A few months ago my wife asked me to change the Facebook password. She wanted off social media. We live hundreds of miles from most family and our closest friends, so social media has been a natural way for us to connect with and keep track of who is getting married, who has the newest baby, and which “baby” has suddenly graduated from high school. In so many ways social media has brought the world closer and even provided a sense of peace. But in so many other ways it has shut the world out and caused tremendous moments of anxiety.
Why? Because social media does not always represent reality. But as youth leaders and parents, we know that. Most of us did not spend our childhoods in front of a screen. I still find it amusing to tell students stories of dial up Internet plugged into my corded phone in my college dorm room. In those days screen time was limited to writing papers, and we celebrated the moment we were free from the chains of our desktop computers. While screen time and Internet content have been a growing concern among parents and youth leaders over the last decade, there is a deeper element of spiritual warfare going on behind the digital curtain. It is what drove my wife off of social media because it deeply affected her view of herself and Christ. And I am seeing the same trend among our students.
Everywhere Every Minute
Social media has created a world where students are living alternative lives. I don’t mean fake profiles or obscure handles that mysteriously omit ages and genders. I mean legitimate Snapchat, Instagram, etc. type accounts, where students have the ability to present themselves in any way they choose or in any way they are pressured to. Our students’ social media presence is as if they are on stage for the entire world to see.
And to judge.
With that comes real pressure. For most adults, the social pressures of student life could be all but forgotten in the quiet tranquility of a bedroom. I remember being able to escape that kind of pressure and anxiety when I was a student. Today there is no escape. The world is in every bedroom, in every family vacation, in every success, and every failure. It seems as though privacy is a thing of the past. In the world of social media, reality is whatever students create it to be. It is a space where everyone looks great, every vacation is an epic adventure, and every gathering is the best night ever. But social media also has a way of catching us at our worse moments and logging them in the annals of digital history for eternity. For many, it is like to try to cross an ocean with no idea how to swim.
We have the responsibility to teach them how.
Discipling our students requires us to be keenly aware of the digital self that lies behind that student who sits every week in the third row, second seat on the left, the student in the front row who has all the answers, or the quiet kid in back row you see once a month. There is a deeper story to our students than most of us ever imagined possible. But the story is told in places some of us never venture to.
Therefore it is all the more important for the church to be a place where students know beyond all doubt that they can be genuine. If everywhere else they are forced to be someone they are not, the church should be the place they can escape and be the person God made them to be. The importance of unconditional love has never been more crucial and the power of community never more necessary.
Believe it or not, most students would willingly give up social media and even their cell phone if they were guaranteed time with friends every day. It is that simple. Students want community. And there is no place on this earth better equipped to provide real, authentic, gospel-centric, disciple making community, than the church.
Technology is a powerful tool. The digital world helps us to get the gospel into more spaces at an incredible rate. Students are now, more than ever, more globally aware of suffering and evil in the world, and have been equipped like never before to make a difference. But technology is also a dangerous tool. It can enslave our students. It can prevent them from experiencing real community, real love, and real freedom.
Technology is powerful, but the gospel is more powerful. And the gospel in community is unstoppable.