Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ministries: Engaging Youth Through Technology

You hear people lament about how technology is replacing human contact. We see alarming symptoms in our children, stumbling around texting in the midst of crowds of real people and missing out on the human contact we all need. We see them standing before great wonders with their faces stuck to a 3-by-3 inch screen. It is tempting to see all this new social media, smartphones and Facebook as something bad - something we should protect our children from. They need physical human contact, right? 

And I agree. The kids need to be drawn out. They need to play, explore and make connections, but while we're doing that, let's not overlook the opportunity for ministry to be found in technology and it's one you can get the kids involved in.

Physical human contact is all well and good if you can get it, but how many of us older folk would be talking together across the once vast distances between us were it not for social media? How many old friends would have found each other after all these years? How many shut-ins would be completely isolated without their computers and Internet connections. We can even Skype each other and see each others' faces. Even telephones don't help if you don't know what number to call to find an old friend when your kids are too busy to talk and too involved in their own lives to invest any time in yours anymore. Here we can do a search and find faces we know. Virtually, we are associating together more than ever before, even though we may not be able to jet around the world to be together physically.

Human beings have always instinctively tried to knit together communities of people we love. We are drawn toward things which unite us in whatever way we can find. It started out with drums and smoke signals and became books, letters, semaphore and telegraphs. Then telephones, radio, television and finally the Internet and social tools like email and Facebook. We have the technology to make our own movies, slide shows and ebooks. We finally have the video phone, smartphones that do almost anything. And it's all in the name of communicating one with another.

We are at the point in time where we can reach the whole world no matter how isolated any point is. The technology is inexorably reaching out to connect us. A man trapped in a crevasse on Mt. Everest can call his wife in Dallas, Texas to say "I love you."  I think we've been given a great gift. Can it be misused by foolish or evil men? You bet. But imagine the possibilities at our fingertips for reaching out to a dying and unhappy world. What a gift we've been given. 

As leaders of our youth, we have a responsibility to show our kids ways they can use this technology to do good rather than evil. To minister rather than to merely consume. Let me suggest a couple of projects you can get your smartphone addicted youth involved in that can become a personal ministry for them.

I. Checking In:  Start a ministry to the seniors in your church. Get cell phone numbers, especially from shut-ins and give each kid in your youth group a number of an older person to partner with. The purpose of these senior/youth partners is to provide the young person with a senior mentor and the young person with someone that he can bless. Instruct the kids to send videos, photos and texts to their senior partner every day to let them know what they are doing. Have them connect via Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram. If the senior doesn't know how to use these and has a computer, the young person should show them how to set it up. Teach the kids how to do these kinds of things for their senior partners.  Also provide materials to the older person to teach them how to mentor the kids - how to be a good listener, techniques like reflective listening, asking questions instead of giving commands.  The connection between older folk and the young can be very powerful.

II. Youth Producers:  Get your kids with camcorders and cameras to record events at your church. Teach them how (if they don't already know) to turn these into short 5-10 minute videos. That way every time the church has an event, the kids can produce a video about it that can be shown at church. Showing the kids' movies between services is a good way to get people to move on into the sanctuary. You will have to create some standards, of course, and review the films before they are shown, but by and large, let the kids do it. If you have someone who is a good writer and understands how to use film to tell a story or to make a point, that person can help your kids learn what video to shoot and how to use editing to make a point. You just need one or two adults who have an interest in that sort of thing to mentor the kids.  Let the kids do all the photography work, voice-overs and as much as possible the editing.  Your role is to enable them, to provide technical advice, not do the work for them. Some kids will gravitate toward doing this stuff and you can quickly move them into taking on tech jobs for the church.

III.  Sound and media crew:  Find the restless kids in the group, the ones fidgeting in their seats or wandering around in the lobby during service and train them up to run the sound system and the video equipment. They have way more energy than you and there's nothing quite so useful as a skinny kid when you're running LAN cable around in the attic crawl space. The cost of the technology needed to do a decent job of on-line video streaming the church service is going down every day. The big deal is the time needed to install and run the video system. Kids have way more time than we do. Find some you can trust and teach them how to be your church's most excellent tech support unit ever!

IV. Food Pantry:  If your church doesn't have a food pantry you should. Get the kids involved. You can get food from the local food bank. There may be a charge, but it's usually something ridiculously low like a penny a pound. Set up a room in the church somewhere for the program.  Set the room up like a little grocery store, right down to the checkout register. You can get software to read bar codes and inventory stuff, track expiration dates, check out customers, etc. Set up shelves and let the kids label them and sort things, create displays and do everything as though it were a retail grocery store. If you have room, let them set up your Dorcas clothing the same way. Help them complete displays of clothing and other things you provide for needy people in the community. You can set up a voucher system for people that allows them to come into the "store" and purchase a certain amount of food, clothing, etc..  It doesn't feel so bad for the people who need help, it helps you keep up your inventory and it gives your kids a taste of how a retail shop works.  And it insures all the donated food, clothing and personal items that come into your donation baskets get used. Get some old mannequins, recycled display cases. You can even put in a frozen foods and refrigerated foods section by buying older display cases that retailers have replaced when they remodel. You'll need an energetic, organized adult and a bunch of kids with an interest to manage the "store". Run it at regular hours evenings and maybe on Sunday or Saturday night. Work with other departments in your church to connect your Food Pantry operation with people who need help. You'll be surprised how many of your church's members may need your help, but no one has known how. Now you'll have a way to feed the hungry.  Call the store "Loaves and Fishes" or something like that. Get your church ladies to contribute baked goods and things.  Hook up with other Food Pantries in town and swap inventory. If they have too many potatoes and you have too many jars of peanut butter, you can do a swap between you. An organized, youth-run food pantry can be a wonderful ministry for your church.

The point is to connect the young people in your church with real ministries, something they will feel good about doing. It doesn't have to be a big thing. You could get a couple of kids to visit elderly church members who haven't been to church in a while. Have them find out if they need something. Are they having trouble feeding their beloved pet (the Food Pantry could stock dog and cat food)? Is there some way you could get them an Mp3 file of the church services that they could listen to if they can't get to church. Old laptops and retired smartphones or Mp3 players work well for that sort of thing.

An active church is an alive and growing church. We've got to quit designing programs to be built around the busiest people in the church - the ones who don't have time to do all the things we would want. It's time we grabbed the young people that are at the back of the church and fixing to drift out the door and give them something to do that they're good at and that we can give them support and encouragement for doing. That's how we will grow our church. That's how we will prepare our young people for lives of service.

© 2014 by Tom King

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