NYT: To Deal With Obsession, Some Defriend Facebook

I am known at my church for not being on Facebook. Really. Facebook at our church is a popular way for people to keep up with each other. If you search for me, you will find that I have an account. However, I only use it to help manage our youth ministry’s Facebook page. If I am honest with myself and with you, the main reason I stay away is because I’m sure I would become addicted. Yes, I am aware that many youth pastors utilize Facebook to keep up with students, and that can be a positive way to use it. However, I find other ways to communicate with students, and my wife (who does use Facebook) alerts me when she thinks it would be good to contact a student to see how he or she is doing.

Here’s the bottom line: Facebook is addictive. Like many drugs, it has its benefits when being used correctly, but it also has its detriments. So, discernment is needed, and like all media, overdoing it results in negative consequences. I admit that I can be too engrossed in a book and ignore some other wonderful things that life has to offer.

This New York Times article discussed teenagers who have found that they need to cut back on, take a break from, or stop using altogether Facebook. It’s a good reminder that even things that seem innocuous at first can negatively affect our lives–and our relationship with God.

By mutual agreement, the two friends now allow themselves to log on to Facebook on the first Saturday of every month — and only on that day.

The two are among the many teenagers, especially girls, who are recognizing the huge distraction Facebook presents — the hours it consumes every day, to say nothing of the toll it takes during finals and college applications, according to parents, teachers and the students themselves.

Some teenagers, like Monica and Halley, form a support group to enforce their Facebook hiatus. Others deactivate their accounts. Still others ask someone they trust to change their password and keep control of it until they feel ready to have it back.

For one 18-year-old boy completing a college application, Professor Turkle said, “Facebook wasn’t merely a distraction, but it was really confusing him about who he was,” and he opted to spend his senior year off the service. He was burned out, she said, trying to live up to his own descriptions of himself.

“You’re getting a feed of everything everyone is doing and saying,” Ms. Simmons said. “You’re literally watching the social landscape on the screen, and if you’re obsessed with your position in that landscape, it’s very hard to look away.”

It is that addictive quality that makes having a partner who knows you well especially helpful. Monica said that when she was recently in bed sick for several days, she broke down and went on Facebook. And, of course, she felt guilty.

“At first I lied,” Monica said. “But we’re such good friends she could read my facial expression, so I ’fessed up.”

As punishment, the one who breaks the pact has to write something embarrassing on a near-stranger’s Facebook wall.

After several failed efforts at self-regulation, Neeka Salmasi, 15, a sophomore at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich., finally asked her sister, Negin, 25, to change her Facebook password every Sunday night and give it back to her the following Friday night.

Neeka quickly saw an improvement in her grades.

Still better, she said, is that her mother no longer visits her room “every half an hour to see if I was on Facebook or doing homework.”

“It was really annoying,” she said.

Last year, Magellan Yadao, 18, a senior at Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago, went on a 40-day Facebook fast for Lent.

“In my years as a Catholic, I hadn’t really chosen something to give up that was very important to me,” Magellan said in an e-mail message. “Apparently, Facebook was just that.”

Technology and Youth Ministry

I love computers, and I would consider myself technologically savvy. However, I am pretty much clueless when it comes to one type of technology that’s relatively new: social networking. Last week, I joined my first (Google) “Wave” and am having a difficult time making heads or tails of how to keep up with all the conversation that’s going on in the Wave. I’m not into Facebook, but I did learn enough to start a page for our high school ministry. I’ve been told by many myspace- and Facebook-savvy youth workers that I’m missing out on connecting with students if I don’t have an account with those sites. I’m only 29 years old, but I feel so old-fashioned!

Tim Schmoyer is a youth minister in Minnesota who has a great handle on technology as it relates to ministry. He has a post today on using technology in ministry:

Sometimes using a new technology tool in ministry feels somewhat forced at first — like we feel a need to make this tool useful somehow, but the round peg just doesn’t seem to fit in the square hole. Using technology in ministry for the sake of using technology is the wrong perspective. We use technology not to feel cool or current, but to advance the Kingdom, and if it’s not doing that, then don’t waste your time on it. It’s better to let the technology evolve, use it for personal use so you grow to understand it while keeping the ministry implications tucked away in your mind until it becomes the most obvious tool for something related to ministry.

Here’s the key he gives: we need to view technology as a tool. This is a good reminder for me, because I am somewhat suspicious of electronic media in general. Technology, especially social networking, will continue to evolve, and we not only need to be mindful of how we can harness such technology for the good of the Kingdom, but we also need to be discerning as well. For instance, videos can be powerful illustrations in a “talk” or sermon, but sometimes we need to help students learn how to process God’s Word in other ways besides video, because it will be better for them in the long run.

Walt Mueller in Youthworker Journal: "Why I Am Rich"

Walt Mueller’s article in the November/December Youthworker Journal has served as a good reminder for me in ministry. The article brings up a number of good points, but what hit me was the following phrase from the last section about how we can plan mission trips that bring about lasting change:

“cut the entitlement-feeding stuff from our programming (expensive winter ski trips, etc.) and funnel our youth ministry time into radical giving.”

The phrase “entitlement-feeding” was what really caught my eye. When planning events, I do try to not go overboard and have really expensive events and trips that simply are a lot of fun and nothing more. However, before today, I had never really thought about asking the following question when it comes to event planning: Is this event reinforcing a sense of entitlement in our culture? I usually plug and advertise all events, whether it’s a “block party” event designed for students to bring their friends, a service project, or World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine in the following way: “It will be a lot of fun! You should come!” As I thought about it, I don’t usually say something like, “This event will help you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus!” Why? Because I buy into the idea that students need to think they’ll get something out of an event in order to come. That’s reinforcing their sense of entitlement.

Parents and Their Teens’ Music Choices

I recently got an email from a parent asking for some advice on how to help her teenager think through music that she likes to listen to that the parent does not think is appropriate for her or edifying for her relationship with God. I am always glad when parents think through how to set healthy boundaries for their kids. The fact that this parent wants to think through how to set good limits for her daughter is a great thing in itself. Here was my response:

[Parent Name]:

Discussing culture in general and music specifically is certainly on my “rotation” of things to teach on. We will likely discuss it specifically sometime in 2010, but we do regularly talk about (as an application) the music, movies, and television shows that we choose to listen to and watch.

My goal when it comes to music is to help students think through the messages of the music they listen to. For instance, when traveling with students in a van on a mission trip or in a car to a retreat, I allow students to plug their iPods in (it used to be CDs!) and play any music they like as long as I get to press pause any time I want and ask questions about the music and make comments. I find that this equips them to help make decisions about what they choose to expose themselves to in our media-saturated culture. It doesn’t mean that I condone every song that is played (I once gave an impassioned 20-minute lecture to some students on the way home from a retreat on the intrinsic value of females as children of God after we listened to the first 60 seconds of a song that demeaned women in an awful way). However, it does open the door for great conversation.

I’m not familiar with the band she likes to listen to, so I can’t speak to their music. However, if [daughter’s name] is willing to listen to some songs with you, it might be good (and even fun!) to have a conversation with her about specific aspects of the band’s songs. Ask her questions about why she likes the music, what the message of particular songs are, whether those messages line up with or are contrary to God’s Truth as found in the Bible, and whether or not the music builds her up in her walk with Jesus. And please feel free to speak frankly to her about concerns you have with the band’s music and message.

Ultimately, they choice is yours in terms of what concerts [daughter’s name] attends and what music she can have on her iPod. I’m encouraged that you are willing to set limits for her, and I hope you continue to set safe boundaries for her as her mom. She may not come to a point where she understands why you set those boundaries, but I guarantee that it will help her to set boundaries for herself in the future.

A resource that’s been a huge help to me when it comes to music and other media is www.cpyu.org. Walt Mueller, who started the site, has put a lot of time into helping parents understand the culture that their teenagers live in.

Thanks for the note, and I’ll continue to be in prayer with you as a parent. You are certainly not the first parent to have these concerns!

Yours in Christ,

Ultimately, I try to take an equipping approach to this. Of course, this does not mean that I’ll play a song during a lesson that is obscene or has explicit lyrics (I may bleep a few things out) just to have students discuss it–just as I don’t need to show a pornography video from watchmygf.sex to teach a lesson on it. However, if students are already listening to something, then it can often be good to engage in a conversation with them and try to shed God’s truth on what they are exposing themselves to.

Some Thoughts on Television, Entertainment, and Relevance

A couple of Internet posts have recently helped me to think about electronic entertainment (especially television) and the place it has in a Christian’s life and the place it has in youth ministry. The first one is from John Piper, and in this article, he discusses his reasons for not owning a television and why he rarely attends movies. While he discusses for most of the article the “sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment” found on many television programs and movies, he finishes with a point that I consider to be overlooked by most Christian “culture watchers”:

But leave sex aside (as if that were possible for fifteen minutes on TV). It’s the unremitting triviality that makes television so deadly. What we desperately need is help to enlarge our capacities to be moved by the immeasurable glories of Christ. Television takes us almost constantly in the opposite direction, lowering, shrinking, and deadening our capacities for worshiping Christ.One more smaller concern with TV (besides its addictive tendencies, trivialization of life, and deadening effects): It takes time. I have so many things I want to accomplish in this one short life. Don’t waste your life is not a catchphrase for me; it’s a cliff I walk beside every day with trembling.

TV consumes more and more time for those who get used to watching it. You start to feel like it belongs. You wonder how you could get along without it. I am jealous for my evenings. There are so many things in life I want to accomplish. I simply could not do what I do if I watched television. So we have never had a TV in 40 years of marriage (except in Germany, to help learn the language). I don’t regret it.

One of the pervading thoughts in Evangelical Christianity is that as long as the content of certain types electronic entertainment (such as television or movies) is “clean,” we can consume to our hearts’ content. However, Piper brings up an important point. We should ask the question, “is watching television or going to a movie the best thing I can be doing with my time right now?” Entertainment need not be trivial or passive to be entertaining.

The second post is simply a short list of some benefits of life without television. It’s well worth your time to head over and read it, but allow me to list one that I give a hearty “Amen!” to and readily admit that I am susceptible to when I do watch television:

1. Avoidance of commercials and the fueling of the consumer mentality — It’s all about the sponsors, as we all know. And to watch a TV show is to be bombarded with constant pitches for products one neither needs nor, properly, desires. Even the most circumspect person cannot help but be impacted by this.

Not only do these two articles cause me to think more about my own personal viewing habits (such as the fact that I am looking forward to seeing the new Transformers movie this week), but I also wonder about how we utilize such entertainment vehicles in ministry. Our church’s youth ministry attended a youth conference in Los Angeles this week, and a new movie was shown about a teenager’s redemption through Christ. Some of the youth from our church who saw it told me it was a good movie (entertainment-wise) with a good message. I had some concern, however, that many of the youth also bought items (t-shirts, etc.) related to the movie. I understand that for the most part, the producers of the movie hope that other teenagers will want to see the movie when they see their friend wearing the t-shirt, and so it was more about marketing than consumerism. In addition, I wonder if this form of entertainment is the best way to help youth learn about what a transformational relationship with Jesus looks like and how to share Christ with their friends. While I am picking on this movie, I do realize that this is a broad issue that affects most, if not all of Evangelical Christianity in the United States (my own life and ministry included). I do not have very much by way of answers at this time, but I have committed myself to asking what role entertainment vehicles such as television and movies should play in my life and in ministry. Do I waste too much time watching movies or mindlessly surfing around on the Internet? Is there a better use of my time? Would I be more faithful to choose to spend more time reading a good book or learning in some other way? How do I encourage youth to do the same?

Movie Recommendation – The Ultimate Gift

Jennifer and I last night watched a movie neither of us had heard much about: The Ultimate Gift.  The movie’s website summarizes the film: 

When his wealthy grandfather dies, trust fund baby Jason Stevens anticipates a big inheritance. Instead, his grandfather has devised a crash course on life with twelve tasks – or “gifts” – designed to challenge Jason in improbable ways, sending him on a journey of self-discovery and forcing him to determine what is really most important in life.”
It is certainly a movie with a message, or rather with a few messages.  While I don’t agree with all of the messages 100%, it was a great movie with good acting, and it’s a good discussion starter.  One word of advice: the movie does not explain what each of the twelve gifts are until the final credits.  The first few are obvious, but then they get a little hard to follow.  A list is available on Wikipedia, just make sure you don’t read about the plot, or you’ll spoil it!  I definitely recommend this film for families to discuss.  Adult intimate relationships are hinted at, however, so make sure you check out the movie ahead of time if you have younger kids.

Happy Feet

This weekend, we (our church’s youth ministry) headed to the dollar (well, actually the three-dollar-fifty) movies for a dinner and a movie out. Out of a lack of good choices of movies that would be entertaining as well as appropriate for grades 6-12, I chose Happy Feet for our group to watch. It certainly was a fun movie (my wife and I would like to adopt a dancing baby penguin now). However, I have a professor–Dr. Doug Groothuis at Denver Seminary–who has almost ruined movies for me, especially children’s movies. The reason? I now test just about every movie for its underlying worldview. (Not all movies, however. Sometimes a movie is just a movie.) I would have to see the movie again and take notes to really get its worldview down, but two beliefs of the worldview stuck out: belief in something greater than ourselves is juxtaposed to using our mind, and the opinions of elders should be distrusted because they’re stuck in their old-fossil like ways, which ultimately harms the greater society.

Now, you might find yourself saying, “C’mon, Benjer, it’s just a movie!” Maybe so. But all forms of communication communicate something, and I didn’t like what this movie was communicating. I believe that their are sensible reasons for believing in a higher power, namely the trinitarian God of the universe that has revealed himself–among other ways–in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A also happen to believe that people who are significantly older than me might have a bit to say about our world that I need to listen to. By the time the youth I was with graduate from high school, I hope that they’ll have learned that every movie does indeed present a worldview and to wonder if the worldview presented correlates to truth. But I also hope I don’t ruin all movies for them.