This is Part 4 of our series on “Digital Discipleship”.  We’re talking about the ways to empower students to safely and effectively reach their peers and classmates through online technologies. 

In our last post, we talked about Facebook and how teens (and leaders) can effectively utilize it to preach the Good News.  However, in the last 3 years, there’s been a surprising trend emerging: more and more teens are abandoning their Facebook accounts in favor of other means of communication.  So, as youth leaders, what does that mean for us? It means that we can’t just “pick a social network” and go for it – we have to be ever-present and follow the students to where they are.

We’ll be talking about a majority of these networks over the next few posts.  Other than the traditional “social networks” such as Twitter, we’ll be talking about “ephemeral networks” such as Snapchat, Bolt (brand new this week from Instagram), and others that destroy their messages after a certain amount of time. We’ll also discuss communication platforms that, while aren’t networks in and of themselves, allow students to create their own ad-hoc networks among friends.  Not sure what I mean? Skype and Google Hangouts come to mind here, so imagine more communication and less content.

What’s the Big Deal with Twitter?

My current twitter account, @studionashvegas, has been online since around December of 2007 – that’s nearly 7 years.  I’ve had other accounts previous, back during time times when Twitter was… well, no one really knew what it was at the time. Twitter was just this website that allowed people to tweet out 140 character snippets.

But look at where it’s come.  Now, millions of people are engaging each other, brands, their church leadership… anyone they can follow they connect with.  It’s changed the way that news is broken (remember the Hudson River plane landing?), customer service is rendered (say what you will about Comcast – their Twitter accounts are amazing), and has crept into our pop culture (#hashtag much?).  What started out as a club between networkers and social media gurus has invaded the mainstream.  And teens are jumping on it big time.

Using Twitter

If you’re not familiar with how Twitter works, here’s the quick version: Users create an account and are then asked to “follow” people online.  By following them, they can see what the other person tweets.  Similarly, they can send public messages directed to that user by using the @ symbol (@studionashvegas).  As far as connections go, there are fans (you follow, they don’t), followers (they follow, you don’t), and friends (both follow each other) – at least, those are the unofficial terms for them.  If someone is following you, you can send them a Direct Message – a private message only for a specific user.

A tweet is a status message shared on your timeline.  Retweets are exactly what they sound like: a way to copy a tweet – including the original poster – and send it to people on your network.  There are some Twitter accounts that are nothing but retweets – compiling users and curating the content to be shared.

Public conversations can be tracked with a hashtag, denoted by a # symbol.  People can use multiple hashtags in a tweet (although the practice of this is, in a phrase, highly annoying to some), and allows for ad-hoc silos of content to be created on virtually any subject.

Users can also curate “Twitter Lists” – groups of users that can be subscribed to en-masse.  A person can subscribe to a list without actually following anyone on the list themselves.

Students using Twitter

Teenagers love Twitter.  Teens that I rarely see post on Facebook post to Twitter at least daily (or even more). First off, Twitter is, in some cases, not blocked by school networks – not that being blocked will stop mobile use of the site.  It’s extremely easy for teens to shoot off a quick status update between classes since the character limit forces brevity.  Unfortunately, it also forces bad grammar and shortened sentences, which can lead to a habit of bad typing and writing.  Students create lists of their friends to keep up with them, and follow “novelty accounts” that are meant to be funny and/or content-only.

Using Twitter in Ministry

There are quite a few ways that ministries can use Twitter.  Having a curated list of the students that you can manage (and they can follow) allows both you and them to connect easier online.  It’s a one-stop shop for leaders to check in on their students.  If leaders have personal accounts, get them on a Twitter list.  Obviously this is a lot of pressure for a leader – they have to keep their content above reproach, after all – but if you have leaders that are constantly putting out clean content, that’s quite alright.

Ministries need their own account.  That’s a fact.  Your church needs one, your youth ministry needs one… even small groups could use one if there’s no other communication tools.  But, regardless, get one for your youth group.  This lets you do a few things: 1) you can tweet out events, posts, and information related to the youth group, 2) you can talk back to students and engage with them (either in public or private DMs), and 3) you can integrate other social networks (such as Instagram) to ensure your content gets shared out to everyone.

Our ministry this year is also trying to use a sermon-specific hashtag – we’ll put it on the big screen and allow students to tweet in their questions and/or responses for our youth pastor or the ministry team.

Empowering Students to use Twitter for the Gospel

I know a lot of students that will use Twitter daily, but getting them to tweet out “Jesus tweets” is a whole different ballgame.  It comes down to this: if you create it, and ask them, they will share it.  That’s the definitive way to get engagement to happen.  Create tweets, images, slides… and then ask your students for the retweet.  Some will retweet without being asked, but a lot of times all they need is a simple nudge.