by Sam Kilpatrick
Youth Live in the Digital Reality
The cyborgs in the corridors at MIT during the mid-’90s were an oddity. However, these bionic people, their accoutrements, and their desire for wireless tethering to the world have since been surpassed. Smartphones have normalized a tethered life and are now the gadget of choice, with over 3.8 billion people worldwide making regular use of such devices. This ever-growing connectivity and availability have brought about significant changes to our societies. In their book Networked Theology, Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner implore the church to take the time required to engage with technology use, meaning-making in digital spaces, and questions that arise from life within a networked society.
Not New, But Different
One implication of this networked society is a topic that is not new to the church. Although the question is asked explicitly in the New Testament, it is a sentiment shared throughout the scriptures; “Who is my neighbour?” and by implication, “Why should I care about others?” This question is at the heart of the gospel. In some detail, Campbell and Garner explore how a sound theology of neighbouring influences a person’s perception of humanity and social justice. They also acknowledge that technology and new forms of digital media raise various concerns for neighbouring well. Not least among these concerns is the valuing of digital relationships. Unlike previous generations, today’s young people maneuver in these digital spaces to find support, identity, belonging, and information, but they are also finding neighbours.
As someone who is forty, I, too, have friendships online. For the most part, however, these relationships have grown through offline connections. This growth of a friendship base through an offline interface is not the case for teenagers. I recently talked to a high school student who struggles to have friends at their school or church and yet regularly engages with a wide variety of friends across numerous online platforms. These friendships are important to this young person. They knew things about their online friends that someone would only know through the building of trust and care for each other. These online friends were neighbours to this young person. Unfortunately, this level of sharing could also be through intentional deception and misrepresentation on the part of these ‘neighbours’ – a more prevalent issue in digital spaces.
The ease of deceiving others raises a question about the value of human flourishing and justice in the digital world. Theologians Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun believe that a flourishing life is a pursuit of “the good toward which humans are meant to strive.” But does the online world allow for human flourishing? Much of the rhetoric regarding life in digital spaces is negative. There is an assumption that human flourishing and justice are incompatible with the world online.
This deficit view of digital life is why faith communities must work toward better integration of a young person’s online world with their offline reality. Youth leaders in these communities need to engage young people about their behaviour online and their experiences in these digital spaces to ensure a reasonable level of safety and transparency. This relational dynamic and accountability will also help young people more authentically engage in online activism that aligns with their own personhood and convictions.
Growing Activists for all Realities
If networked society significantly impacts neighbouring, it also affects the nature of young people’s engagement and interaction in protest and justice initiatives. A person now knows – in real-time – precisely what atrocities or catastrophes are occurring around the world. This level of access to information can be anxiety-inducing, particularly for young people. But knowledge can also bring power and a desire to see change. To better serve young people, the church must pay more attention to their desire for change. It is no longer tenable for the church to perceive this digital existence as ‘virtual’, as though the justice issues young people engage with online are not genuine or real.
Regarding online activism, a key area of concern is an issue known as slacktivism. Slacktivism is a term used to describe a person’s willingness to engage in low commitment, costless, token displays of support for a cause. There is also an assertion that online slacktivism is accompanied by a lack of desire to engage in offline, physical protest or activism. However, evidence shows that young people’s use of social media creates a high likelihood of physical, in-person civic engagement when combined with a genuine intent to take part in the cause. For this reason, churches need to show an interest in social justice initiatives and demonstrate an intention to participate in causes beyond clicking a like button.
When churches engage young people in local justice initiatives, they enable young people to comprehend the kind of actions required to bring about genuine change in any given situation. Churches should intentionally invite campaigners and social activists to interact with youth. By connecting young people with local issues, concerns, and people, churches enable youth to navigate the digital activist spaces they encounter each day.
It is also vital for churches to care about global issues. These issues are now often interfaced with online, and this is a space where young people can take the lead. Just imagine a church gathering around a justice initiative on the other side of the globe with young people at the forefront of the action, helping others in the congregation to engage with and care about issues that can – at times – feel very remote and irrelevant, but are still important in God’s kingdom.
By having young people ask questions about neighbouring, the value of human activity, and the place of activism and justice, churches can inspire a generation to want change and bring change in their online and offline realities.
 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2011).
 S. O’Dea, “Number of Smartphone Users Worldwide from 2016 to 2021,” n.d., accessed January 30, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/.
 Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 11, Kindle.
 Mindi D. Foster et al., “Can ‘Slacktivism’ Work? Perceived Power Differences Moderate the Relationship between Social Media Activism and Collective Action Intentions through Positive Affect,” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace 13, no. 4 (November 7, 2019), accessed December 12, 2020, https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/12614.