Meeting teens where they are -- in the Virtual World
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” (Acts 17:1-3)
In the 1st century A.D., the Apostle Paul set the bar for taking the message of Jesus to the people wherever he expected to find them, whether in a Thessalonian synagogue or the riverside in Philippi.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and those meeting places are likely to be in cyberspace, especially for teenagers and young adults.
Steve Wilke, executive director of the Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College in Kansas, believes that many modern-day disciples live a large part of their lives in the virtual word. For the past five years, he’s been fine-tuning the institute’s BeADisciple.com, a Web-based classroom that offers educational opportunities to nurture and enrich Christian leaders, lay and clergy, for effective living and ministry.
This month, the institute debuted “Youth Disciple,” an interactive, 32-week study designed for 10th-graders and up that offers prayer, scripture and conversations geared toward practical applications of faith. The cost is $35 per youth.
“We launched ‘Youth Disciple Online’ in partnership with The United Methodist Publishing House,” Wilke said. “I believe we need to bring the educational activities of the church to folks in the ways they are accustomed to, and that means over the Internet.
“Most everything in a young person’s world has some supporting presence on the Internet. I believe church life will need to follow that trend. I am glad Disciple is trail-blazing in this effort.”
The response to the new line of courses has been enthusiastic. Leaders say they are attracted to the flexibility of a learning model designed to meet with young people in the virtual world where they spend so much of their time.
“I would be very interested in this material,” said Bryan Amerling, director of youth ministries at Lakewood UMC in Jacksonville.
“I've been impressed with the results I've seen from the Disciple Bible studies that have gone on in our church over the years. To have one available to and oriented toward youth is great. I love that it is flexible in its timing and layout and that there is an option to create a one-on-one environment for discussion.”
At The UMC’s General Board of Discipleship, Sandy Miller, editor of the teen magazine devozine, said her work has taught her how serious young people are about understanding scripture and knowing God.
“Young people are used to being online and to participating in various forms of online community,” she said.
“Having safe and sacred space online to explore the Bible with their peers and a trained facilitator is a good thing.”
Marj Pon, editor of church school publications at The United Methodist Publishing House, said the online materials offer convenience as well as appeal.
“With such busy schedules, many youth are unable to be available in person for regularly scheduled weekly meetings,” Pon said.
“And some youth may live in areas where there are few other youth with whom to study, so this provides an opportunity for those teens to participate as well.”
Online Bible courses for all ages have been growing in popularity. BeADisciple offers Bible classes, book studies, men’s groups, Advent and Lenten workshops, leadership training, and specific General Board of Discipleship curriculum.
Lisa Buffman, Institute for Discipleship assistant director, said more than 4,000 people have registered to receive the BeADisciple newsletter. In the first six months of this year, more than 600 Christian leaders participated in 48 course offerings, she said.
Steve Wilke, who was recognized for his work when The United Methodist Reporter named him one of its 2010 United Methodists of the Year, is convinced that today’s digital generation will respond to the flexibility offered by the virtual learning environment.
“Clearly the youth of today are not locked into time and place as generations before have been,” Wilke said. “Digital means access to community and content at one’s fingertips. It also means that persons of like interests can connect wherever they live.
“I believe we need to bring the educational activities of the church to folks in the ways they are accustomed to, and that means over the Internet.”
Wilke’s primary goal is to make effective disciples.
“I am very excited about the opportunity to use communication and educational tools common to youth today, for them to grow in their faith, develop a love for the scriptures, and experience the power of a committed small group.”