At first, the answer was an easy one.
Absolutely not. I will not get sucked into that huge time-waster that is social networking. Remember e-mail? Yeah, well, it still works the same way it always has; and that serves me just fine.
Famous last words. I now stand before you as a Facebook convert. I’ve seen the light, I’ve changed my ways, I’ve been redeemed by … OK, that’s going too far. But I did decide to join Facebook, and it was a good decision for me.
(I will be talking mostly about Facebook, because most of the youth ministry students I work with use it more than MySpace and similar sites. I don’t know much about the new Christian social-networking systems such as Xianz, JCFaith, FaithFreaks and ShoutLife.)
For the uninitiated, Facebook.com began in 2004 as a way for college students to connect with each other online during college. In September of 2005, it opened up to high school students; and late last year, it became available to anyone.
Out of the Dark
Two conversations and two realizations changed my mind.
The first conversation was with a college student who said she rarely checked her e-mail anymore; she just used Facebook. Students know a message in their Facebook inbox will be from someone they know, not spam.
The second conversation was with a good friend when the subject came up. For him, it was a no-brainer. One of my goals as a youth pastor is to be in the students’ world, and Facebook is one way to do that.
Realization No. 1 was that most of my college-age volunteer leaders who had Facebook were connecting with studentsâ€” and I was completely in the dark. My stubborn refusal to embrace something new was potentially making me look like a dinosaur to the rest of the group. Why shouldn’t the leader of the ministry be taking advantage of the benefits of this site?
The final realization sealed the deal. I realized I didn’t have to be the one to ask students to be my friend but that they could always “friend” me (yes, friend is a verb now).
Why was this important? This was one of the main things preventing me from joining: putting myself in the vulnerable position of asking a teenager to “be my friend.” But if they ask me, that’s something else entirely. They are inviting me in to their world; I’m not forcing myself in.
(I’d go further to say that youth leaders should refrain from asking students to be our social-networking “friends”; we should wait for them to ask us. Think how awkward it might be for them if adults asked them to be their friend and they felt they had to say yes even when they didn’t want to. Some students have even confessed they didn’t “friend” me because of the inappropriate things their friends say on their pages.)
Now, several months after joining Facebook, I am living proof that you can participate in a site like this without allowing it to take over your life.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. I recently talked to a large group on the Internet and mentioned safety issues, such as not leaving mobile numbers on public message boards. Potential usage traps include the relatively innocuous narcissism that these sites can foster all the way to the dangerous worst-case scenario of a sexual predator who weasels his way into a young person’s world.
And it’s a good idea for you and your youth workers to be aware of the fact that young people are viewing your pagesâ€”so publish appropriate material accordingly!
Social networking really is a fun conceptâ€”and a way to stay connected to literally hundreds of people. Plus, there’s something about it that draws students in ways that would never happen over e-mail. I got a Facebook message from a freshman a few months ago, and I highly doubt I ever would have heard from him otherwise.
A native Texan, Syler Thomas is the student ministries pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in the northern suburbs of Chicago. He blogs at www.syberspace.typepad.com.