Protect or equip? “Online discipleship” for young people (@paulwindo)

Today is Safer Internet Day – a day to encourage our kids and young people to think about “staying safe” online. But, if this is all we do, as Christians have we missed the point? Shouldn’t we be equipping our young people on how to live out their faith online too?

As youth and children’s workers our primary responsibility is the safety of those we work with and so initiatives like Safer Internet Day are so important. This year’s theme is “connecting the generations” and learning together, young and old, to be safer in the online world. We have a responsibility to inform young people about what to keep private when they use Facebook or when they tweet and to help raise the profile of issues such as cyber-bullying and online grooming. We need to equip the Church to model this kind of child protection, as they would in any other area of life.

However, where are the individuals and organisations that are equipping kids and young people to live as Christians in the online world – as #digidisciples? I know of many youth workers who love Twitter; resourcing and networking each other through the Twittersphere. Facebook seems to be a key part of connecting young people and youth groups together too. Every youth and children’s organisation – including the one that pays my wages – has been at pains to get their discipleship resources available online. But what I don’t see is those same people offering guidance and training to their young people on how to deal with living out their faith over the Internet.

Young people seem to roughly fall into two camps when it comes to “Christian surfing” – those that can’t stop blurting out how much they love Jesus via Twitter etc and those that appear one way in the youth group but fill their Facebook statuses with swearing and other less than desirable things. Anyone with any experience of youth work will know that this is nothing new – the only difference is that these traits are lived out in plain sight to all.

For me, this raises many more questions than it does answers:

  • How do we encourage young people to share their faith online appropriately?
  • What does it mean for them – as with us – to live with integrity in the digital world when everything is “on display”?
  • How do we encourage young people to speak out for justice and the oppressed in their online spaces?
  • What does mission look like for a young person who is constantly on Facebook etc?
  • Do we help them respond to bullying if they share a positive experience of God on their profiles?
  • Do we even simply impress on our kids to “think twice” before hitting “Share”…?
  • (and the questions go on – these are just the ones that immediately spring to mind)

I guess these are the same questions we all wrestle with. However we shouldn’t assume that young people are any better equipped to handle these areas of life than any other that we disciple them in. Just because they have grown up with the Internet doesn’t mean they don’t need us to help them through the opportunities and challenges it offers them.

A few years ago, Urban Saints ran a series of evenings looking at the digital world called Totally Wired and this has continued ever since, with the latest dates being booked as I type. But even this is only scratching the surface.

It seems to me that all the “online” discipleship resources in the world will only achieve so much until we have a good “online discipleship” resource to back them up.

As Safer Internet Day encourages us to “connect the generations”, let’s think about we can help our young people (and our youth workers!) both be safe AND live out their faith online.

So over to you, dear #digidisciples – perhaps you know about something I don’t. If so, please share it. If not, let’s get thinking about how we can make the difference in this area.

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