I use social media in my ministry, and I think you should too.
I know, I know. Screens distort the gospel. Social media causes students to hide from reality. Likes on selfies are more important than anything else. Face-to-face ministry is the most valuable. I agree with all of these things. I don’t think social media should ever replace “real life,” face-to-face ministry. With all those disclaimers in mind, hear me out.
Social media (specifically Instagram and Twitter) is a valuable and integral part of my ministry to my students, and it has nothing to do with announcements. I’m a high school Bible teacher, so I don’t even have announcements to give. I use Instagram as a sort of micro-blog, a place to post small snippets of what God is teaching me, to process through my life, and remind myself [and everyone else] of truth. I also post plenty of pictures of crafty projects, endless sunsets, and moments with students I want to remember. I tweet their game highlights and Bible verses and have seen incredible fruit in my ministry because of social media.
Let’s talk about why you should use social media, as well as a few warnings.
1. Social media gives you an effective platform.
I have a handful of students who blog or read blogs. I even have a handful of students who check their email. But 99% of my students have and check social media accounts. They see what I post, they follow me with intentionality, and they give feedback showing they are hearing. Although I teach daily from the Word in a face-to-face context, and would never view Instagram as my primary ministry, there is great fruit from it because students actually pay attention to it.
Since I’ve begun “micro-blogging,” there’s been almost nothing but positive feedback – not just from my current students, but from graduates who I don’t get to see daily. I’ve even had opportunities to connect former students with recordings of what I’m teaching in class, or other helpful resources for their spiritual journeys. Through my posts students see, read, and hear the gospel – which is what ministry is all about (1 Corinthians 9.23).
2. Social media adorns the gospel message you preach.
When I was a camp counselor and Facebook was a lot more common among teenagers, I was glad when my campers later added me as a friend. I wanted them to see how what I said to them at camp was lived out afterwards, that walking with Jesus was possible when the “camp high” wore off.
I don’t have separate school and personal accounts because I want my students to see my life. They need to see me wrestling with my singleness, with contentment, just like your students need to see what every day married life looks like. If we don’t show them, the images they’ll see will only be on TV or from celebrities.
Ministry only happens online in this way because I allow many aspects of my life to be lived out in those little squares. Students don’t feel I’m talking to them, rather I’m coming from experience. Choosing to use social media in such an open way causes me to watch my life and my doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4.16) and to constantly check if I’m living in light of the gospel.
3. Social media overflows into “real life.”
Right around the Super Bowl I posted a few pictures cheering on my team and thought nothing of it. When I got to class on Monday, however, my students instantly began asking about my feelings about the game, talking about the jersey cookies they saw I made. Instant, lively conversation – all from an Instagram post. It reduced the friction that can occur when trying to build relationships.
Often when I post more serious Instagram posts or Tweets, I have students respond that what I said is exactly what the Lord is teaching them too, or that they needed to hear what I wrote that day. These comments are wide open doors for me to walk through with ease. By their comments, their replies, or their retweets, they invite further conversation. They invite me to say “I’d love to get coffee to talk about this” and “Tell me more.”
Students crave connection – if you use social media as a spring board, you will find you get to jump into the deep end again and again.
4. Social media provides a window into your students’ lives.
A previous Rooted article talked a little bit about this. Students live a lot of their lives online, and are often more honest to a screen than they are in other areas. Even my students, who follow the same people they see every day, will say and do more online than they will in person. While we all need to encourage our students to be honest in person and have hard conversations face-to-face, this is a reality of life and can be incredibly useful in ministry.
Watching my students interact with each other online gives me a glimpse into the social structure adults are often excluded from. It helps me understand the areas of social vulnerability and gives me ideas of how to apply specific Biblical truths to their lives. Idolatry, shame, identity, insecurity, belonging – these are lived out daily in their lives and exposed on their social media accounts. By being present in the online world as well as “real life,” it allows me the opportunity to contextualize the gospel in much more specific and meaningful ways to my students.
5. Social media meets them where they are.
In entering the digital world where students live, I display the incarnation. I’m not saying the “in flesh” world we live in should be replaced by the digital. But entering the spaces teens already inhabit is incredibly like Christ. It shows them they don’t have to enter into my world of heady blogs or youth talks, but I will come into theirs – and the gospel comes right along with me. Jesus isn’t just for Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, He isn’t just interested in the “church version” of us. He is present in all aspects of our lives – online or otherwise (Psalm 113.7).
Whether I like it or not is irrelevant. My students’ hearts are involved in their online personas – and my favorites of their posts, pictures with them, and @ mentions in the comments of funny animal videos mean the world to them. It shows them I am there, I care, and they are absolutely seen and known – by me and by the God I represent. At the end of the day, all this makes using social media worth it.
Although I use Instagram and Twitter because that’s where my students are, I don’t follow students everywhere into the social media world. I have adult friends who follow me on these same social media accounts, and they would quickly call me out [and do!] if they see any danger in what I post or how I interact online. I believe accountability is not just useful but necessary. Clear boundaries can be as evident on social media as they are in person. While I love my students dearly, we are not friends.
For what end?
Our students love social media because it gives them a sense of validation and worth. But social media in and of itself is not evil. The question is what we’re looking for in using these accounts. As long as we are looking to social media to make us okay, to give us a sense of identity, then it will fail. If I have found those things in Christ, however, then suddenly I am free to use social media in a completely different way. It becomes a good gift from God rather than a god itself. Instead of running away from things that can be misused, why not show our students how the gospel frees us to use these things for the glory of God and the joy of others (Romans 14.14; 1 Corinthians 10.31).
What matters to me most in ministry is whether or not I have testified to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 21.24). That’s my prayer every single day when I meet with students, prepare for teaching, and walk into my classroom. I want my whole life to be about others coming to know and love Jesus – so if the tiny words and tiny pictures on social media can do that, then count me in every time.
If you’d like to check out her Instagram or Twitter accounts to see a little bit of this in action, you can find Sarah at @heymsnixon on both.