The pandemic has led to the formation of new habits and expectations. Some have voiced the concern that some youth have become too comfortable with online interactions and just stay there with their cameras turned off; they believe there should be a greater “nudge” to in-person gatherings. This is a consumer-based point of view.
While some of these concerns are valid, we must ask some deeper questions because there may be legitimate reasons to accommodate those behaviours. For example, using the “staying online and cameras off” scenario, a person may be dealing with high social anxiety and this may be the best (or the only) way for that youth to participate. In that case, accommodating that person is appropriate and is needs based.
What obstacles might hinder a youth connecting in person? An array of physical, psychological and other factors might legitimately stop someone from attending an in-person group or program. Perhaps it’s time to audit the different barriers that exist for in-person gatherings (e.g., a not fully accessible building). Some youth have specific mental health or social disabilities that make online a safer place to connect. We must also recognize that factors are dynamic and may change over time.
For some, digital space engagement is the best entry –point to youth ministry. This may be especially true for unchurched youth. Whether it’s through social media connections or platforms like Esports, a growing number of ministries are bringing the person and message of Jesus to digital platforms in order to create a meaningful Christ-based community.
Who is having those sensitive conversations with your youth? How often? It’s possible that through mentoring/sharing life relationships, we can help youth to walk through their rationale for their decisions—to help them gain perspective or insight. Sometimes, a consumer-based approach can work (e.g. a general discussion of self-centered motives that require gentle correction) but other times specific needs-based guidance and conversations are the best way to help.
On a side note, we may need to revisit our own ecclesiology (i.e., the theological understanding of the church and her existence). For many, church itself revolves around a physical gathering in a physical location (i.e., at a church building on a Sunday morning). While the physicality of a faith community is part of an ecclesiology, what does it mean to have a gathering in a digital space? How we view that influences what we determine as “the church”.