finding connection in disconnecting

REJ phoneAs a new school year begins, stop and think for a moment about how much mobile phones impact what happens in your youth ministry activities. When your kids gather before or during events, are 100% of them interacting with each other or an adult leader? On a van ride to a mission trip destination, are there periods of silence when the kids are awake… because they’re digitally elsewhere? Today’s teenagers are busier than ever before, and getting them to be physically present for an activity means that you have a sacred and precious opportunity to make a difference in their lives. I’m encouraging you to be intentional about the role mobile phones play in your ministry with youth. The world says we should use technology for every purpose at every opportunity, and I say there are benefits to pulling the plug. Here’s my two cents – and I’d love to hear yours.

Each summer, I lead three youth mission trips depending on grade level from 7th – 12th grade, and we travel in what I refer to as the “mission trip bubble.” This means no mobile phones, internet-capable devices, or portable game systems get to come with us. Youth are allowed to bring a non-internet-capable music player for the van ride and for sleep time only, and I keep a stash of old-school iPods in case they can’t find one in a drawer or under the bed at home. Adult sponsors are allowed to bring their phones, of course, but I ask them to be respectful and use them away from the group unless we’re communicating with each other between work sites. As the leader, I intentionally choose not to share and post on social media about our trip while we’re on it.  Parents receive an email once a day that keeps them informed about our activities, and I let parents know that they are welcome to contact me anytime if they need specific information about their child or have a family emergency. I find that this method really allows me to be fully present to what God is doing in and among our group while we’re serving together.  

“Woah,” you’re probably thinking, “a whole week without their phones? My kids could never do that!” You’re right that it’s a challenge. The younger youth typically complain the most initially, but the older youth who have experienced it quickly realize how much more fun they have with each other unplugged, how stress-relieving it is not to be tied to drama back home, and how the lack of distraction frees them to invest more completely in what they’re experiencing on their trip. Being unplugged for a week becomes something my kids look forward to each summer, even though I remind them that they’re capable of doing it themselves any time. The opportunity to be tech-free with a group of your closest friends who are sharing the same experience, away from home, makes it much more palatable and an opportunity not to be missed.  

I apply this same logic to our weekly youth group time as well, and provide baskets on the sign-in table for kids to place their devices on the way in. When questioned, I simply say that at youth group they should be free to fully focus on God and on each other, a time of Sabbath from the outside world. I plan a couple of lessons each semester that intentionally make use of technology, whether it’s a Bible lesson that allows them to look things up on their phones or a fun scavenger hunt that they can document on Instagram. The rest of the time we’re old-school and unplugged, and it is in those moments of laughter, connection, and conversation that I most feel God’s presence in our group.  

In youth ministry we are called to help teens focus on their vertical relationship with God and their horizontal relationship with neighbor, and unplugging for a time allows this to happen in huge ways – give it a try and see Good things happen!

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