Teenagers do not want your technology. Despite the popular conception that youth are ravenous consumers of all things digital, the reality is that youth are not nearly as enthralled by technology as we might believe. This may seem like a naïve claim considering the sheer number of hours that teenagers spend using cellphones, tablets, computers, and digital devices of all kinds — 10.5 hours per day at last count.[i]
However, research is revealing that teenage use of technology does not ultimately point to adolescent gadget hunger, but rather to a ravenous appetite for relationships—the deep, heart-aching, knowing relationships that increasingly seem difficult to find in a fast-paced society separated by distance, speed, and sheer busyness.
SEEKING FULL-TIME COMMUNITY
After three years of research funded by the MacArthur Foundation, digital ethnographer danah boyd (yes, her name is all lowercase) and her fellow researchers concluded that teenagers use social media to establish “full-time intimate communities” that provide for always-on communication and relationships.[ii] Another social media researcher, Craig Watkins, finds that youth appropriate technology, not primarily for its entertainment value or cool factor, but because of its potential to foster “presence-in-absence”—the ability to be with friends despite physical separation.[iii] Teenagers experience a multitude of fleeting and transitory communities and relationships daily, but social media allows them to enact relationships and draw upon the support of communities that are effervescent, always-on, and full-time.
In other words, teenagers, in their characteristic ability to turn culture on its head, have appropriated the very computer technologies sometimes blamed for communal breakdown, in an attempt to maintain constant presence and to commune with each other digitally. Teenagers have turned technology social and use social media to communicate seamlessly, endlessly—and maybe most surprising—meaningfully.
THE IRRELEVANCE OF RELEVANCE
This means that, in fact, many of us in youth ministry have misread the significance of emerging Internet and mobile technologies, thinking that the church establishes relevance to the lives of teenagers simply through the act of adopting technology for use in ministry. In reality, teenagers are not looking for technology, app-savvy youth ministries, or mere connections. What is truly relevant to the lives of teenagers are relationships of depth and a community of people who “live present” to one another. Such a community of presence is precisely what the church is called by God to be and to offer to humanity; the scriptural word for such a community is koinonia, which can be translated as fellowship, sharing, or most poignantly—communion.
The irony is that youth ministers who try to stay “relevant” by adopting the latest social media apps, secure their own irrelevance if they fail to understand the true attraction of youth to social media—and fail to offer the deep community that God intended and that youth long for.
We need a path beyond the irrelevance of relevance, and we establish that by changing our focus from technology to ecclesiology. Currently, youth ministers tend to laud the connective possibilities of social and mobile media, while others lament its impact on relationships, attention span, and adolescent faith. But what almost all our discussions share is a focus on the technology: Is it good? Is it bad? How can we use it? Should we avoid it? These questions aren’t wrong, but they make it easy to give all our attention to the nature of the technology, without giving proper focus to the nature of the church in a technological society.
This is the question worth examining: What does it mean for the church to live together as koinonia (communion) in the face of networked society? In other words, instead of merely examining social media from a Christian perspective, we must examine what it means to be the church in the social media age. By doing this we may be able to reclaim the church’s God-ordained role of offering young people the intimacy that social apps promise but cannot deliver. Teenagers want neither technology nor mere connections with other people; however, they are longing for the intimate form of community and relational presence that is most characterized by the Christian understanding of koinonia—communion.
Is your ministry bringing students into koinonia, or are you just handing them another app? In the next article we’ll take a closer look at that question by examining what it means to be “communion” together.
Andrew Zirschky (Ph.D. Princeton Seminary) is academic director at the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary. He has more than 20 years of youth ministry experience. His new book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation will be launched by Abingdon Press at NYWC in Louisville.
[i] In 2010 the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that teenagers on average own 3.5 devices from a list that included cell phones, Mp3 players, computers, and gaming devices (Pew Research Center, “Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults,” February 3, 2010). Also in 2010 the Kaiser Family Foundation found that teenagers spend nearly 10.5 hours of screen time daily (Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” January 2010).
[ii] See danah boyd, “Friendship,” in Ito, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out : Kids Living and Learning with New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 84.
[iii] Ibid., 79-116. Also see Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 48-74.