I’m sitting at the Godblogcon right now, waiting for the keynote speech to begin with Dr. Al Mohler.

It’s been a great morning so far hanging out with the people from Evangelical Outpost, Smart Christian, Desiring God and Mark Roberts.

But here is the essay I wrote for the official program for the event. I was reading through it last night and realized I would probably re-edit some things, but the gist of my thoughts are there.

I will post more later. Have a good day.

This workshop is designed to help us explore what it’s like to do youth ministry in the MySpace-Facebook Generation, and for us to think critically about how and why we should engage our students in these communities. In this workshop I want to explore five aspects of online social networking communities and doing ministry in them: 1) Discussion of Our Online Journeys; 2) Online Identity; 3) Leading Within the Non-Hierarchical Structures of MySpace-Facebook; 4) The Intermingling of Both Positives and Negatives in These Communities; 5) Transforming of Student’s Lives Through Online Communication.

Online Journey: My online journey in social networking has resembled the imagery of the ostrich with his head buried in the sand. While this technology was advancing I ignored it for many reasons, believing that what our ministry had to offer on our website was better, if not at least competitive with the sites my students were spending inordinate amounts of time on. Two years ago I began to notice that the traffic on our new website was dropping significantly and the dialogue that I had hoped for on our online forums was pretty much non-existent. Where was everyone spending their time? The answer: MySpace. But for reasons I will discuss later I drew the proverbial line in the sand and refused to bring our ministry onto MySpace as I was fearful of content control. But the more I held my stance the more I realized that my students were going to continue building their online community on MySpace as I continued to watch our website traffic become almost oblivious. What is your online journey to MySpace-Facebook?

Online Identity: If you have never actively used or engaged your youth in online communities you may fail to realize how addictive the interaction can be and how much our student’s identity is formed around who they are online. It’s not uncommon to find our students living duplicitous lives, interacting with a student who is in our midst on a weekly basis at church, but with a click of a mouse you soon realize they are often living a completely different life that is incongruent with the person you think you know. This phenomenon often leaves us scratching our heads wondering which is the real identity. This issue of identity and incongruent living is an important factor for us too keep in mind as we minister to our youth, otherwise we fail to take into consideration just how much their identities are being transformed by their online communities that they spend hours a day in. When a student is in these communities for hours a day, how do we as youth workers help shape and transform their identity, whether it be online, or the hour a week you see them?

Leading Within: Recently I was talking with a group of high school parents at our church about these online communities, and though many grasp the attraction of them to their children, many are left wondering what the big deal is. This feeling is not exclusive to parents, but it is one that many of us in youth ministry share as well. At times we see the value of these sites, especially in terms of creating groups, advertising and exchanging information, while other times we sometimes don’t understand. For those of us born before the internet revolution we must remember that our students do not know of a world without the internet. It is primary to their life and how they communicate and socialize with their friends. But most importantly, the biggest draw for our students is that by being active in online communities they are in a sense in control. Being active online is socializing in a network where there are little to no rules and especially no parents, teachers or youth workers to enforce any type of rule, discipline or guidance. In the worlds of MySpace-Facebook they are the creators of their own content and their entire world from emails, photos, videos, games and more, exist in the virtual world before them. We can and must not underestimate the power of our students feeling empowered in this virtual world, especially when they may not feel this same type of empowerment at home, work, school or church. So how do we as youth workers lead within a structure where there is no official leadership?

Intermingling: After a few minutes on MySpace or Facebook you quickly realize that these communities offer both positives and negatives. Who hasn’t gone online and seen one of their student’s provocative profiles? This is a devastating blow to any youth worker, and a look into a student’s life that you sometimes never see. Whether we were naive before or not, social networking destroys all naivete. Though these negative issues highlight some of the reasons why we often fear these communities, there is also a plethora of opportunities to see your students engaged in all kinds of positive things, whether it’s finding a connection in an online Bible study group, joining a local outreach cause, or generally displaying a spiritual wisdom and maturity that you have been fostering for several years. These two aspects, the negative and positive intermingle online, and the challenge for us as youth workers is to sift through all of it and become discerning leaders as we help our students make their way through a complex world as well, both virtual and real. How do we handle situations as youth workers when one of our best leaders in the ministry has a provocative online profile?

Transforming Communication: MySpace-Facebook and other online communities are primarily centered around the issue of communication. Whether it’s through messaging or the groups we belong to, we are primarily using these tools as a means to communicate. Herein lies a huge opportunity for youth workers to communicate with their students. For two years I was opposed to MySpace because of all the negatives, refusing to engage my students on their territory, and yet forfeiting a huge opportunity to communicate with them. Whenever an invention related to communication in the past was available, there have been those who have used it to their advantages. Today I believe that means is social networking. We as youth leaders not only have the opportunity to communicate words to our students through messages, announcements and advertising, but we also have the means to engage them and communicate the Word to them. Along with the positives and negatives, our words ultimately convey our beliefs, views and thoughts about the Word that transforms lives. What can we do as youth workers to not simply use these communities to communicate things about our ministry, but how can we communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ to them?

These are just some of the issues related to social networking and youth ministry, so I hope that you will join me for a discussion on this topic. Whether you are working in youth ministry or are interested in the topic, I hope that we can engage one another and learn how to be more effective with our youth as we reach out to them in their online communities.