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Why all of us are all wrong about social media

 by Aaron Helman | @aaronhelman | loading comments...

You might be wasting a ton of your time and energy.

Believe me, I understand how pervasive social media has become.

Your students are on it all the time. So are your friends and colleagues.

So are you.

That means you need to invest significantly in social media, right away, doesn't it?

Not so fast.

Facebook can't replace real community, and it shouldn't be treated like it can.

Of course, you already knew that.

But you might be surprised to learn that your students know it too, even if they're not consciously aware of it. In fact, this danah boyd study reveals that social media usage in teens stems from a desire for real interaction.

There's a reason that teenagers are most likely to use Facebook to set up or discuss "real world" interactions.

Even students who are totally immersed in social media feel a longing for real community. That's good news for your youth ministry. It means that if you're doing things right, you're already meeting a felt need.

Good for you. Here's how you can maximize on what you're already doing.

In a social media world, traditional communication doesn't feel lame. It feels special.

Think about the last birthday you had. You probably received a hundred generic wall posts - so many that they blended together. You didn't read them all, and most of them didn't feel special.

But a birthday card in your mailbox? That still means something.

Teenagers use social media enough to know how quick and easy a hasty message really is, and they'll easily recognize it as such. If you throw something together quickly, they'll smell it out and the impact will be minimal, if it is anything at all.

Five years ago, Facebook was a massively effective way to communicate and interact with students. Why? It was novel. It was new.

Now, I find it's only successful with sixth and seventh graders and for precisely the same reasons.

The true story of how snail mail helped build our youth program in nine months

In fall 2011, we started encouraging all of our small group leaders to start their own postcard ministry with their students. I printed a few dozen postcards every week, pre-postaged them, and made sure small group leaders had updated address lists.

It began small. We wanted to make sure each student received a hand-written note on his or her birthday.

Then we started sending postcards anytime a student missed two sessions in a row.

Then another if the student had a prayer request or life event.

And finally, we made sure to send each student at least one postcard a month, even if we had to make up a reason to do it.

What happened?

Attendance exploded.

Students were more committed when they felt like we were more committed to them. Growth happened. Putting effort into demonstrating authentic care for other people paid off, just like Jesus said it would.

Stephen's story

One day, during the course of a sixth grade small group, a student absentmindedly dropped his Bible. When he did so, five or six postcards came spilling out of its pages.

He was sheepish at first, but admitted quietly that he'd saved every postcard any of our leaders had ever sent him. He was almost embarrassed for anyone to realize how much these gestures had meant to him.

Then another student opened her Bible and showed us that she'd stashed her postcards too.

Then another. And another.

Within weeks, the other students in the group had picked up on the habit, keeping our hand-written prayers and carefully selected verses of encouragement nearby and close to their hearts.

Yes, our students spend most of their time on Facebook and Twitter. But we're learning quickly that those aren't the places where they derive most of their meaning.

Share a comment and tell me how much you use - or don't use - social media in your ministry. I'd love to know.

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