Youth work and Mission in a land of Digital visitors and residents

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Young people are all Digital Natives arent they?

Not necessarily…Dr Bex Lewis in her article here ( ), just after she published her book Raising Children in a Digital age, commented on her blog that the term digital native, first used in 2001, gave the impression that a whole generation of people might in some ways be different from previous people – just because they have been born into a time when they might have only known the internet. In the article, she distinguishes between the Digital resident from Native, as this then is an approach to technology that is shaped by its attitude to it, rather than an age determination.

As i was reflecting,  this summer started, just before the end of the school term, with the emergence of Pokemon Go! to the UK. – my thoughts on it are here;  ‘Detached youthwork & Pokemon Go!’. With anecdotal evidence of a shrinking of visibility of users in the local parks, and backed up with this Data from the BBC: ‘Has the Pokemon Fad worn off?’. This current digital phase might well be waning to be restricted to the mainstays of the gaming world. 

The question is how should we be, as youthworkers and missionaries connecting with young people in both physical and public spaces, that include digital interaction, distraction and community?  – where or how does Youthwork and Mission reside in the current terrain? 

It would be relatively easy to talk about the Digital Culture and refer to Niebuhr’s 5 aspects of Culture in relation to faith – above, below, against, for and transforming, and think about how work with young people had adopted these principles. Whether this is promoting alternatives on You Tube, or educational videos – and YFC have produced a number of these. Using games like Minecraft to create nativity scenes, using technology at events such as Greenbelt. For each of Niebuhr’s 5 aspects there will be at least one way of someone trying to use technology in a deliberate way, and there will be those who are pro and against each of the methods. But do we need different approaches for (young) people who might be digital residents or digital visitors ?

However, What might it mean to think about Technology Theologically? or from a Theodrammatic view. Healy argues (2001) that there is Godly and Human in every human agency, including even the church, which is prey to acts of power, manipulation and weakness as what can appear a human insitution.. but going back to the agency of technology – what might it mean to think about the online/digital space of the world in terms human- but also and divine? – Is God in Pokemon Go for example? not just is it good – but is God to be found there too? 

And, what kind of faithfulness is needed in a digital world, to discern the God that resides in that space, and the human that provokes the need for faithfulness and this kind of tightrope walking? 

For, If God is a communicative agency (Vanhoozer, 2002) and is Supreme over all (Colossians 1)- Might he be present to be heard , and communicating in the digital space?

Its not as simple as saying, what makes the digital world ‘christian’ and what makes it ‘non’ – this isnt the point, ‘Christian music’ might not be any more christian than music that doesnt define itself in such a way (there is divine and human in every agency)  

The point being is that ongoing discernment is what is required, the easy route would be to only use the ‘safe’ alternatives – and almost create christian ghettos on the online space – the same kind of fearing the world that can be said from the pulpit at times. Is it the Christian ghetto that brings about initiatives like ‘churchlive’ where services are broadcasted online- but who is watching them- christians mainly.

One danger is to make assumptions about digital nativity.  The Pokemon Go! thing was this. Even though it went mad in the media, blogs, TV was all over it. not every young person was playing it. not every young person could, not every young person wanted to. Whilst the parks of Hartlepool were swarmed with 14-18 yrs olds, in Durham it was university students, but in parts of Durham, no one was. And other areas, and young people were the same. Not every young person was playing it, and so as a youth worker, it was to look tragic to ask young people who werent playing it if they were, because the media, and the Christian world had infiltrated the thought that this is what young people are doing and how youth ministry stays relevant. 

Staying relevent via the mass media, however is to look foolish without hearing the reality from the local context.

Vanhoozer asks the question; ‘What has the church to say and do that no other human institution can say and do?’ (2005:3) which links to Healy also who argues that the church is to be both practical and prophetic (2001). In a land of Digital residents, visitors and natives – what has the church to say and do that no other human institution can say and do, and for us as those who work with young people specifically as an age group – what might this be?

There is no point in suggesting the things to do from this blog, because, as in the case of Pokemon Go! – each situation of youth work and church is profoundly different across the UK, and globe. To be prophetic might be to help people find residency in other spaces that counteract their residency digitally – spaces of quiet away from information overload, or spaces of physical community, of physical risk – to counteract the types of interaction digitally.  To be practical.. well id hope that was easier – but what effects of too much residing digitally having on us all and what could the church do in this space…

How might youthwork as mission, even as church, be both practical and prophetic in the online space, not just use it, view it, participate in it- as much as the online church expressions be equally practical and prophetic?

But as much as this- how might our role as youthworkers and dare i say it parents to provide the theological tools, for us all not just to make moral decisions, but also theological decisions about connections, communities and interactions as residents online.

What tools do we need to navigate in this digital world – do we take young people with us to explore as youthworkers, do we take them away, do we make unhelpful distinctions between physical and virtual -when young people dont see the world in the same way. What of youthwork and mission in a land of digital natives, residents and visitors? – which we- are also part…


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