Two events in the early 1980s changed our preferences for how we take in information, though no one fully knew how profound the changes were at the time. MTV launched in 1981, playing music videos that featured quick edits and short vignettes. No scene lasted on the screen longer than a few seconds. USA Today debuted a year later, presenting printed news in bright colors, shortened articles, catchier headlines, and many photographs. The paper’s purpose was to make the news easier to read in less time, with a contemporary feel, and to do so with national distribution. Today, the USA Today boasts the widest circulation of any newspaper and its editorial style has changed how we read and write.
It’s difficult to see the importance of those two changes that not lie in the shadow of a greater revolution, the smartphone, that debut around 1995. Social media’s speed and accessibility has accelerated the demand for fast and attractive information – especially information that we don’t need to do our work and be in relationship with others, but we feel like we need to know. Our attention is going many directions every five minutes and nowhere is that more obvious than among teenagers. Sustained thought and focus is not cultivated or needed and high schools have “taught to the test” more and more so they can maintain state funding. Google has overrun the need for memorization and online status updates, blog posts, and YouTube videos designed for quick digestion keep increasing the speed for how we interact with information.
Whether these changes are helpful or problematic depends on who you’re asking. Either way, distraction and multi-tasking seem to be our way of life. It’s how things are and it’s impacting our work as youth workers. Most of us watch movies or television at home while doing other work. Our smartphones are constantly within reach 24/7, welcoming intrusion. We are more comfortable with others checking their phones or sending a quick text to someone than we were even just a few years ago. We are driven to distraction and we’re the ones driving there.
We’ve begun to accept distraction as normal, but it’s not usually helpful for what we’re trying to do in youth ministry. Students and youth workers alike joke that our “ADD is kicking in” and we’re proud of our multi-tasking skills. But that posture isn’t beneficial for our relationships, for excellence in youth ministry with others, and certainly for our relationship with God. We are driven to distraction, always “on,” connected and available, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to turn it off. Even for a few hours.
The notable missionary Jim Elliot once said,
“Wherever you are, be all there.”
I’ve reminded myself of that hundreds of times through the years to make sure I’m fully present in what I’m doing. Some of us have minds that “live in the future,” and that’s my tendency too. This past summer, I’ve worked to reign that in and be fully present and attentive to the present.
Rick Lawrence, author and editor of GROUP magazine, commented in his excellent book, Shrewd, that few of us really pay attention any more. If we want to be effective in ministry with others, we need to learn, maybe re-learn, attentiveness.
It’s something I’ve been working on this year and here are four things that have helped me:
Start the day in prayer with specific focus on the 6-foot circle that surrounds me.
I then leave trusting that the people and problems that present themselves to me are there for a reason. It’s surprising how often we are in situations or working on areas of our job that we wish we weren’t. The first step is trusting that these are there for a divine purpose.
Throughout each day I pay attention to my attention.
With people, I make sure my body (posture and eye contact) reflects my responsiveness. I started paying attention to how often I check my phone – it’s more often than we think – and I’m leaving it behind more often now when I am with others. I really don’t need to be as accessible or connected as I think I do, especially when the people I’m with want me to be connected with them.
When people are done talking, I ask a responsive follow-up question rather than add my thoughts.
I want to give the other person a full chance to communicated as deeply as they really want to share, and I want to be sure that I’ve heard them correctly. It’s simple, but so important.
I’m go where students are.
This simple practice connects with youth ministry’s missional roots of “going” to teenagers. I think we in youth ministry should regularly be at school events, coordinating relationship-building activities will smaller groups of students, and regularly meeting one-on-one with teens. If we’re serious about the shepherding role we in youth ministry are to have in the lives of teens, then that should be reflected in our weekly schedule.
With the rise of technology, it’s easy to let its patterns trickle into our ministries, schedule, and relationships. There are no “byte-sized” approaches that work in any of those three areas. Parenting has proven that for centuries. We can easily become too mechanical in how we live, resting on “bottom line” production values (numbers) for measuring ministry effectiveness. It seems like the biblical qualities of a Spirit-led community (Acts 2:42-47) and ministry (I Thess. 1:5-6) are more worthy of our pursuit. Effective youth ministry requires your presence, first to the Holy Spirit, then to others.
Pay attention this week… to your attention. What or who is God bringing into our sphere of influence? What might he want us to do in those moments if we just slow down a bit… and pay attention? Remember…
wherever you are, be all there.
Header image (adaptation) provided through Creative Commons by Kenny Chang. (CC-BY-NC-SA)