Technology is a game changer. Love it or hate it, it is here to stay, and the harsh reality is that it is becoming a greater part of our lives with each passing day. It isn’t lost on me that I write this on a computer, connected to WiFi, on a website I can literally access from anywhere on my phone, in order to connect with a wide range of people.
Technology is both a blessing and a curse, especially when it comes to ministry. Students love their tech and the tech they love the most is their phones. Students are streaming videos constantly, sending selfies and adding to streaks every couple of minutes, playing games, sharing memes, and finding their identity in and through their phone.
Have you noticed it at your youth group yet? Have you seen the student who claims to be using their Bible app but no one makes that face reading the Bible? Have you seen the student who is playing a game during your message? How about the student whose face is never unglued from their device? What do you do about it? How do you handle it?
I am no expert at this, but I have found ways to utilize technology and a lack of technology for the benefit of our students and our group overall. Here are some tips on how to handle this issue well.
1. Set a policy and stick to it
Policies will look different for each ministry, but the key is setting the policy and sticking to it. Some ministries don’t allow phones, others do. Some ask students to engage with their phones during the evening, others don’t. I know students will have their phones, but during our message time and small groups we ask our students to put them away because we provide notes, Scripture, and all that they need. It isn’t because we don’t like phones, but we want to help remove distractions during specific moments.
2. Have a policy for trips
This is important because depending on what type of trip you are on, phones may be necessary. When we take students to our denominational conference we are in a convention center in the city with thousands of other students. We know our students could be doing any number of things at the conference and we want to be able to communicate with them. Therefore, we allow them to have their phones. On shorter trips or mission trips we do not allow them as we want students to be intentional about building lasting relationships with one another and with Jesus. We communicate this to families well before each trip, and also give parents other means of contacting their students (like calling leader phones) if necessary.
3. Model the policy
This is a big thing. I have been on trips and retreats where there is a no phone policy for students but leaders are often seen on their phones. Students end up getting upset and frustrated because they were given a rule but the leaders seem to be above the law. When we tell students they can’t have phones, we explain that leaders will have theirs for emergencies and photos only. I make it very clear that leaders are not to be using phones in front of students unless it is for one of those reasons. That way leaders are following the rule and also intentionally connecting with their students.
4. Share your phone policy
I stated this briefly above, but whenever we go on trips we explain to parents and students what our phone policy is and why we have it. By sharing this with families it helps us all to be on the same page and it avoids any day-of conflict about having a phone on a trip. It is also important to communicate with families about your phone policies for your weekly programming. This could be done through an email, a newsletter, a social media post, or by hosting a parent meeting.
5. Utilize phones well
Some ministries allow phone usage more than others because it works in their context. If this is the case for your ministry, make sure to talk about how to use phones well in your setting. Talk about various apps students can and should use. In fact, a great resource would be to utilize the Bible App as a means for students to take notes during your messages. You can always use phones to take polls from students, have them text in questions, and interact with the media you are using. You can also look into developing an app that incorporates all of the above aspects and encourage your students to use this during your programming to help them stay engaged.
6. Cast vision for why you are disconnecting
If you are saying you are not allowing phones for weekly programming, a special event, or a trip, it is always good to discuss why. Families will often want to know if there is a specific reason for not having them, and what they need to do if there is an emergency. By sharing the vision and reason for disconnecting you will help parents to be on board with it.
7. Empower your leaders to speak into the moment
Often it isn’t every student who is on their phone, but a singular student or a smaller group. Instead of calling them out all the time in front of everyone, encourage their leaders to engage with them and find out why they are on their phone. Some kids hear better with additional stimuli. Others want to appear to be disengaged and cool. Others may not care or have never been mentored in how to listen and engage. The reality is we don’t know why they are on their phone until we engage and your leaders are the ones best suited for the job.