The Internet and its potential and use for ministry with young people

The Internet and its potential and use for ministry with young people

Dave Mullin

History of the www

While starting as a vehicle for military communications, the Internet quickly became a key means of communication and development for most of the first world and increasingly as a connection point for groups of “developing” and third world peoples. The growth of Internet use and development of new technologies has been overwhelming. It was not that long ago in most memories when emails infrequently appeared on Business Cards. I myself sent my first email in 1996, entering late into the cyberspace race.

The thing most people don’t realise is that for over twenty years, from the early seventy’s until the early nineties, the Internet lay untapped by the wider market. In saying this Queen Elizabeth sent her first email in 1976, twenty years before I managed to do the same. The problem was, and in some instances still is, the availability and cost of the Material.

According to Statistics New Zealand Website, at the last census – 47% of New Zealand households have access to a Computer and 36% have Internet access from their computer. The CIA website estimates that with email and web access there are over 1.5 million regular (at least once weekly) users of the Internet in NZ.

Young people leading the way?

The Internet and the World Wide Web (www) only became a viable reality for individual users when a young man named Marc Andreesen and his team began to develop MOSAIC. Mosaic was the first web Browser and the precursor to Netscape and other “browsers”. Because of this, and subsequent developments, Internet use jumped by a staggering 341,634% in one year – 1993. The remarkable thing is that Marc was 22 when he pioneered this technology.

While young people have usually been the first to jump at and grab hold of computer related developments the potential for this as a ministry tool has been under-utilised by youth ministry. For those of us in Youth Ministry, Internet awareness is of the highest importance�because it’s the young people who we work with who are making it so popular. The web is a way of life for the great majority of us and doubly so if aged in the under 24-age bracket.

“People 24 and older use the Internet as a tool…but people under 24 use it as a way of life.”

Youth Worker Magazine

The Internet in combination with text messaging is becoming more and more the way young people communicate. They spend a day at school with their mates and then rush home to check emails and chat via the chat room and instant messaging formats to their friends from school, friends from across town and the country, and probably most intriguingly, across the world. If you want to stay on their wavelength, you’ll need to keep up with the language.

Internet as ministry to, with, by and for young people

How should churches use the skills of their internet-savvy young people? Many parishes, dioceses, national church umbrella groups and Youth Ministry organisations have web sites and/or youth sections as a part of the site. If young people are the target audience then at the very least consultation is an essential component of the exercise. Young people, or rather, some young people, have the skills and energy for creating and designing effective tools to hit the market we are aiming at.

Current church youth web pages tend to be information portals. On one level this is seen as effective information sharing but often leads to pages which are months behind and out of date very quickly. Regular maintenance becomes a chore and seems to be energy sapping rather than the ministry boom we first thought it might be. Simple information pages are, in my opinion, the least effective use of the Internet revolution. In saying that I guess it’s all I have ever created…!!!

Our choice of site type or genre is where we need to get marketing and web savvy. Our sites need to offer more than information on events. We need interactive sites that allow young people to have a voice within their visit online. (For an awesome example of a spiritual site doing this check out

Initially there was hope that the Internet would help youth culture find its own mentality by taking power away from corporate advertising, and giving the culture the chance to develop its own branding. However, the opposite has happened.

Large companies have created user-friendly web sites, which appear to give power and choice to the young. They do this by offering them user-defined choices in site layout, design, theme, some choice in content themes. All the time promoting their ‘product’, and forcing change in youth culture by directing us to the companies’ interests as well as adding another email address to their database (check out – a website for diet-coke New Zealand). The handing over of your email address is the price you pay for the privilege of defining their site for them and giving the company valuable information. For some sites this user-definition means something as simple as user defined colours! It seems that the simplest thing makes the Web “youth-friendly”.

All of this may actually be a good challenge to our faith communities; that young people deeply appreciate the small insignificant things in making any space their “sacred space”.

The Internet may seem to be a peer-to-peer individualistic world that alienates young people from the wisdom and life experience of the older generations. However, if we can create a “brand loyalty” from young people, stats have shown that they keep coming back and back. The development of email registration allows groups to email literally thousands of people automatically when a page or new development is added to a site. This means we have connection if we can continue to keep up with changes in the culture.

The Internet has helped youth culture become much more dynamic and individual choice centred. Young people know what they like in any given area, and the result is that in any group of ten young people there are probably ten different opinions!!! To say there is one clear discernable youth culture is just not true today, if indeed it ever was. This is again doubly true if talking about Internet use and choice.

A particular challenge for Christian Youth Ministry is to explore how the Internet exposes individuals to wider, and sometimes unfounded and unorthodox theological discussion. This may challenge, but sometimes actually assists mainstream churches in their task of preparing young people to be critical thinkers. The world is a big place and the Internet can broaden narrow minds. The danger is of course that the opposite is also true.

The Internet as connection

Christian young people are looking for authentic ways of following Christ; people who are “unchurched” are exploring spirituality on a level that is foreign to institutional surroundings of a church building. Internet information sharing mediums – chat, messaging and emails have certain advantages over face-to-face communication in the process of spiritual dialogue. Spiritual topics that have been “taboo” are talked about in lively and open ways by users of differing views and mindsets that are hard if not impossible to recreate in a group setting at a particular time and place. However, there is a deep-seated need for a personal face-to-face spirituality that the Internet cannot achieve.

So Internet use - because the human touch can never be fully present�is actually increasing people’s need to be in community with others of a like mind. A case in point is the increase in the number of cafes in New Zealand, mostly frequented by the same age group that is dominating the Internet. In this age and in our place relational Youth Ministry is needed. Young people are looking for authentic relationships�with each other, with adults, and with God. The limiting factor is that so often we are stuck in our old ministry models.

Impacts on youth ministry:

� Young people are active later in the evening and at night and that makes the traditional youth group model harder to organise; especially with school, sport and work pressures and the dreaded student loan approaching. However, with the Internet, youth group could be a leader led Chat Room discussion at predetermined site and time, be it 11pm or 7am (probably 11pm knowing the young people I work with!!!).

� The Internet also may be creating new divisions between techno haves and have-nots, both within the youth we serve and with the ministries that we operate in. Those with the latest gadgetry have it all over those who don’t. As always with any problem, this leads to another source of outreach for Youth Ministry – sharing of technology resources. This could be a great way for your tech-savvy young people to share not only their gifts but also their social justice mindset with those who may be disadvantaged in this area.

� I credit the Internet with many people staying in Youth Ministry longer because they can be “up-to-date” via the medium of web sites. The Internet is a wealth of information on the trends in youth culture, dress, information and trends. Another bonus is having that initial connection and follow-up with young people made considerably easier, if not less relational, through email instantly and in bulk, saving hours of tedious phone calls.

� Many Youth Ministers meet regularly in regional groups for networking, prayer, resources sharing and professional development; however, in rural areas of New Zealand, youth workers find less peer support because there are not the numbers in the ministry. With the Internet, youth workers, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so, are networking with people they may have never met. Resource and information sharing can happen quickly and effectively via the Internet. I am on a number of mailing lists from Youth Ministers in the States who, up to weekly, post their latest resources on the web or through email.

A Path to travel

Ministry to with, by and for young people via the Internet is a path we must tread, and tread well�but the Internet alone as a ministry tool is not enough. The most effective ministry is a mix of all sorts of interrelated connection points with young people. We must combine use the Internet with strong interpersonal, relational communication.

I believe it was Fuzz Kitto who shared his three guiding principles for youth ministry – relationship, relationship, and relationship. May the Internet be a building block of our ministries and an essential tool in building relationship with and amongst the young people we all serve.

Dave Mullin is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Palmerston North Catholic Diocese, covering Hawke’s Bay, Tararua, Manawatu, Whanganui and Taranaki.