NASHVILLE—While social media often is seen as a bad thing, what if Instagram and YouTube could be used to reach the lost, nurture spiritual maturity and expand congregations?
A pivotal outreach to today's youth may start with an LED screen, with 95 percent of teenagers reportedly having a smartphone or access to one—and 45 percent saying they are online on a near-constant basis—according to a recent Pew Research Center for Internet & Technology survey.
Eliza Huie, biblical counselor, speaker and author of a new book titled "Raising Kids in a Screen-Saturated World," says parents and people in ministry should familiarize themselves with social media platforms: "Don't hate it, engage it."
"Engaging it simply means to be familiar with the platform, to be on the platform," Huie says. "Be aware of the dangers but don't assume that just because there are dangers that (your child) is actually participating in them. ... Recognize the good."
The Pew survey found 13- to 17-year-olds are much more likely to use YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat than Facebook, with 85 percent of teens on YouTube, 72 percent on Instagram, 69 percent on Snapchat but only 51 percent on Facebook.
"A lot of Facebook isn't personal anymore, it's shared political articles or random videos," says Mike Brake, pastor of Freedom Church in Los Alamos, N.M., and former youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Los Alamos. "If I really want to see what is happening in my friends' lives, I go to Instagram because that is where they post the real stuff going on in their life."
For most people, it helps in keeping up with people, such as friends and family, says Lakin Adkins, a high school sophomore and member of First Baptist Church in Orange, Texas. "It also shows other people's journeys in their Christian walk, and others are able to learn from those journeys."
With social media on the rise, students have found ways to seek encouragement and biblical inspiration through the platforms.
"Youtubers like Emma Mae Jenkins, FarAwayDistance and Sadie Robertson post encouraging videos and devotionals," says Chrisleigh Longlois, a high school junior and member of First Baptist Church in Mauriceville, Texas. "You can grow in your faith through social media by reading blogs and following other Christians. It can be used to hold each other accountable. And your page can set an example for other believers."
It is important to allow social media to be an avenue of connection and not an avenue of identity, Huie says. "Be aware that you have to really stay rooted to who you are in Christ."
Social media, she notes, "shows who you are when people look at your page and see what you're posting. It says a lot about who you are."
"The beauty of social media," Brake says, "is that you can do your research on people, churches, businesses, etc. within seconds and figure out who that person, church or business is and what they stand for."
With the 45 percent of teens who are "almost always" on their phone and social media, youth pastors can have a big influence in their outreach through these platforms.
"I think that youth pastors and people in ministry have an angle into engaging because the teens are already looking to them for leadership and direction," Huie says.
She encourages youth ministers to look for ways to bring in the whole youth group rather than the students who are more engaged through social media. "You can reach teens by tagging them in a post, posting one of their pictures, retweeting one of their tweets, or by liking one of their posts," she suggests.
Brake admits to not being a big fan of social media but uses it as his mission field.
"One of the biggest benefits is engagement," he says. "In a typical youth or church setting, you have about an hour a week with this group of people, but through social media, you have a chance to keep them connected and engaged."
From a physiological stand point, Huie notes, viewing social media parallels a treasure hunt, with endorphins released in the brain as a reward.
"When you are scrolling through your feed, you are hunting for something that you like, something that you will connect or identify with, and when you find it, it's actually an endorphin hit," she says.
With the addictive nature of social media, newsfeeds and time lines become a highly viewed platform by millions around the world each day.
"You can get the Gospel out there for free and let it spread," Brake says. "(Post) a photograph with Scripture or a 30-second clip from a sermon. You never know how God is going to use that in somebody's life."
On social media, Brake says, "There is so much potential to spark the conversations and engage people with the Gospel. So, go there and put it out in front of them. Keep them engaged, keep them connected." (BP)