Digital Media: Screwing Up or Strengthening Adolescent Spirituality?

“First we shape our tools. . . and then our tools shape us.” That’s a quote from media critic Marshall McCluhan that I’ve been passing on for years, especially since we launched our Digital Kids Initiative here at CPYU over two years ago. As a culture watcher and a Christian, I’ve been concerned about how the digital and technological tools that we so easily embrace in our lives, homes, and youth ministries wind up changing us. Technology is a blessing when it changes us for good. It’s a blessing when we use it in a direction that advances the shalom and human flourishing that God made us for. But it is a curse when it changes us for the bad. . . when it advances the kingdoms of the world, the flesh, and the devil that are about nothing but destroying shalom and human flourishing.

social media addictionThe reality is that when it comes to technology, we might be well-intentioned people who unknowingly are creating incredibly attractive and promising monsters that will eventually turn on us. . . a reality that will go unnoticed until after it happens. I don’t think any of us should be anti-technology. Instead, we should be about the responsible creation and use of technology. We need to pause, ponder, and be patient as we look ahead as best we can before pressing “play” . . . especially in our homes and in our world of youth ministry.

I’ve been especially thankful for the theorists among us who are asking the right questions. Two weeks ago, I received my Spring 2014 edition of The Journal of Youth Ministry. This quarterly tool is always full of helpful research-based information. Sadly, most youth workers don’t know it exists. . . which means that most youth workers never avail themselves of some of the best thought and practice that exists in our craft. But I don’t want you to miss Matt Elofson’s JYM article, “New Digital Media: A Contemporary ‘Eternal Fear.'” While you might have to make a trip to library to catch the full text of the article, I want to summarize a few of the timely and very real concerns Matt voices regarding digital media and the spiritual growth of our kids. These are things that we’ve been talking about for quite some time here at CPYU, but Matt does a great job of summarizing and stating these concerns in very practical and thought-provoking ways. 

First and foremost, Matt calls it like it is regarding youth ministry and digital media. . . in fact it’s the way it is for ministry here in the U.S. in general. He writes, “American Christian leaders and organizations exhibit a propensity towards the rapid adoption of novel strategies and technologies they perceive will assist them  in ministering to people more ‘effectively.’ Whether driven by the repeated allegations regarding the perceived antiquatedness of ministry programs, the allure of the promises of pragmatism, or many other possible motivations, many leaders have not invested the time or energy into reflecting theologically on the proliferation of new digital media in our lives on the potentially transformative effects that may accompany its inclusion. To cite but one example, John Voelz confessed that when he was contemplating how me might make his church service more creative and ‘not suck,’ he had an ‘epiphany’ regarding the integration of Twitter into his regular services as the solution.” 

Go back and read that last paragraph again. . . a couple of times. 

I so appreciate Matt Elofson’s call to theological reflection on this issue. Whether we know it or not, theological reflection has to happen.  Elfoson cites three particular areas where we must ponder the potential negative effects that new digital media can have “on the ability of adolescents and emerging adults to engage” some of the more traditional spiritual disciplines.  Here they are. . . 

First, solitude. Are we fostering a situation where kids are so constantly connected that they have no idea how to enjoy, practice, and thrive in physical and technological silence? Are we leading them away from experiencing those  necessary times alone in God’s presence?

Second, silence. Are we creating a culture of constant noise and distraction where kids can no longer quiet themselves to hear God’s voice? 

And third, meditation. Are we overloading them with so much noise and distraction that any type of meditation or focused theological reflection might be difficult or even impossible? 

Matt Elofson is doing us all a favor with his research. His call to action is essential if we want to strengthen rather than screw up our students’ spiritual growth: “While the total eradication of new digital media from the lives of adolescents and emerging adults is impossible, anyone who is ministering to this demographic group should be discerning about how they use it and how it might be shaping those to whom we minister.”

Keep thinking. . . . 

One thought on “Digital Media: Screwing Up or Strengthening Adolescent Spirituality?

  1. Such great stuff, Walt…and so true about the 3 areas to consider. I work a lot with middle school students, and at our fall retreat last year they were challenged to grab their journals and get somewhere quiet, by themselves, and just wait and listen for God. We heard the usual grumblings from the “digital natives” at first, but afterwards the outpouring of what these students heard from their Father was amazing. They were moved, and I hope the ministry was changed in that we need to intentionally create more space for things like this to happen

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