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The terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant were coined in the early 2000’s by Marc Prensky, an American writer reflecting on education and learning in the digital age.  The terms are useful metaphors for us to think about when we look at the new reality of ministry in a digital age. Even saying it this way gives you a clue as to which one I am…

So which one are you? You’re a digital immigrant if you used the cell phone that looked more like a brick or were fascinated yet skeptical about the Motorola Startac flip phone back in 1996.  You’re a digital native if you came of age in the Apple and RIM (Blackberry) years. There are certainly digital immigrants that have done a fantastic job of assimilating into the new digital reality but typically they can be easily spotted by digital natives (our youth). The essential difference is whether we have come of age in the digital age (native) or not (immigrant).  So what are we as natives and immigrants supposed to do when the digital reality intersects with youth ministry? For the sake of this article I will spend more time dealing with the 4G and wifi devices that allow our youth to bring the digital world with them to our youth events. Typically organizations that work with youth resort to one of two options: 1. We’ll ban cell phones from the youth room this Sept. 2. We’ll kindly ask the natives to refrain from their savage behavior ie: texting at inappropriate times, txting wth bd grmmr and sexting?  Before deciding on a direction, I think schools, churches and para-church ministries need to spend more time dialoguing about some key things:

The new reality:

The digital age is not a fad. It is the new reality. Social networking the smart phone, the ipod and the tablet have changed the way we connect with information and each other. It already has changed the way we connect with our students (thanks to youtwitface) and Bible study tools (thanks to Olivetree).  Simply putting our heads in the sand about this digital reality does not help our students thrive in a world in which they (and we) have to adapt to new technology, while striving to be more and more like Christ.  I worry that banning technology from our youth rooms does more to distance digital natives and immigrants from each other than it does to bring us closer.  We need to seize opportunities where we can together learn and discern how Christ wants us to employ these digital tools.   


The fact that teens are relational is not new. The way they relate to each other is also not new. Back in the day (when the crust of the earth was still soft) we used to talk and write notes; now those convo’s and notes are digital. It is the medium by which they relate that has drastically changed. Has the new medium created opportunity for maturing youth to experience relational headaches, heartaches and lifelong consequences (death, even) for themselves and their peers? Yes. That is the sadness of this new reality. That is the reality in which we must minister. We need to help digital natives in our ministry recognize the nuances of digital relationships. You only have to hear the heartache of one teen girl dumped by text to recognize that being a digital native isn’t without its trouble.  So, is it ok for a guy to dump a girl over a txt convo? No. “Why?” one might ask. I believe that particular conversation requires the context that only a face-to-face conversation can give. Sadly, according to most digital natives, asking someone out via txt “bc u r hot” is absolutely legit. Perhaps we can come alongside digital natives in understanding the importance of context in every conversation both digital and face-to-face.


There needs to be boundaries. Why? Because we live in a world with boundaries, even in the new digital reality.  Though our youth feel they are getting away with much in their digital world, one does not to have to look very far (in our own school districts) to see the involvement of law enforcement and school district personnel when those boundaries get crossed. Digital immigrants can help digital natives understand the boundaries and what is at stake when those boundaries are ignored. I would caution youth leaders against using social media to help teach those boundary lessons.  I feel we must help keep our youth accountable to being God’s set apart people, but using social media to hold our youth accountable might not be the best way.  If we are invited to sit on the steps of their culture, commenting on questionable facebook posts is a sure way to get uninvited.  I’d love to see youth leaders take that kid out for a coke and chat about life, God and what he saw rather than try to police that teen's profile in front of their peers.

Gains and Losses:

Lastly. we are not doing this world a favour if digital natives uncritically swallow every new device and platform that comes their way. Similarly it does not help for digital immigrants to always slam (roll eyes at) those new gadgets and gizmos.  A conversation of gains and losses is what is going to help create understanding between immigrants and natives.  In our youth rooms, natives need to hear from immigrants what is lost when we cannot remain present emotionally during teaching or worship. Immigrants need to learn the advantage of using technology to bring those they are in relationships with into Christian community, even if that community is a social network community. There are pluses and minuses and we need to have respectful dialogue about them.   

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