In spite of dangers, the internet offers tools that can be used for the gospel. In just the last few years, there have been huge technological changes.
Only ten years ago there was no YouTube, Skype or Smart phone. Facebook was nowhere on the radar, nor was Twitter, Pinterest, or Google. Along with these technologies, or perhaps because of them, there have been changes to the way that people communicate and relate to each other. Today, young people in particular post every detail of their lives online for everyone to see.
Will you be my friend?
In this environment, it is hardly surprising to find that young people may have hundreds of friends on Facebook, and followers on Twitter, seemingly able to quantify how popular they are! They are highly connected, but at the same time, tragically disconnected from the physical interactions that are so crucial to growing up, connections with parents, family and friends, in the church and in the world.
One author1 explained that, while young people may be regular in their attendance at church, ‘what lies beneath their attendance, their easy laughter and even their occasional moments of seeming to pay attention to what you say, [is that] they are experiencing a longing to be known, to be taken seriously, to be affirmed and acknowledged and to be loved’. Tragically, social media can never do this.
The psychological impact
Evidence is mounting that there are significant psychological impacts of mass internet addiction — if you think the word ‘addiction’ is too strong, try asking a young person to spend a week without the internet … better still, try it yourself!
Researchers note that, because of our more ‘connected’ society, ‘children now spend a very limited time with family and actual friends’. ‘There is weakening of family bond and limited real life social interaction resulting in distorted social skills and social cues.’2
The spiritual impact
‘No wonder social media is so addicting — it’s all about you’, or so goes the headline from one recent study3. In a typical face-to-face conversation, people spend 30-40% of the time talking about themselves. On social media, that rises to 80%. Here lies the conundrum. While young people have been called the ‘me generation’, they also crave to be noticed, cared about.
It is also interesting to note the way that young people receive and use information. Vast stores of knowledge are available at the touch of a button, but the way that information is explored is by going from one hyperlink to another — click, click, click every few seconds! We are so easily distracted. We might be looking through information on a particular topic, but then something pops up, maybe another link, a video or an ad, and captures our attention, then off we go along a completely different track!
YouTube reinforces the visual (concrete versus abstract) development of the brain for a generation that has been brought up with videos at any time and anywhere. Experience reigns supreme — as long as it lasts no more than 2-3 minutes!
What should we do?
Recognising where young people are, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, is the first step in reaching them. The Bible itself reinforces the need to understand ‘where people are’, and not where we wish they might be. When the apostle Paul spoke in a Jewish setting, he presented Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy (Acts 13.16-41). When in Athens, he spoke of the ‘unknown God’ to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17). Nor is there anything new about presenting the gospel in highly visual and direct ways. We can imagine the greatest preacher who ever lived, the Lord Jesus, pointing to a field and asking his congregation to ‘consider the lilies’, or to think about how Solomon was clothed (Matthew 6.28). J.C. Ryle, the famous 19th-century bishop, writing about George Whitefield, one of the greatest preachers of all times, noted his ‘singular power of description’, quoting an Arabian proverb: ‘He is the best orator who can turn men’s ears into eyes’4.
Technology can be a vehicle for good, though we need to be aware of its danger — in particular, its addictive nature — and emphasise the need to make and sustain real (physical) friendships. Young people are still in the process of maturing skills such as self-control, so ‘technology-free zones’ might be a good idea, particularly at specific times during youth meetings such as Bible talks.
Much has been written about the negative effects of technology. But it also offers new ways to reach and help young people. While the apostle Paul went into the marketplaces to meet people, in our day the ‘marketplace’ is increasingly digital! If we want to reach young people, we will probably find them ‘attached to their device’! There are amazing examples of innovative uses of video or other technologies to reach young people5. Take a look at a video promoting a university mission6, a flash mob used to advertise a carol service7 or a montage based on asking students to write down what Jesus means to them8.
In New Testament times, the apostles used what was available to them to reach people — whether a common language (Greek) or the wide-ranging network of Roman roads. Today, the internet offers tools that we can use. This should energise our efforts and stretch our imaginations! Videos (typically no longer than two or three minutes) can be a great tool, along with Twitter, Facebook and other social media. The possibilities are endless.
Nothing new under the sun…
At the end of the day, however, the internet is just a tool. Like the printed page, it can be hijacked by the devil, or used to glorify God. History teaches us that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’.9 Interactions between people changed fundamentally as recently as the Industrial Revolution, with the effective breakdown of the extended family. Or, for those who think that young people spend too much time on the internet and not enough time reading, consider that in the Roman Empire literacy rates were probably under 10%10. Throughout history, Christianity has always been the biggest driver of positive change.
Technology may change, but the human heart does not, and our challenge is communicating in a way that can be clearly understood, using the tools at our disposal. The Roman highway may have been replaced by the Superhighway, but ‘The Way’ has not changed!
But the greatest is love…
There is a better way. Much of what we see on social media stems from the need to be noticed, understood, appreciated; above all, to be loved. This is at the very core of the Christian gospel (Matthew 24). The interconnected disconnected may choose an online medium to express their feelings, with everything out in the open, but to us, as ambassadors of Christ, this presents an amazing opportunity to show the love of Jesus. As the world changes, we still communicate the same love that brought Christ to earth so that ‘whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life’. The toys may be smarter, smaller and faster, but the heart is no different. People don’t change nor does the love of God. Because of God’s love to us, and through the power of his Holy Spirit, we also love the young people we interact with. As Jesus said: ‘By this shall all men know that we are his disciples, if we have love one for another’ (John 13.35).
David Clark is the author of You, Your Family and the Internet published by Day One (http://www.dayone.co.uk).
This article was originally printed in the USA in the YouthWorker Journal, and is used with permission.
1. Chap Clark, YouthWorker Journal, Oct. 2 2012
2. From a study by Karishma S. Ramdhonee, a child psychologist with the Mauritius government. The study is found athttp://www.gov.mu/portal/sites/cert/sid2012/Psychological%20Impact%20of%20Internet%20usage%20on%20Children.pdf
3. ‘Stress of modern life cuts attention spans to five minutes’, The Telegraph, November 26 2008.
4. A sketch of the life and labors of George Whitefield, J.C. Ryle.
5. My special thanks to my son Tim for these ideas! He has just spent a year working among students as UCCF Relay worker — http://www.uccf.org.uk/relay/
9. Ecclesiastes 1.9