Discipleship Ministries has produced a new e-book Online Discipleship to help Christian leaders and congregations develop stronger virtual ministries. Chris Wilterdink, the director of Young People’s Ministries at Discipleship Ministries was one of the editors of the book and contributed sections on the importance of online ministries among young people. Here is an article excerpted from Chris' section of the book.
Chris Wilterdink writes that a critical strategy for engaging young adults is to create discipleship opportunities and build relationships in the existing online communities where they are already active. Within these spaces and relationships, the church can provide young adults an opportunity to explore identity, belonging, and purpose.
A larger and larger percentage of young adults do not have church homes or active faith lives that relate to a church. Often, those who have grown up in youth ministry become less interested in church involvement as they get older. They may leave church altogether for education or career opportunities. Young adults may be single, married, divorced, partnered, working, studying, parenting, or some combination thereof.
Engage platforms where young adults are already active
Lack of a connection to a faith community does not, however, preclude young adults from spirituality online, exploring religion, or engaging in meaningful development on a variety of platforms. Indeed, communities like Reddit, Facebook, Discord, Craigslist, and a variety of others offer opportunities for people to ask philosophical and religious questions through their forums. Some young adults even encourage the development of relationships and connections to pursue shared interests. It is into this rich landscape, where young adults may already be very active, that the church must work to create online discipleship opportunities. Strategic involvement in existing platforms where young adults are active and investment in relationships should be the pillars of online efforts with young adults.
Explore questions of identify, belonging, and purpose
The relationships formed should provide opportunities for young adults to determine and revisit answers for the three basic questions of maturity: identity, belonging, and purpose.
- Identity: Who am I anyway? In online settings, young adults are often very adept at crafting an identity that may or may not be consistent with their in-person self. Offering online opportunities to increase their understanding that they are a child of God, an ambassador for Christ in this world, and a beloved disciple of your faith community, can affect a person’s sense of self-worth and their ability to connect to online discipleship opportunities.
- Belonging: How and where do I fit? Offer a wide variety of strategic online connection points where young adults might explore where they belong in your faith community. These could be ongoing discipleship or covenant groups, short-term topical study groups, book clubs, classic Bible studies such as Disciple, or groups organized around social justice and community outreach.
- Purpose: What meaning can I create through what I do? Online discipleship should also include opportunities for action. Assist young adults as they show interest in supporting local movements and organizing to support advocacy or education efforts in the community. Make participating in such activities as simple and straightforward as possible. With geography not a limitation with online discipleship, let the creativity run wild. (Research together the most economically challenged part of the world, learn about it, and together develop a plan to make a difference in some way.)
Counter isolation and loneliness
Millennials and Generation Z entered young adulthood during the emergence and spread of terrorism, both foreign and domestic, the proliferation of mass violence, the age of social networking and rapid technological evolution, and the rise of divisive rhetoric, relative truth/alternative facts, extremism, and now COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and racial injustice protests. In constant technological connectedness, some young adults report feeling an increased sense of isolation and loneliness.
Create opportunities and spaces where young adults can build relationships and become established members of a community. Offer regular opportunities to check in and process current events — perhaps something like a virtual coffee hour. Many young adult ministries have experienced success with “Theology on Tap” or “Virtual Happy Hour” experiences. Groups like Brew Theology have created in-person and online communities following that model.
Consider these five suggestions
Finally, consider these five suggestions for effective ways of connecting with young adults from Growing Young:
- Make room for meaningful relationships. Influence is a function of trust, not volume, and online relationships function differently from in-person communication.
- Provide opportunities for cultural discernment. Culture is not the enemy — it surrounds the lives of young adults and demands cultural exegesis.
- Prioritize mentoring, both from and for young adults. Let them guide your faith community in today’s “digital Babylon” — the nature of actual content in online discipleship with young adults is much less important than the act of sharing itself.
- Embrace vocational discipleship. Connect the richness of your faith community to the unique work a young person is called to. Young adults may offer the gifts to help push your faith community into meaningful online discipleship!
- Facilitate connection with Jesus. Online discipleship must be a place that fosters a deeper sense of intimacy with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That intimacy will translate to better relationships and continued connections with the faith community.
This article was excerpted from the free downloadable PDF e-book Online Discipleship © Discipleship Ministries. Originally published with permission by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership 10 November 2020. Republished with permission by ResourceUMC.org. Chris Wilterdink is director of Young People’s Ministries at Discipleship Ministries, the agency of the United Methodist Church that helps churches and church leaders fulfil their mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.
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