The youth minister arrived at the girl’s birthday party uninvited. He remained in the background during some games in the yard, and even while they ate some cake. But near the end of the party when she stood in the driveway next to her new car, he finally stepped forward.
“I like this,” he said, then disappeared for the rest of the party.
The next week she had a slumber party with some friends. He missed the beginning of the party because they were just watching a movie, but later in the evening he arrived, again uninvited, again in the background. He remained silent while they took selfies and duck-faced away brain cells. But around midnight they had dressed for bed and took turns trying to do headstands on the foot board of the bed. One of the girls was wearing a youth group t-shirt.
“I like this,” the youth minister said again.
Creeper much? Did you fire him in your mind back at the birthday party? Settle down. It’s just Instagram.
When church ministry finally began taking social media quasi-seriously (also when your grandmother finally joined Facebook) its use in youth ministry immediately had detractors:
“Anyone can see what you’re saying to the kids!” That’s a good thing, actually.
“It’s just so trashy.” You’re thinking of MySpace, and nobody goes there anymore.
Some UMCs began working Facebook language into their Safe Sanctuary policies. Many disallowed youthworker/youth interaction on Facebook except through an “official” organization page. But the majority just let their kids & adults intermingle however they saw fit, no requirements and (worse) no guidance. And really, most of that is fine. Most people aren’t creepers, pedophiles, or blind to what inappropriate interaction looks like. And if some individual is genuinely one of those three, your Safe Sanctuaries policy (or whatever you use to protect the very young, very old, and special populations in your church) isn’t going to stop them.
There’s been a shift lately that has me concerned about youth ministers that are willing to chase kids down whatever rabbit hole on the Internet they dive down. The rules are changing, and the rules never really existed. Social media isn’t REAL, which makes it hard to make rules about. But if you can accept the notion of Facebook-as-public square, we’ve got a framework to begin talking about things. Facebook is the new public forum. Most everyone is there; everyone is certainly welcome there. Everybody can more or less see each other and if somebody cries foul or yells for help people tend to pay attention. But with Facebook established as the square, everywhere else online is somewhere else, and that’s where life online starts to get tricky.
If you’re willing to stick with my dirt-roads America analogy for a moment, Instagram is “behind the schoolhouse.” You can still see the square, but it’s kinda off by itself a little. Everyone knows where it is, even if they don’t get over there every day. There are a dozen other social media places you could locate on our old-timey Street-view, but you get the idea. If you follow a kid from the square, you better watch it.
If I were to throw things 30 years into the future (from today, not the public square) I’d bet that youth minister one-on-one time with kids in the real world is massively reduced, if not completely eliminated, in favor of relationship with the family. In cases without a family, in favor of relationship with the social agency charged with their care. Having “a real heart for kids” simply doesn’t equip anyone to observe healthy boundaries with them or qualify a youthworker to exist in any official capacity in the life of a child. “Trusted but untrained” describes most youth staffers that I know. At some point, that’s just not going to be OK.
When it comes to social media, keep your eye on the public schools. Churches will eventually follow in their footsteps–currently in my county, teachers have been required to drop anyone under 18 as a “friend” on Facebook. That’s going to lead to a sea change in youth ministry social interaction. I still have many of my youth as friends on Facebook, but I never initiate the friendship and typically won’t accept requests unless I can at the same time communicate to the parent that it’s happening.
Like I said, I don’t think it’s very far down the road that youthworkers’ relational practices will come under strict cultural review (“What do you mean, you just ‘show up’ for their games? Alone?”). When that begins to happen, I don’t think it’s going to benefit your career if you’re friends with a bunch of kids on Vine or Gifboom or Tumblr. And if you’re on SnapChat, you should probably just go ahead and pick out the outfit you want to wear to court.
What are your church’s social media practices? Do yours differ from theirs?