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The future of youth ministry will require an online approach because that is where the digital natives hangout. This is the suggestion that I gave some people the other day. Please keep in mind that often I am somewhat ahead of the curve, often by a few years. If you find this a useful article, please share it, and consider subscribing to the very occasional email updates of articles and resources.

Do you realise that you are heading up an international missionary agency?

When we talk about fresh expressions of church, context is the key. It’s about seeing what God is doing in that context and joining in. Through listening, serving, building community and building relationships, then drawing together as church as faith emerges.  It starts with context

When I went to Cumbria a couple of months ago at half term to see my sister, she and her husband took us on a sightseeing tour…and we saw exactly 6 young people on a Tuesday afternoon.  Which was surprising. But backed up by what the local community centre manager told me when we went nosing around. I asked him what youthwork was going on at the community centre. He said none, because the LA had taken away funding because ‘they didn’t know what youthwork was anymore: young people were all online’

Why? Its true everywhere, but particularly in a rural context where outside of secondary school travel to friends becomes difficult, technology has offered a solution.  Interaction and gaming online is the solution which the digital natives have embraced because it overcomes geographical distances. We are in the infancy stages of virtual reality, I wonder what impact that will have in the years to come?

Digital natives and online youth and children’s ministry

Digital natives are those born after 2000. They adopt and use any technology, but in a different way from how the immigrants – that’s everyone else – use it. There is almost a symbiotic naturalness to it.  But that also means if you take it away, or dismiss it, then you effectively dismiss them and who they are.  But they are equally happy to jump on and off more than older generations who still see it as some sort of novelty.

The average digital native in 2015 spent 27 hours a week online.  2017 figures suggest 13 hours a week gaming. And children aged 3-4 spend 6 hours a week gaming.

How digital natives view church from an onliner’s perspective

How we do youth ministry has to change, because our models are based at best on immigrant ideals (we use it, we do not share space with it). We focus on what we do offline and use online as a kind of seasoning.  In some ways it’s like Colonial Christianity: we expect them to adopt our practices and understand us as we expect belief in Jesus. Like it or not, when we say ‘church to young people’ they see a fixed geographical building, with fixed structures, fixed hierarchy, and no chance of change. Faith is reasoned and taught in the church by apologetics and logic. Which conflicts with their world of an international playground (the internet); crafting tools to affect their world;  collaboration and contact/follow anyone; change is normal. Personal experience is more important than logic: values are more important than objectives.

The problems faced by youth and children are harder than ever…and faith exploration is treated with apathy

The problems of young people are still the same as they always were. Finding purpose when the context is value, knowing identity, belonging, conform… Now it is compounded by the pressure to perform academically or stardom rather than discovering how to be human.  In terms of faith, things are complicated. There is an apathy to the exploration of faith when its taught as a personal choice and perceived as a constraint. There is a fear to express faith or ask questions in case of causing offence so it’s easier to not do so. And yet the sense of justice is stronger than ever.

With all this conflict of normal growing up, pressures to perform and conform, fear of expression, but a strong desire to make things right, the sacred space is downtime. Ironically, many plugin so that they can unplug.

Young people and children use the internet to gain down-time: they plugin to unplug

That sanctuary and sacredness of the downtime spaces are where God enters in. It’s the places where relationships are built, stories told, and we make sense of who we are. Don’t forget how recreation is spelt (re-creation). Our God is one of creation and re-creation.  Which means that asking those questions of faith needs to be done from an experiential direction, not an apologetics one. After all, the very old saying of faith is caught not taught is as true as ever. It’s a relationship, and you don’t learn how to love from a manual.

Connecting personally is also important. Human relationships actually need the biological physical spaces as well.  Any ministry needs to take in both elements. So I am not suggesting simply an online ministry.

What we have then is a shape. It will embrace both online and offline equally. It will go sensitively into their downtime world, share their stories and discover God together. Because they have as much to show us who God is as we do them when God is already at work.

School is important, and we can find the downtimes in the obvious places (breaktimes, clubs) but we can create them in unexpected places.  Even in the classroom, we can create unexpected downtimes, holy spaces. It is where they already gather.

Can we gather them elsewhere? Can we create sacred downtime spaces? I think we can, in small groups, both online and offline. We will have to be careful and think creatively about good practice and safeguarding issues, but we can’t be limited by them. And what might it look like to embrace both the online and offline world in ministry?

Voices in their sacred spaces: encouraging creativity 

I think it begins with helping them to discover and tell their own stories, giving them a voice.  Being able to express what matters to them (values) in appropriate ways so that they aren’t afraid to do so.  But we have to do it in a ‘downtime’ kind of a way. This will help us to discover needs as we help them to put that together. We embrace technology in a creative way so using video, social media, creating an online radio station, music, DJing, even gaming to explore meaning and spirituality.  I envision using creative and performing arts which means we can embrace cultures and subcultures creatively and without limits.  This means we are using the offline world to create for online to share and explore values. And as we go, we share Jesus by coming alongside. And then that faith becomes another value that can influence and shape, possibly be shared online with confidence.

As we move through the stages of fresh expressions of church and church starts to take shape it isn’t limited by geography, but it can appropriately become geographically based as the smallest parts come together.  So that creative expression can then be brought to create offline worship events and explorations of spirituality, from DJ, led worship events to dance, creativity, dramas…and they could even be streamed…and experienced by those who couldn’t make it: how about using the new Samsung 360 VR streaming to Facebook or Instagram live?  Further still, this creativity could be used and shared amongst the others in a United Network.

Basically, the principle is that of the 72. Enabling each person to be a disciple to make disciples, and a witness. We look for people of peace to make people of peace in the places where we can’t go.  And since where they go is international online as native people of peace, then you  have an international mission.

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