Reviewed by Graham Stanton
Andrew Zirschky. Beyond the Screen : Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2015.
In Beyond the Screen Andrew Zirschky, Academic Director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training in Nashville, USA, offers an illuminating analysis of the way teenagers use social media. Zirschky moves beyond reactionary alarm to explore what teenagers are actually searching for, the ways that the ubiquitous use of social media are transforming the way young people understand and experience community, and how Christian practices of koinonia offer a productive way forward.
Churches have tended to respond to social media in one of two ways: regarding technology as the solution to teenagers, or seeing technology as the obstacle toengaging teenagers. Both are false trails based on an underlying myth. Some churches fall for the “moth myth”, that “teenagers like moths, are attracted to things that plug in and light up”. While others believe the “basket myth”: that if we provide a basket for teenagers to deposit their mobile devices in before youth group then they will be more engaged. Neither approach is sufficient because neither considers the way social media has fundamentally changed the way we experience relationships in a networked world.
Central to Zirschky’s analysis is identifying “networked individualism” as the dominant social configuration of teenage culture. Before the industrial revolution, people lived in local communities where relationships were established by living next door to one another. With the industrial revolution, people now live in one location, work in another location, go to church in yet another location, and join in a sporting club in another location. People don’t necessarily form relationships with the people they live alongside. Instead we form communities in various spaces where we congregate with others. In contrast to “local” communities, in these “convened” communities people join communities by attending a particular space. All this has changed in a networked world. Communities are no longer created by virtue of living alongside one another, nor by attending the same venues together. Instead, “community… must be created, convened, and maintained by each individual in the form of a network”. Relationships that were once “door-to-door”, which later became “place-to-place”, have now become “person-to-person”. This is the culture of networked individualism.
Networked individualism has great benefits. When friends move to another city or go to a different school young people can still be connected with their personal network. Gone are the days of having to be bored at the picnic you have to go to with your parents’ friends. With your mobile phone you can take your friends with you. However, along with certain benefits, networked individualism places significant demands on young people: the demand to establish a personal network, the demand to keep your network engaged, the demand to grow your network large, and the demand to be socially selective about who remains in the network. Zirschky points out how each of these demands contributes to relationship that are “anxious, weak, and instrumental”.
In order to combat networked individualism Zirschky looks to the Christian notion of koinonia, particularly drawing on Paul’s imperative to the Corinthian church to “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29). Zirschky outlines four challenges to the church: to foster relationships of presence, a community of social equality, a community of diverse unity, and a community that expresses creative love for the abandoned.
Rather than leaving the discussion as abstract principles, Zirschky suggests various practices that point toward and enable the church to participate in “the very transformation we hope the Holy Spirit to enact in us”. In contrast to both the moth myth and the basket myth, Zirschky argues that “the more pressing matter may not be figuring out how to get youth to put down their devices, but instead figuring out how to get them to use their devices in ways that are consistent with a Christian ethic of koinonia in which they ‘discern the body of Christ’”.
This book is valuable in two ways. First, it is an excellent example of practical theological enquiry. Zirschky begins and ends in practice, without bypassing rigorous analysis and careful biblical theological reflection along the way. Second, and largely as a result of the first, this book provides a clear and thick understanding of the teenage experience of using social media, as well as a robust Christian response that is both theologically deep and practically achievable.