Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax Group conducted a roundtable concerning the findings from our survey, "Youth Ministry in America," conducted with Brotherhood Mutual. The participants of the roundtable included pastors, volunteers, and other church-staff leaders. We'll break this interview into five parts and post weekly during the month of April in connection with National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Today we focus largely on social media–one of the top concerns facing youth ministry.
This is the first post in our series. If you missed the any of the other weeks' blog posts on the top concerns facing youth ministry, you can find them here:
- Week Two: "Does Your Youth Ministry Have a Communication Policy?"
- Week Three: "Safety Training: It's More Than a Manual"
- Week Four: "Building the Right Team"
- Week Five: "Teaching Churches to Draw the Line"
Roundtable participants: Brian McAuliffe, CFO at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois; Garland Owensby, professor at Southwestern Assembly of God University in Texas and a volunteer youth worker; Brad Neese, teaching pastor at Berrien Center Bible Church in Michigan; Laura Leonard, associate editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com and a volunteer youth leader in Illinois; and Wes Trevor, youth director at Central Presbyterian Church in Colorado. Ashley Moore, assistant editor for the Church Law & Tax Group moderated this roundtable–with assistance from editorial resident Andrew Finch.
Ashley (Moore) Emmert: The survey mentioned the following as some of the top issues facing today's youth ministry: bullying, social media safety, increased inappropriate texting, depression, suicide, and sexual abuse. How do those issues track with your church? Specifically, what are the biggest challenges facing your youth ministry?
Brian McAuliffe: Because of the number of students we have–over 1,400 in our high school and another 1,000 in our junior high–one of the big issues is size and being able to have control and keep potential problems in check.
As for specific issues you mentioned, I get all the reports when anybody is called in for pastoral care and there are issues of suicide, depression, and cutting. I'm overwhelmed by the number that we get for the kids we have in our school program. It's just incredible.
But as social media continues to grow, that's the thing that gives me the most cause for loss of sleep. The biggest concern is how do we not over-control but keep appropriate relationships going through Facebook, texting, and e-mailing.
Brad Neese: Some of the cutting-edge stuff on social media really is a challenge. One of my friends, Jim Gribnitz, wrote a dissertation on the effect of social media on student ministry, and he's actually got some pretty interesting stuff. Teaching teens how to use social media and leverage it to their advantage, not to avoid it but how to leverage it, is one of the big issues. And teaching their parents how to do the same thing.
Laura Leonard: I would actually agree with the social media thing as well, especially as far as an issue that touches every student. Certainly depression and suicide are really, really tough. But they don't affect every student. The social media issue is something all of our kids deal with all the time, every day. I think that knowing how to talk to them about it, being able to talk to their parents about it, and knowing how to help them learn how to have a social media presence and to be safe on it–those are huge, huge challenges.
Brian McAuliffe: I agree. The connectivity and the volume of connectivity among kids are incredible. Most parents don't know how to use social media, and so I think instructing them on how to use it and how to keep an eye on their kids would be really helpful.
Garland Owensby: What I'm seeing goes along with what you guys are saying on social media. I'd also add that I have become so frustrated with how many links to bad information are on Facebook. Through social media, the youth's sources of information are each other and not necessarily something that's reliable or true.
Brian McAuliffe: And this is the Wikipedia generation. So it's a time when you can create the truth and you can create information. And people, like Garland said, are dependent on other people, and they take that as truth versus really seeking out good answers. It gets a little scary after a while.
Wes Trevor: What I have seen is kind of the heart behind what everyone is talking about. There's always been a youth culture, but there are so many youth subcultures now, and social media and texting have really created the ability to keep those worlds secret and to keep those worlds two or three steps ahead of us adults.
Even though I work with students all the time and have a lot of trust with them and I know their world probably better than most adults, there are things that go on that I have no clue about. It takes me several months to catch up, because they're smart. They're savvy. They're using new apps in order to keep their world out of adult eyes. That's why we've seen this mass migration of teenagers away from places like Facebook, because they don't want grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, youth pastor, whoever, to see the types of conversations and the subject matter that they're talking about.
Brian McAuliffe: Because of that we find out about incidents weeks, months, years later. Like when we'll get a report on someone's suicidal thoughts or depression, and then we find out it's because they've been date-raped or they've had some other issue months ago, and no one's ever heard about it because it's kept in this secret communications world.
Editor's Note: If your church is experiencing problems with teens and social media, know that you're not alone. Also, know that there are answers. Be sure to read part two when the Youth Ministry Roundtable addressed ways to better communicate with the tech-savvy youth in your church?