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Smartphones: A Tool and a Test in Ministry with Youth

Tweeting a teaser for next Sunday's discussion group. Seeking prayer requests by text message. Posting a prayer for a sick grandfather on a teen's Facebook page. Asking youth to look up Scripture on their smartphones.

United Methodist youth ministry leaders are embracing the use of popular social media in their ministries, both to communicate better with young people and to teach critical social skills and safe Internet navigation.

"Social media for teenagers is very different than social media for adults," said the Rev. Jeremy Steele, next generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala. "For teenagers, social media isn't a new idea, a new way of communication. In their mind and in their world, it's more similar to their parents' experience of picking up a telephone. ... It's really a primary native form of communication for them."

More than 75 percent of teens in the United States now have a cellphone. Almost half of those are smartphones capable of Internet communication, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

Adults typically learn to be in physical proximity with people as friends first and use social media as a tool to help them stay connected, said Gavin Richardson, a former United Methodist youth minister who now provides resources for youth workers through Youth Worker Circuit (

"For teenagers, in many ways it's a reversal. They become friends online first, or an online platform becomes the dominant way of communicating and being friends," said Richardson.

One drawback is that youth who interact with friends using social media rather than face-to-face lose much of the instantaneous feedback that helps them develop socially, understand social cues and understand what is happening as a result of what they are communicating, Steele said.

There is a big difference between calling somebody a name or mocking them in person – where you see their face fall and you see the kind of pain you are causing – and when you say something like that online, Steele said. "It's the same result on the receiving end, but the person making the comment doesn't always see that," he said.

"One of the problems with social media and teenagers is when we allow them to opt out of unmediated interaction – hanging out with their friends," Steele said.

Youth pastors are learning how to deal with those issues, in addition to cellphone and social media etiquette.

"We require our youth pastors to spend between 10 and 20 percent of their time in what we call 'turf time,' which is being not on our campus but on the kids' turf," Steele said. "We consider online part of that, just like going to football games.

"We want them to spend time engaged in social media because there are a whole lot of things that can benefit. Not only are they engaging in a form of communications that the kids understand, but they (also) are able to actually be part of that kid's extended social network."

Intervention sometimes necessary

As a result, youth pastors often see online situations that need intervention.

"The conversation that I have is, 'Look, things look like they are getting out of control online. Let's go have coffee,'" Steele continued. "We can do some talking about why that's not OK online. And I can do some developmental coaching with them."

Individual youth groups and their social media preferences differ because of geographic location, socioeconomic factors and the varying cultures of high schools and middle schools. Some applications like Twitter and Facebook have widespread popularity, but teens are always looking for and finding new apps to try. Apps often are passé for youth by the time they are loaded on an adult's smartphone.

"Youth like to sign up right away and get on the app that all of their friends are on," said Justin Cox, youth ministry director at First United Methodist Church, Orlando, Fla., and a writer and trainer for Youth Ministry Institute ( He encourages youth to learn more about an app before trying it.

"Just because it's the latest and the greatest doesn't always mean that it's the best," he added.

While youth sometimes tune out repeated social media warnings they hear from parents, school officials and the media, Cox said he has found a receptive audience in his youth ministry. In a recent brainstorming session, technology usage and safety was a subject his high school group wanted to discuss.

Conversations, not covenants

In the Florida Annual Conference, the Child Youth Protection Policy now includes social media. At Orlando First, Cox adapted a social media training session for parents. He explained popular youth apps and encouraged parents to be vigilant and know how their children use their phones and other devices.

Parents sometimes are encouraged to have a social media covenant with their children regarding appropriate Internet use. Steele said a signed covenant "generally adds to the guilt that kids feel when they violate it. They don't want to tell. They want to hide it."

Instead, he urges parents to have conversation to address the same topics they would in a signed covenant: What are our expectations of you online? What do you think is OK for us to do? How should we monitor your Internet use?

"We want to keep the communication between the parent and the youth open," Steele said.

Whether or not youth may use their phones in church settings varies among congregations and situations.

Cellphone-free retreats

At Christ Church in Mobile, Steele said his staff generally chooses to use smartphones in their ministry. Not doing so, he says, communicates, "We have no idea what their real world is. We are totally on the outside of who they are."

"So instead, we say, 'All right, text in your prayer request.' Or 'Pull out your cellphone and look up this Scripture' because we know they didn't bring an actual Bible," Steele said.

However, leaders occasionally challenge the youth to take a break from technology and focus on God, at cellphone-free retreats, for example.

"We try to couch it in spiritual terms," Steele said. "We say, 'We want you to not be distracted and to not be tied to any drama back at home. Just like we have left our houses and our city in some cases, and come to be with God, we're also leaving our cellphones and all those connections so that we can carve out a little space that is just here for us and Jesus.'"

In Orlando, Cox said each youth group leader decides the cellphone policy for Sunday evening sessions.

"One group just asks all the kids to put the phones face down on the table, so that they are there, but they are not causing a distraction," Cox said. In another group, one of the students walks around, picks up cellphones and puts them in a basket until small-group time ends.

Cellphone-free mission trips have been the norm at First Church for several years, Cox said.

"Every couple of years, we're on a trip where there's another group that has phones and our youth are happy that we don't have them," he said. "They see the lack of interactivity between the groups, the lack of focus on what is actually at hand, and they are very pleased that we have that no-cellphone policy because they see what happens when it's not in place."

Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tenn.

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