How to Reach Digital Natives With the Gospel

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Here’s how to keep today’s digital natives from “powering down” the minute they walk into your room.

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Recently I casually observed a mixed-age ministry program in a small church I visited, and something caught my eye. I noticed something about the kids that I don’t think I’d ever really seen before–though I’m sure I’d witnessed the same thing previously.

Five-year-old Kira followed her teacher around the room, toting a DVD and endlessly imploring the teacher to get the remote so she could watch her favorite Christian video. Eleven-year-old Maria fiddled with her iPhone, playing games, texting friends, and running new apps she’d downloaded, while 8-year-old Jordan played with his dad’s new Flip phone, making goofy videos of the kids and then replaying them for laughs. Two other kids sat huddled together at the room’s lone computer playing a Christian video game and lamenting the lack of an Internet connection so they could play with others online.

So what struck me about this small group of kids? It wasn’t the abundance of media and tech gadgets in a humble ministry. What I really saw for the first time was how all the kids–from the youngest to the preteen–were naturally integrating all the technology at hand into their casual experiences that evening.

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We used to say that today’s kids were “wired.” While this is still true, we need to add “wireless” and “unplugged” to the mix. Kids are connected to technology everywhere they are–whether it’s at a home computer or walking down the street texting. Today’s kids are uniquely adept at and equipped for our technological global existence–much more so than many of us adults leading them.

A conundrum has been developing in public education that’s left a majority of professional educators truly at a loss: They watch as students, who outside of class quickly master every technological advance unveiled, walk into their classrooms and glaze over, check out, or “power down” because the lecture-based style is so outdated and undeveloped that it’s rendering the classroom experience irrelevant.

The common refrain of students who’ve been interviewed about the topic is essentially, “I’m bored stiff when I go to class.” Many say they feel they must turn off their brains when they walk into classes because their teachers don’t understand how they learn best. Students today are rejecting the lecture-based classroom. “My teachers just talk and talk and talk,” kids say. “It’s not Attention Deficit–I’m just not listening” one classic T-shirt reads.

So many educators, while loaded with expertise, knowledge, professionalism, and dedication to their calling, are frustrated when it comes to connecting with their students in real and meaningful ways because technology has in essence rewired their students’ brains. This digital divide is a generational issue that’s arisen essentially unforeseen out of the technological age we live in–and it holds implications for our children’s ministries.

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For those of us navigating the church halls every week seeking to equip our kids with a relational knowledge of God, it’s more important than ever to open our minds–and hearts–to the reality of kids’ unique wiring and capabilities. Even if we ourselves don’t navigate emerging technology with the casual dexterity our kids do, we can learn to become interlopers in their world. A mere willingness and openness to learn, to try, to adapt will help us avoid the “power down” effect with the kids we minister to. Here’s what you need to know.

Meet the Natives

Educational researchers and learning experts such as Marc Prensky (Teaching Digital Natives), Don Tapscott (Grown Up Digital), and Josh Spear (Undercurrent.com) have addressed the issue of a digital divide in education, opening compelling and fascinating conversation among educators at all levels.

Prensky coined the term “digital natives” in a 2001 article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” Prensky’s digital natives are “a new breed of student entering educational establishments”–in other words, today’s children. They’re children to whom a digital world is indigenous and completely natural. They were born into an existence where technology evolves at an ever-increasing rate. They interface with one another and with their world through digital means.

Conversely, Prensky defines “digital immigrants” as those who weren’t necessarily born into a digital existence but who must adapt and assimilate to function in such a world. A digital immigrant is someone who isn’t digital by nature; for instance, one who steadfastly prints hard copies of emails or calls to ensure an email has been received.

Other experts agree with Prensky. Tapscott outlines eight characteristics of today’s youth in what he calls the Net Generation Norms. Here’s a summary of Tapscott’s Norms–as applied to children.

They expect freedom in everything they do. “Choice is like oxygen to them,” notes Tim Windsor, author of the blog Zero Percent Idle. “While older generations feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of sales channels, product types, and brands, [digital natives]take it for granted. [Digital natives] leverage technology to cut through the clutter to find the marketing message that fits their need.”

They enjoy customizing and personalizing. Kids can change the media world they live in–customizing everything from their ring tones to online content they’re creating.

They scrutinize by nature. Kids expect a plethora of online information, and as they age their online forays will only expand. They’re by nature intense scrutinizers of whatever they see online, continually assessing, reviewing, and ultimately expecting more from any provider of online content, resources, or products.

They seek integrity and openness. As they efficiently navigate and scrutinize organizations and products, kids are also using technology to discern whether the values they find match theirs–whether consciously or subconsciously. With ready access to candid reviews by the opinionated masses, there’s little that organizations can effectively hide from consumers about their products, services, and integrity.

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They want entertainment in their education and social experiences. Windsor states that 82 percent of children ages 2 to 17 have regular access to video games, with industry sales exploding from $8.4 billion in 2005 to a projected $46.5 billion in 2010. Play is part of life for kids–whether it’s for education or fun.

They desire and expect collaboration and relationship. Kids everywhere are in constant collaboration–through social media, multiuser video games, file sharing, texting, and more. They seek out others’ influence, advice, and experiences–almost on a minute-to-minute basis.

They expect and “need” speed. Perhaps one of the greatest distinguishers of digital natives is their need, or demand, for instant information and rapid communication. Slow won’t cut it; they know by experience that instantaneity is possible and they expect nothing less.

They actively pursue innovation. Kids will replace a tech toy such as a phone before it’s worn out–they want new gadgets because they have new features. They’re in constant pursuit of innovation because it’s entertaining, helps them collaborate, and lets them learn in new ways.

Studying these characteristics can help inform how you approach the kids in your ministry to more effectively connect with them.

 

Bridge the Digital Native Divide

Notably, a constant message from experts–those who subscribe to the notion of digital natives and those who don’t–is that today’s kids are wired to learn differently than the adults before them. They urge that adults who work with kids must embrace this as fact and be willing to learn from those they seek to teach.

Use these pointers to create an environment where kids won’t “power down” when they walk in your door–even if you don’t have access to the latest or greatest technology.

Allow kids to teach you. Admitting that you’re not savvy on the latest technology will only encourage kids to show you the ropes, demo their cool tech toys, and discover ways to bring new technology and the Word of God together. You may have rules about phone use during your time together (and you should, as long as the rules are mutually agreed upon), but it behooves you to find ways to allow kids to use their tech tools during class in a way that benefits everyone.

Let kids learn by doing. “The most technology can offer to a lecturer is pictures and video, which is no improvement at all,” laments Prensky. Instead, he advocates letting kids learn on their own. This requires releasing control and becoming a guide, not an expert. Ask questions, pose challenges, give case studies. Then release kids to collaborate to solve the challenges.

Nurture learning 24/7. Offer kids a challenge that lets them explore and leverage tools and time you may not have in class. If you challenge kids to find as many phone apps related to Moses as they can in one week or to text one person with a faith-related encouragement every day for a month, you let them explore faith in a way that’s natural and interesting to them.

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Change — often. Kids’ brains are hard-wired for quick change, thanks to technology. So don’t expect them to attend to one thing for longer than a few minutes. Dale Hudson, co-author of Turbocharged: 100 Simple Secrets to Successful Children’s Ministry, advises to “design your format in segments that last one to five minutes. By creating short segments, you’re creating multiple starting and stopping points throughout the time. Every few minutes you’re resetting kids’ internal attention-span countdown.”

Develop a collaborative environment. Your kids likely crave connection with each other. So get kids working in groups or pairs as they learn from God’s Word. Find social media sources such as Club Penguin or MyGrapple.com where kids can form a closed group to chat and interface online. Post messages on your church website for kids, or allow them to create content for your children’s ministry page.

Interlope. You may not have a computer in your room. You may not own an iPhone. You may not know how to text. That’s okay. You don’t have to be the expert on everything–there’s no such job requirement. All you need is willingness to learn–or at least a willingness to peacefully coexist with technology. If you feel so inclined, spend some time discovering available technology. Check out a Flip phone. Set up a Facebook account. Investigate upcoming technology. Inform yourself about the world in which kids live.

Engage all your kids. Regardless of the tech-expertise and availability represented in your room, there’s one common denominator to keep in mind: All kids want and need to be engaged. That’s aside from technology, aside from your know-how. Kids’ brains are hungry for active engagement-that’s how they learn best. So go all out to hook kids and keep them on the line–in your curriculum choices, teaching style, experiences, and mission. Hone your focus so you’re learning and exploring together.

There’s no doubt: Kids today are mastering technology at the speed of innovation. They’re poised to learn a layer of programming literacy that was unimaginable a few decades ago. As their leader, their teacher, go with them–fearlessly venture into this wondrous, rapidly expanding landscape with your kids. Don’t be afraid to let them lead the way— celebrate when they “power up” as they walk in your door. cm

 

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About Author

Jennifer Hooks

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children's Ministry Magazine and a contributing author to Sunday School That Works (Group).

1 Comment

  1. I think church can and should be a place for kids to disconnect and slow down. When our youth have a service week, it is a “phones off” time so they can concentrate on the job they are doing and get to know the people they are serving. It is hard to build a relationship if you are constantly distracted by checking your phone. The same is true of a relationship with God. Kids realize the value of this for themselves. I led 5th graders through a guided meditation and when we were down they said, “Can we do this again next week?”

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