to happen with them takes place through their female small group leaders. I would suggest having an open phone policy with your wife/husband or, if you are not married, a co-worker/pastor. This helps you remain above reproach.

Mike said...

Three thoughts came to mind while I was reading this. One, I feel it's quite different than the bedroom scenario because you can save these conversations which is a huge benefit over a one-on-one conversation, Two, If a youth leader were to stop communicating via text messages then it would make us seem outdated and not with the times and three, I've been able to start meaningful conversations via text messaging that I never would have been able to face-to-face because of the students willingness to open up through that type of conversation. The biggest thing I got out of it however was comments about being young and naïve in youth ministry 35 years ago. I fully recognize that I am young and naïve and base every decision I make off the fact that I don't know what I'm doing. :-)

Walt Mueller said...

Great thoughts Mike. . . a couple of thoughts in response. . . Yes, you can save them, but my point is the "aloneness" and intimacy factor that can quite easily play into this. . . perhaps not in your mind or intentions, but in the minds and intentions of the kids on the other end. Second, if my ministry effectiveness hinges on being with the times in terms of tools, style, etc., then I am depending on something more than the power of caring, vulnerable relationships to connect. Sure, the tools can help. But we can't rely on them to make us connect. If we do, we really aren't connecting at the level we need to connect. Could a person who doesn't text - say an 80 year old grandmother who works with the youth group and loves kids. . .but doesn't text. . . still connect? If we don't think so, then we've played into the lies of relevance and style. And yes, great conversations can start that way. . . but if we are in their lives with presence, care and concern, those same conversations will happen. I think we need to nurture them into that kind of conversation starting. Not sure about your last comment. Is it tongue in cheek? All of us don't know what we're doing at a certain level! I would never ascribe ignorance to age.

ty guy said...

I always filter text's to students (boys and girls) through this grid: Am I cool with their parents reading this? Would I text this if my wife/husband were reading this over my shoulder? Always envision the community of believers whenever you are communicating (text, twitter, Facebook, etc)

Anonymous said...

What about using a group texting tool? Don't they keep a log of all the messages (both to and from teens)? Does it work with one-on-one messages to? Any suggestions for a service that does?

Sorry for all the questions, this is an area I know very little about.