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Making teens feel at home — at church

By Ken Stewart

Teenagers are highly social. Here’s how your church can draw them together in a truly engaging virtual space.

When you think “youth space,” it’s natural to conjure up images of the physical place where the church youth group gathers — a building, classroom or gymnasium on the campus. And the physical space is important; there’s no real substitute for face-to-face connection. A space that draws teens in and helps them feel at home is essential for nurturing their relationships.

But, the majority of teens also inhabit cyberspace. Their online world is just as important to them as their physical world. So, how can your church provide an online space that’s just as engaging as the youth building at the church?

Give them their own brand. It’s easier than ever for a church to create a web space that appeals to their tweens and teens, incorporating video and audio that engages them and invites them to connect.

Don’t just re-post the sermon series; post YouTube segments that you’ve used in your weekly gatherings. Post music videos from bands that have a positive message, in a genre that relates to your environment. Use a variety of tools — content management systems (CMS) webpages by Elexio [elexio.com], for instance — that allow you to create a unique look and feel that’s your own through separate themes, colors, navigation, calendar and media options.

Mirror the physical space. Nothing kills the chances of a teen returning to a youth group like seeing a website that shows state-of-the-art equipment, staging and stock imagery, only to find out that the room is a closet in a circa-1920 traditional church building. If your web pages have a certain look and feel, ensure they’re mirrored in your physical environment. Bring the room’s colors, equipment and environment to the online space.

Nurture communication — texting, blogging, and even giving. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 93  percent of teens are online; 78 percent have cell phones; and 47 percent own smartphones.

Most teens (12-17) will interact far more often online than they will face-to-face in their church’s youth building. And, they’re talking mostly to each other.

In a 2012 Pew Research Center study, 63 percent of teens said they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives — some of them sending more than 100 texts a day. That makes texting a primary way for church youth leaders to stay connected with their teens.

What better time to reinforce good stewardship than when a teen gets his or her first job? What more relevant mechanism than mobile giving?

Establish a fund that speaks to the hearts of your teens. Today’s youth will give to causes that are meaningful to them, where they can see direct impact of contributions. Talk about this often, model it in your staff, and celebrate the successes and impact that God has made through their contributions.

Young people have their own language, interests and struggles. Embrace this in a stand-alone blog or media gallery that allows them to express what’s important to them. Encourage them to contribute blog posts, photographs, videos and other forms of expression that allow them to tell their story online, in the context of their peers and caring adult leaders.

Remember: Today’s youth will be engaged in social channels. Why not make your church website an outlet that encourages healthy engagement, cultivates creative expression, and becomes a catalyst for disciple-making. CE

Ken Stewart has spent 31 years in pastoral ministry in Dallas and in his home state of Pennsylvania. He trained for the ministry at Lancaster Bible College & Graduate School, Dallas Theological Seminary, and in life. Stewart works as a freelance writer and editor and plays guitar on the worship team at his church.

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