I was about two weeks into teaching my "Transcending the Black Mirror" class to 25 freshmen at Wartburg College when I received a distressing Snap from one of my more outspoken students (who I thought was doing well). It started "Professor Ranney, I'm really struggling" and went on from there. As you would expect, transitioning to college is a time of extreme anxiety for most young adults. What you don't know is that I did very little to garner the trust of the student who reached out to me.
I saw this student on an almost daily basis and not just in class. Wartburg has only 1,600 students, and I'm always around. (I practically run my ministry out of the college coffee shop.) This student would often say "hi" as he passed me. I had mentioned in class my lifetime struggle with major depression and how it nearly ruined my college career. Other than that, the only other factor that precipitated his reaching out to me was Snapchat. I don't think it was a coincidence.
In my last piece, which argued the case for using Snapchat in church (part 1), I offered reasons why Snapchat is especially effective at reaching teens and young adults. The primary use of Snapchat is for one-on-one chat. What separates Snapchat from other social media is its perceived privacy — the social media equivalent of talking to a teen alone. This should raise red flags, both as a violation of Safe Sanctuaries policies and as an uncouth invasion of a teen's privacy. Many challenges accompany using Snapchat for ministry. However, there are also Snapchat features that are less invasive and offer potential benefits – including youths' willingness to open up over chat. Let's talk about both.
Start with Group Chat
I needed to create a group in Snapchat to facilitate my class. It quickly became apparent that group chat is a safe place to get acquainted with my students and begin developing relationships without invading their privacy. I made the first move by creating the group. As time went on, those students who wanted to discuss more sensitive topics snapped me directly. By the end of the year, most students had contacted me, sometimes about a grade, other times about more serious issues. It was like having 24/7 office hours where your door is always open, but you don't need to respond to the student in the doorway until you are ready.
The group itself had its own benefits. In his book "The Digital Cathedral," Keith Anderson talks about how we have changed from being a "planning" society into a "coordinating" one. I found myself rarely needing to answer questions in the group chat. Other students would speak up before I had an opportunity to do so. Real-time feedback about how the class was going flowed more freely over Snapchat then it ever has IRL (in real life).
If most of the members of your youth group or a small group of young adults already use Snapchat and you are willing to engage them there, it's not a stretch to see how the members could reap similar benefits.
Maintaining Healthy Boundaries
The question remains, though, "How do we maintain healthy boundaries between leaders and youth in a hyper-private environment like Snapchat?"
I have been saying "perceived privacy" in describing Snapchat because any user should know you can save your friend's posts by "holding down" on them before they expire. The sender can also choose in advance to make a post permanent. It is not quite the same as talking to a teen alone in a room. The teen can choose to save anything you say, and you can choose to keep a record. It's more like talking to a teen in private, in a place where they can call mom in for a replay anytime they want.
The perceived privacy of Snapchat helps people to open up and have fun, but, in the back of their minds, they know that there could be consequences for going too far. (If that's not crystal clear, it would make a great youth group or campus ministry topic. Discipleship Ministries offers some great Safe Sanctuaries media and social media guidelines and samples.
It is safe to say that adults shouldn't initiate friending a minor with whom they don't already have an existing relationship. That's just creepy. We must be careful about how we relate to youth online.
Here's how I handled the student who was struggling. I got the main details. Realizing quickly how vulnerable he was, I decided the conversation needed to move to a public space and chose a quiet corner of the coffee shop. During that IRL conversation, I offered comfort. As it became apparent that he needed professional help, I set some more boundaries and referred him to our counseling center. This early intervention may have saved his college career, and it all started with Snapchat.
Now, with the serious topics out of the way, let's talk about a couple of fun ways to use Snapchat in ministry.
Filters are overlays of images and effects that sit on top a picture taken by the user.
Geofilters are filters that are accessible when the user is in a designated location.
Filters come in two categories: "Community Filters" and "On Demand Filters." Community filters are free, but it's unlikely you'll be able to identify your church logo or use your church location in them. They are for public interests in public spaces. That doesn't mean we shouldn't use them, but you'll need to be more creative.
Here's a sample community filter I whipped up that could be combined with a service project at the park:
Like most social media marketing, you must pay to play to get the results you want. This is accomplished through "On-Demand Geofilters." Here's a branded filter I created for a church I served:
To find examples of on-demand filters and to start creating your own, visit the official on-demand filter page on the SnapChat website.
With both of these examples, I'm just scratching the surface. There are lots of fun animation and effects you can add, including ones called "lenses" that identify and interact with faces. Here are two sample gifs of a filter and a lens you can embed in a post.
Ministries that are serious about using geofilters should have a branded filter that is always running on their property and additional filters for special events. Encourage use of your filters by putting up fun posters of people using them at the location. Have ringers, a pre-arranged group of volunteers willing to share snaps using the filters right at the beginning of an event.
Start an "Our Story"
"Our Story" is another great way to promote big events and to promote the mission and justice work your church is doing in the community. While not as exciting as filters, Snapchat allows users to post local stories that are attached to your location and that are shared with people in the area. Learn more about submitting to "Our Story."
"Our Story" is a neat feature, but I often find local stories get buried in SnapChat. Find stories from your community by searching the SnapMap.
Be sure to add the UMC as a friend on SnapChat!
Join our community by searching for unitedmethodist or by: taking a photo of the snapcode below, clicking Add Friends, then click SNAPCODE and clicking on the image you took of the snapcode. It will add The United Methodist Church as a friend automatically.
I hope you've enjoyed my two-part series on SnapChat. Here's a quick summary in case you skipped some of the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read) version:
- Statistics tell us that a high number of youth and young adults are using SnapChat.
- Determine if you have a core group of people using SnapChat. If so, consider using it as part of your social media ministry.
- Create a group to facilitate and coordinate ministry via SnapChat.
- Maintain healthy boundaries, especially during one-on-one conversations with youth.
- Create a (paid) branded filter for your church location and for big events.
- Create local stories.
- Remember that SnapChat isn't truly private and behave accordingly!
- Add the UMC as a friend on SnapChat!