The pandemic has shown all of us how much we truly desire connections and community with other human beings. In Genesis, we learn that God actually creates humans to be in community with one another and with God. Teenagers have found community online and in person for years, but one of the major cultural shifts that has taken place in the last year for the lives of teenagers is just how much of their communities have moved into the virtual world. With this, we have seen major cultural changes not only in the lives of the generations to come but also in the ways we will have to go about building Christian communities with our students. There are several important things for youth workers to know as we do our best to minister to students in these changing times.
Online Community Is Changing
For years, teenagers have found themselves engaging with others online. The online world has been a social outlet for teenagers needing an extra space to express themselves and interact with friends. As a supplementary tool, finding an online community has been considered a normal and healthy landmark of adolescence. Now, teenagers may find themselves spending more time on a computer or phone each day, trying to stay connected with friends, family, and learning in school.
Even though your students might spend most of their time online, they still care deeply about their online presence as an extension of who they are. What you might not know is that many of the teenagers I’ve worked with recently are finding themselves wanting more than likes, comments, and laughs from their peers online. Students genuinely want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and use their community to make a difference in the world. Many youth ministries are offering live streams of their services or online game nights to connect with their students. As the world changes around us, online engagement may be the only way some students will continue to find community with our churches.
Face To Face Meetings Are Still Important
While students may still be able to see friends and family in person, larger gatherings and events that were previously viewed as rites of passage have continually been cancelled. Students cannot even rely on the predictability of attending their local schools or graduation, which can make building relationships or community extremely difficult for students, leaving them feeling isolated and entirely alone.
Many churches have been able to come back together for socially distant, in person meetings. I know of several churches that have worked so hard to keep their students safe that they are only meeting with small groups from their youth ministry or their congregations. While your ministry may not be able to engage students in a weekend event, you may be surprised to hear that the young people in your ministry have missed the opportunity to meet together. If it is safe in your context, invite a student to eat lunch with you or offer to host a small Bible study for their friends.
To Move forward, Young People Need Both
If we are being honest, the desire of teenagers to find community online will never go away and young people will need outlets to grow in person. One of the best ways we as the church can stand in the gap is to continue to be present in both worlds. As a youth worker, continue to be innovative in the ways you are able to meet together, in person and online. As you do this, remember that God isn’t limited to our church buildings and God can be at work in your students’ hearts as they scroll through Instagram or meet you in person for a time of serious Bible study! Continue to do the hard work of showing up in your students’ lives and share the gospel at every turn. In all things, be compassionate about your teenagers who are adapting to the changing world around them and be willing to meet them for community right where they are at.