God works through small groups.

At least that’s what we hope, don’t we?

There’s a joy that comes with seeing students come together to dig into God’s word and each other’s lives. When small groups function to leave students changed in ways that lead them deeper into the way and will of their Heavenly Father and more connected to supportive Christian community, well. . . that’s what youth ministry is all about, isn’t it?

But I’ve wondered if life on the digital frontier and the way our kids are living on that landscape have worked to undermine the spiritual growth we want to see in kids’ lives.

I’ve wondered too, if some of our small group practices related to technology have unintentionally stunted the growth of students and Christian community, which are the very things we hope our small groups will accomplish in the first place. In essence, are we working against ourselves without even knowing it?

I’ve often returned to the observations media critic Marshall Mcluhan made over fifty years ago when he talked about media’s effect on its users. Mcluhan believed that after we shape our technological tools, those technological tools will shape us. And, we usually don’t see how they shape (and mis-shape!) us until we’re already shaped (or mis-shapen!). Consider the invention of the phone. That was the first step in moving from face-to-face conversations (think voice, eye-contact, body-image, physical presence) to voice-to-voice conversations (think voice. . . and nothing else). Sure, the phone has been a fabulous invention that allows us to converse over great distances. But that blessing came with a cost. Now we’ve moved a world where a growing number of our kids prefer to communicate via messaging. We don’t even use our voices to converse anymore. The consequence? Researchers are now telling us that kids are losing the ability to carry-on a deep and meaningful face-to-face conversation. Mcluhan was right.

So, what does this have to do with youth ministry and small groups? Alot.

I believe that as leaders, we need to set the stage for small group effectiveness by curating a setting and experience that helps rather than hinders growth. We need to learn how to use and not use smartphones in the small group context.

While we might think kids will be more attracted to a small group experience that integrates their small screens, we might actually facilitate increased growth by curating a small group experience without smartphone technology.

Here are steps you can take towards this end. If you’re skeptical about the effectiveness of each, commit to a one-month “test drive” just to see what might happen if you would take each of these steps.

First, focus on the written page.

No doubt, reading and studying the Bible together should be center-stage in your small group experience. But what Bible should we use? I’m not talking here about the various versions. Rather, I’m talking about the difference between reading Scripture on the written paper page, as opposed to through 15-square-inches of smartphone glass. There are two primary issues here. First, reading on the written page in a physical Bible (containing every page from Genesis to Revelation) offers a sense of context. We see where the passage falls in the bigger story. And, we see that the story is indeed bigger than just the passage. That reality can be lost in the digital world of Bible study. Second, research shows that reading on screens is done differently than reading on a page. And, when a young person is doing most of their reading on a screen, they start to read differently. Eye scans show that a person reading on the physical page reads left to right, and line by line. Scans also show that those who read on screens read in an “F” pattern. While they might read the entire first line from left to right, their eyes will drop down the page, skipping several lines and then only reading partially across the next line they choose to land on. Not only that, but they are looking for keywords and hyperlinks. In other words, we lose our ability to read deeply, comprehend well, and gain full context. An added bonus to putting the smartphone aside is that the ability to act on the temptation to multi-task with clicks and swipes is removed.

Second, focus on others.

No person can multi-task effectively, giving full attention to the two or more simultaneous tasks they are endeavoring to engage in.

Researchers call this “dual-task interference.” In effect, when the human brain engages in multi-tasking, a traffic jam occurs. Everything slows down. In the case of our small group experiences, kids can’t give themselves fully to one another if they are “leaving the room” every few seconds by engaging with their smartphones. If they are working to build their social networks with others through their smartphones, they will not be maximizing the opportunity to listen to and build relationships with those who are physically present with them in the same room.

Third, focus on vulnerability. Our smartphones have undermined community and vulnerability by socializing kids into a cycle of online performance. They are constantly fabricating, curating, and photo-shopping their online identities in ways that leave them constantly on guard and keeping up the fabricated appearance of their lives whenever in the physical presence of others. Talk about pressure! They are undermining their ability to truly be their true selves, therefore destroying the possibility of the kind of vulnerability the people of God must have if they are going to successfully navigate life and support one another in the context of Christian community. In addition, we should be doing everything we can to steer kids away from the temptation to escape the small group setting through their smartphone screens when the difficult and uncomfortable opportunity to enter into vulnerability starts to rear its beautiful head.

Finally, focus on focus.

Back in 2009, Maggie Jackson released her provocative book about our cyber-centric lives and how our habits are undoing our selves, our families, our communities, and even our culture. In Distracted: The Erosion of Attention And  The Coming Dark Age, Jackson makes a case that’s not anti-technology, but one for management of our technological tools. When we have our eyes buried in our devices, we are not paying attention elsewhere. We lose our ability to sit in the quiet, meditate on good things, think deeply, and relate to one another. Aren’t those all things that we want to see happen with kids in our small groups?

What would happen if for sixty to ninety minutes a week your kids could walk through the door to their small group, put their smartphones down, and focus on God, His Word, and His body? Give it a try and find out.

About The Author

Walt Mueller is the founder and president of the Center for Parent Youth Understanding, a nonprofit ministry organization that has served churches, schools, and community organizations worldwide for nearly twenty years. He's a sought-after authority on youth culture and family issues and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, and the BBC. www.cpyu.org

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