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The Incarnation and Networked publics

A couple weeks back I went to the Association of Youth Ministry Educators annual conference, affectionately known as AYME.

I was there as an exhibitor for the Cartel. But since the topic of this years conference was Technology and Transformation I got to attend as a learner, as well. (How awesome that they had a conference built around my expertise!) So I had the opportunity to hear from several brilliant minds around the general topics of social media, youth ministry, and how faith formation is being impacted by a social-media-fueled adolescent experience.

I took pages and pages of notes. I bought books on top of books that will take me months to get through. And at the end of it I walked away with two prevailing thoughts that I’ll be exploring over the next several months here on the blog and in work that I’ll hopefully publish somewhere else. (Both of which I’ll not be mentioning here.)

What Does Incarnational Ministry Mean with Networked Publics?

At the end of the day youth workers just need to know what to do. I’m often asked by adults who minister to teenagers about various apps, about ministry best practices, and about ways to market to teenagers effectively.

So let’s cut to the chase: Should youth workers being hanging out with teenagers online the way they used to hang out with teenagers at football games? 

  • Thought One: At the root of most of my [Sonlife informed] youth ministry training is the incarnation of Christ. John 1 provides a model, just as Jesus came into the world as good news in his neighborhood, so should I enter into the lives of teenagers as a youth worker.  So that’s my background and bias…
  • Thought Two: As Danah Boyd points out in her book, It’s Complicated [the premier sociological work on social media and adolescence right now] teenagers have largely had traditional face-to-face publics eliminated and have largely moved to what Boyd calls, Networked Publics.
  • Thoughts Three: Youth ministry, as a profession, is in a place where accountability and professionalism in the relationship with teenagers is important. If we, as a tribe, do not address ways to do this– ultimately to keep teenagers safer and hold adults accountable for the relationships they have with the minors in their ministry– we will continue to see our profession pushed to the margins.

With those three prevailing thoughts in my mind here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t think youth workers should be engaging with teenagers on social in a regular one-on-one basis without accountability, documentation, policies, and training.

In other words, a casual connection or a logistical “Hey, are you coming to the retreat?” is one thing. But I think youth workers would be better off engaging with teenagers in real life, even going back to old-school-incarnational-ministry standards like contact work on the local campus or limiting their relational time to officially sanctioned youth ministry meetings and events.

See, to read Boyd’s work about teenagers networked publics and think to yourself… “If teenagers are there, I need to be there” is a misinterpretation of Boyd’s work. She’s saying that they’ve resorted to networked publics because they can’t find anywhere else that’s adult-free. And not having any place to just be a teenager without adults prying eyes is a big developmental thing… So if you suddenly start butting in to that one place in their entire life where they can talk freely, without the prying eyes of a parent or adult… all you’re doing is forcing them to find another place where they “really talk” without you. It’s a developmental need.

Never mind the fact that– quite frankly, teenagers think adults talking to them or sending them gifs or snaps online is creepy.

So, in my very limited time this morning, this is why I would argue that social media is not a place for incarnation youth ministry. But it is, in many cases, an excellent place for youth ministry communication.

Keep your contacts with teenagers online logistical or promotional. Leave conversations and relationship building for face-to-face.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

2 replies on “The Incarnation and Networked publics”

I agree wholeheartedly, Adam (great post, by the way. I love hearing your two cents on this topic, especially knowing you have a very uniquely-relevant blend of youth ministry experience and social media expertise.). With all the new research emerging revealing how social media is stifling the face-to-face social skills (and empathy) of young people, I think it’s good for youth workers to always look for ways to connect with young people in good ol’ face-to-face settings. This is not to say we should NOT use social media at all. I think social media, and other form of technology provide great “springboards” toward real connection points. So we shouldn’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater (and assume that all social media is bad).

Yeah, you know I’m not tossing out the baby with the bathwater. But I am saying… “youth workers, face to face is way less creepy and needed than calling playing on your phone “ministry.” This past summer was full of heartbreak as I worked with youth group after youth group who had boundary issues with their youth group and someone on their team… people leaving the faith, people being abused, people losing their jobs– change is needed.

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