You may have heard that for Lent this year, I gave up talking on Thursdays in an effort to reduce negativity and to just slow down a little. I'm adding the spiritual discipline of of silence / meditation / reflection, especially on those days. Last Thursday, honestly, was a little challenging for my first try at this Lenten experience. I knew going in to the experience that I only wanted to participate in "essential" conversations on Thursday and I knew that I would have to talk some for work and family reasons. Evaluation: I don't think I was realistic about how much that would be and I could not seem to whole-heartedly stick to my plan! And I knew I was going to be intentional not to turn on the television or radio. Evaluation: I don't think I was realistic about how hard that would be for me! I do, however, feel better prepped for this Thursday and am actually excited to try again!
Last Thursday, I did great with not turning the television on at the beginning of the morning. Admittedly, I felt a little out of sorts at not hearing the news or weather for the day. And, it was very surprising to hear about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan the next morning. This got me reflecting on how much we use social media and media to share news. What ever happened to good, old fashioned word of mouth and the relationships that were strengthened because of it? So this is where my thoughts went on and off for the rest of the day. I tried reading some of Bonheoffer’s "Life Together" but found my thoughts going back to the impact of social media on relationships.
As a youth minister, I realize that this generation of youth is all about instant connection. I like the ability to instantly connect. In recent years, it seems the more instant connection had been e-mail. I remember being so excited to get an email address for the first time, when I went to college (in 1995) and having to go to the computer lab at Erskine College to check my email! Now, probably ten e-mail addresses later, they come right to my cell phone (and I don't know what I would do without it).
But, even email seems to be fading out among this emerging generation! I have to say, even though it is a convenient form of communication, I am sort of glad about this for three reasons.
Number one: in my past 18 months at Zion, I have managed to collect only about 25 student email addresses. I send and track a weekly email newsletter to the students and their parents. I use this great program called Mail Chimp!! Google it. On a good week, 3 of those 25 students open the e-mail. And, weekly I get bounces from student emails that have become invalid e-mail addresses. Parents are a little more user friendly to emails! About 10-20 of the 50 or so parent e-mails I send get opened each week! But I know myself this may not be the only indicator of interest in a program or relationship! Even though my emails come directly to my phone, rarely do I open everything or I don't open it because I already know what is going on. I find this trend to be consistent with other churches I have served!
Number two: another issue with email and relationships [for me] is that you can't tell tones or attitudes in someone's words on a screen. This has caused trouble for me many times in the past. I even find myself writing an intro to recipient to the effect of: "I'm not mad or anything .... but ....” But, even when writing my devotions for my weekly student e-mails, I find myself having to pick my words carefully because misinterpretation is so easy. I just really think it can create more tension than necessary. When I write, especially my devotions, I hope that it is prophetic, insightful, or moves others. But, sometimes, I think, people may walk away from having read my e-mail or devotion and have concerns or compliments. That person may never address their concern or insight with me and they harbor it within. Further, I really think constructive criticism and debate are good! In my experience, not to have either of these is unhealthy and damages relationships.
Number three: social media, specifically e-mail, can inadvertently damage relationships because we use e-mail as a cop-out. Right? Honestly, isn't is just sometimes easier to email (or text or facebook chat) with someone? Then there's no hassle of having to talk face to face or voice to voice to someone to whom you don't want to speak (especially when it is a hot topic). Or using email, text, or virtual chat can be seen as much more convenient, taking less time from your day that you could be doing something else.
Don’t get me wrong, I love e-mail AND texting, and virtual chatting are great! I will continue to use them all and I do believe there is benefit and convenience to using it. So I am torn in my writing of this post! With all of that said, I certainly see the benefit of using email, texting, or virtual chatting. For example, I have found that youth will tend to open up with me using facebook chat! I find out more about what is happening in their lives and what issues they are dealing with in their lives. These forms of communication certainly can be a relationship builder with today’s youth.
I know I have gone all around the topic here .... so what is the bottom line for me? - I just think our society will really be missing out on something if we don’t begin to focus more on relationships, as Jesus did, face to face. We have to model that for our children. In other words, we should use these more instant forms of communication to “meet youth where they are” but also not make it our only or primary form of communication and relationship building with the emerging generation.
On alternative that I think can be very useful .... SKYPE! I don’t know that much about it and I haven’t researched statistics but I am here to tell you that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a shift in use of texting and facebook as the preferred form of communication to the use of video chatting being on the increase among teens. It certainly is for some of my students. Not only is it available for free using their webcam on their computer, but the technology is even available on their cell phones / iPads now. In fact, they can even conference in several friends or family members at a time. Good! In fact, great!
I think this type of communication has amazing potential. This could be a tremendous relationship builder in our families, youth ministries, friendships, and in mentoring! Bottom line – today’s generation is the busiest ever. Taking time to use video chat - are you sitting face to face talking, laughing, or crying with someone? Yes .... who cares if it is over the Internet? You are taking the time to be face to face! Think about the possibilities...