"Thank you, Chris. Your story has certainly resonated with anyone who loves those in the iGeneration and works to help them develop real relationships with mentors and with Jesus. Your article points the way in a humorous, hopeful, and helpful way. Well done. Really well done." - Marshall Shelley, Christianity Today
Hear the heart of Chris Maxwell, campus pastor and director of spiritual life at Emmanuel College, in this article oringinally posted in the Summer 2013 issue of Leadership Journal from Christianity Today.
Dismissing my spiritual formation class, I walked to the window and gazed across the campus. I noticed five students sitting together—three on a bench and two on the quad's grass. But they weren't talking to each other. They made eye contact only with their phones. They were so close, yet so far apart.
So I decided to enter their world. I texted one of them, "I can see you." Then another, "I am watching."
From my perch on the third floor, I watched them. They began laughing and looking around—and telling the others about the texts. They had a common goal: to find me. When they did, I waved and came downstairs to join them. They put aside their devices, and we enjoyed a time of conversation and laughter together.
In making disciples, it isn't enough to glance from the window and notice. We must teach relationships. We must design groups for growth and apprenticeship. We mentor and coach. But how can we meet this multi-tasking audience right where they are, while also guiding them toward deeper interaction with Christ and each other?
We welcome modern technology but we dare not end our connections there. Is there a way to reach Millennials through digital media while guiding them gently toward stronger relational ties?
A Spiritual Father
Digital natives still desire mentoring. My friend Josh knows the pain of seeking a father. His earthly father was enslaved by addiction and eventually left his family, but Josh still looks for an example, a servant leader, a mentor. Josh says, "The absence of a father is like a handicap; it leaves members of my generation broken. We're constantly in search of that love and acceptance we didn't get from our fathers. Many have looked for it in things like sex. We build relationships out of lust instead of love. Spiritual fathers are crucial. They teach us how to love, how to live in community, how to be in a family. Those things are almost impossible to learn alone. Some never get it, so they turn into absent fathers like they had."
Josh and I began our conversations through email and text. We engaged in brief conversations in group settings. But we needed to move from a third floor window view to level ground, to dialogue, to togetherness. Josh says, "Chris and I began talking at a campus restaurant. Soon I opened up and told him about my struggles. From there, we continued meeting for food and conversation. Trust was built over time; I saw that he was genuine. Now he continues speaking over my life. His influence has taken root and helped changed me from the inside."
A New Status
Though face-to-face interaction is best, I still use modern means of communication. By engaging social media, I can connect with a 20-something that may tweet if he's depressed or just facing overwhelming challenges. When we read words of sadness or deep hurt, we might be tempted to simply dismiss them as just another Facebook friend working through their problems. Paradoxically, in our high-tech world, we are better able to broadcast our feelings, yet there's also a tendency to ignore these hard realities.
After reading one such post, I didn't respond on Twitter or Facebook. Neither did I call; I've found phone calls don't have the same effect on today's young people. I needed to initiate the conversation correctly. So I sent a simple text, asking if I could pick him up and drive him to church. His response? "I'll be ready in 10."
Once in the car, driving through the north Georgia cool breeze on a cloudy Sunday morning, I asked him questions. I needed to meet him where he was and slowly move him toward growth and development. "Hey, I saw your tweet about wishing you were back home in New York," I said. "But I know the hurts you carry from your years there. Tell me what's going on."
'Note to self: Never friend request your professor on Facebook while sitting in his class!'
"I don't know, PC [Pastor Chris]. I just don't know," my young friend answered. His uncertainty revealed something that was certain: he needed someone with him.
After a little silence, I quoted one of his tweets. More silence. Then he spoke—not with words, but with tears slowly falling from his eyes. This is a language spoken by every generation—to release, to let go, to refuse to hold on any longer. I wanted to talk, to at least say something. But I didn't. He began adding words about feeling like a failure, about fearing the future, about wishing things were different.
Then he said something that surprised me: "I just need to get to church and worship." I asked, "What has helped you through your pain?" He answered with the title of a popular praise chorus. I asked him to confess three lines from that song over and over as we continued driving. His words, aloud, came from deep within. Like a confession. Like a healing. Like a Psalm from David in a cave.
We parked to enter church. Or, maybe we'd just had church. We left the car to walk into the auditorium, but now my friend had a new status: healing.
Perils of Friending a Prof
Blake Rackley, a professor and psychologist, is one of those tech-savvy professors who uses his iPhone and Mac in class. Students often "friend" Blake on Facebook to connect outside the classroom. He says, "It's a touch point, a way to make the first contact. It is a path, not a destination. Social media has become a modern version of shaking someone's hand and saying your name."
Instead of being bothered by the potential distraction, Blake can laugh as he connects to the tech-addicts:
"I use my iPhone in class as a remote to change the slides on my PowerPoint and Keynote. As I was lecturing on a rather boring topic one day, my phone vibrated in my hand. I looked down at what just popped up on my screen. 'Caleb N. has requested to be your friend on Facebook.' I looked up from my phone to the back of the room where—yes—Caleb N. was sitting with this laptop open, fully engrossed in what was on his laptop's screen.
"I looked back to my phone. Do I correct him for not paying attention, or do I take this opportunity to connect with this student? I looked up from my phone and said, 'Thanks for the friend request, Caleb!'
"He turned red. His Facebook status later read, 'Note to self: Never friend request your professor on Facebook while sitting in his class!'
"I made a connection. I digitally shook his hand and introduced myself that day. It is the first step to meeting this generation, letting them know about you and your relationship with Jesus."
Blake reminds ministers that the first connection isn't the final goal: "Social media is a great starting point. It's about getting their attention. It is width not depth. A friend request, a text, a tweet are ways to reach wide to draw them in, but the goal is not to end there. We reach wide so with some we can go deep.
"Students sometimes are hesitant to get to know me beyond the classroom. But I've bridged some of these gaps by using social media as a stage for my hobby, photography. Students know that I take my camera nearly everywhere. I like to catch real emotions, laughter, and surprise. Once I have their picture, I post it online (with their permission of course) and make the next step. There is something innately connective when another person takes the time to take your picture.
"Once I've become a student's Facebook friend, I take the time to ask about their status updates. I see how they are doing. I stop them in the hall and say, 'Hey, I saw your status this morning. I'm praying for you.' Or, 'Your status made me laugh!' Or, 'I love the picture you posted.' From this, I've been able to forge deeper relationships with these students. They come to my office, seeking direction, advice, a listening ear, a place to vent. It allows me to minister to them in a way that I would not be able to if I didn't have social media.
"Their world is a lot more open than that of previous generations. They allow their thoughts and feelings to roam free through cyberspace. When someone takes the time to notice them, ask about those thoughts and feeling, it opens the door to their hearts."
"Students spend countless hours in my office talking about life, love, and their relationship with God. Social media is their way of shouting to the world, 'Hear me! Notice me! I am someone! I have a voice!' Social media has helped me form relationships with students that have lasted for years. Commenting on a post, a picture, or a video shows you care about what they are doing. It draws them to you.
"Social media gives you an opportunity to step into their world, form a relationship, and change their life. Interesting—that's exactly what Jesus did."
From Flaky Kid to Maturing Man
Recently, I met with Jonathan Lampley, a college senior. I wanted to review his years of college life and personal development. Noticing Jonathan staring again at my bookshelves, I said, "Four years ago you sat in this office and asked why I had so many books. Now you're asking for book recommendations."
Jonathan, typing a few book titles into his phone, said, "Yeah, I hated the books then. I couldn't understand why you read so much. Now I can't read enough."
We had sat in this office for personal guidance and pre-marital counseling. We had been together in the classroom for spiritual formation, the convention center for convocation and chapel, and the small room next door for an accountability group. I asked, "How have you grown in your spiritual adventure?"
Jonathan couldn't stop talking about his changes, calling it an "evolution of boys to kings." He said, "Mentoring is the missing link in the chain of evolution that takes childish, mudslinging, tree climbing boys and transforms them into husbands, fathers, and world-changers. Young men spend greater time and effort playing video games and making YouTube videos than building successful careers and families."
I wanted to interrupt and ask for more details, but Jonathan didn't slow down. He raised his voice and continued, "There is a remedy to this atrocity: mature men standing up and taking intentional steps to train the next generation. I am a product of multiple men mentoring me in the ways of the Lord and manhood."
I asked for specifics. What had worked best for him?
"Through my time with you and other spiritual leaders," he said, "I've learned the ins and outs of being a man in everyday life, relationships, and ministry. Your class taught me spiritual disciplines through which I could better communicate with the Lord. Our counseling sessions challenged me to take bolder stances on purity and love. Your mentoring has taken me from a passive, flaky, selfish child to a maturing man who walks with the confidence that he will succeed—and make a difference."
We sat a moment in silence—a rare experience for us both. I thought about him playing music, riding his motorcycle, proposing to his sweetheart. I thought about those times we talked about emotions and questions and pain. I remembered honesty, confessions, and pursuit of redemptive love.
Finally, we prayed, we hugged, we smiled. I'm excited to watch his development continue.
From Third Floor to The Quad
Relationships like these don't happen automatically. LifeWay Research reveals that only 42 percent of churchgoers say they are intentionally helping others grow in their faith. We need intentional work.
I'm still learning from my glance out that third floor window. I seek to relate to students, to guide them gently, lovingly, honestly. Not to earn their applause or approval. But to meet them where they are and hear their stories, seeking to walk with them through their life journeys.
From the third floor to the quad, from tweeting to counseling, from global Facebook to friends and family by a fireplace, from a joke to a prayer, from a loud worship set with videos playing on a large screen to a calm pause in one-on-one conversation, today's leaders can accept the honor of this calling: gently guiding young people toward Christ-likeness.