If ever there was a sad and tragic irony, this is it. The generation that has more social connectivity tools and possibilities at their fingertips (literally), is the loneliest. The research indicates that young people are more likely than senior citizens to report being lonely and in poor health. And in an especially alarming twist, the report says that loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
When MIT researcher Sherry Turkle released her book Alone Together back in 2011, she was already observing and predicting what this most recent study from Cigna tells us today. Turkle said that developing technology and social media promises closeness. Sometimes it delivers, but much of our modern life leaves us less connected with people and more connected to simulations of them.
This is where the beauty of the church and the great potential of wise and thoughtfully planned youth ministry come in. Here are some thoughts to consider and steps to take in light of what this latest report is telling us. . .
First, take time to remind yourself of the theological foundations for real relationships. Read Genesis 1 and 2. It is the Godhead. . . in relationship. . . that creates humanity in its own image into and forrelationships. That said, we must recognize that anything that diminishes relationships diminishes our flourishing. Of course, when our relationship with our Creator is broken, we are horribly incomplete and lost. That relationship must first be restored through the grace and mercy of Christ. And then, we need to recognize that when we were in the garden we were “naked and not ashamed”. . . which reveals something of the closeness with other human beings for which we were created.
Second, we must recognize the value of Christian community. Then, we must audit our youth ministry efforts to see how we are either undermining or fostering the kind of community that leads to vulnerability and spiritual growth. For example, if our youth meetings incorporate a stage, theater seating, and on-stage performance. . . well. . . could it be that we are nurturing kids into being an audience vs. being interactive participants? And if I am only part of an audience, is that feeding loneliness? It’s an important question to ask. Make adjustments where adjustments are needed.
Third, we need to strategically detach kids from technology in order to get them connecting in real flesh-and-blood relationships. Online community can supplement offline community, for sure. It’s a great tool for that. But online community never is a substitute for offline community. When kids are together with each other and caring adults, get them to power down. Put the phones away. Every youth worker I talk to fears what will happen when they do this. But every youth worker I talk to who does this rejoices over what happens after its been done. Kids love it! Why? Because that’s what they’ve been made for. . . and maybe they are experiencing the joy of it all for the first time.
Fourth, provide accountability to both adults and students in your ministry. . . accountability that encourages the presentation of the authentic self online. We tend to curate, fabricate, and promote our online selves into the image of what we’re expected to be, rather than in the image of who we really are. If I choose to be someone other than myself on social media, then I am forced to be someone other than myself when I am offline and in your physical presence. I can’t let down my guard and risk being found out. You know what this does? It undermines truth and integrity. It destroys the possibility for vulnerability and real ministry one to another. And, it leaves us feeling lonely.
Perhaps we can lead the charge in undoing what we’ve been doing to undo our selves and Christian community.
Guest Feature from Walt Mueller of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Walt Mueller has been a regular speaker and contributor at the National Youth Workers Convention for several decades. Learn more about CPYU on their website.