by Andrew Zirschky, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Dr. Andrew Zirschky’s book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation, published in 2015 by Abingdon Press.
Tyler: School is almost here.
Logan: Ikr
Tyler: Im like wait what na your lying.
Logan: ?
Tyler: When someone told me school is almost here.
Abigail: OK sry
Abigail: Bye good night:-)
Abigail: Hi I’m back lol
Hannah: Read the text that I sent Lauren
Abigail: I did
Hannah: We need to hangout sometime
Jacob: Hey can u get on?
Connor: Hey I’m getting on now
Jacob: U there?[1]
The idea that teenagers use social media to experience presence and to deepen relationships sounds intriguing—until you actually look at their messages. Grab a teenager’s phone, peruse the messages, and you’re in store for a dose of what looks like meaningless drivel. Even a quick glance at their messages and status updates would appear to confirm Nobel laureate Doris Lessing’s contention that the Internet “has seduced a whole generation with its inanities.”[2] The pithy nature of these messages is all but guaranteed by 140-character limits to text messages and some popular social media apps. Even still, users rarely hit the maximum message length. In America, the average text message clocks in at just 7.7 words—and that factors in the lengthy text messages of older adults who are insistent on spelling out every word![3] As emojis continue to replace words, we can expect the average text length to get even shorter.
But social meaning derives from more than the length of a message or even the specific ideas communicated. Instead of focusing on the overt meaning of messages, we need to consider how presence and relational status are communicated.
Research shows that social media largely function for teenagers as means of “phatic communion,” a function of language first documented by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s that depends relatively little on the intellectual content of the communication.[4] Phatic communion describes the “ties of union” that can be created by exchanges that appear to be meaningless—such as teenage text messages. Through repetitive, cliché or ritualistic words and phrases, we communicate in a phatic form all the time.
Phatic exchanges create a sense of connectedness and personal availability.[5] They’re “neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener,” wrote Malinowski; rather, they do something far more important—they bind people together.[6] As a result, Malinowski chose not to speak of phatic communication, but rather phatic communion. There are obvious religious overtones in Malinowski’s use of “communion,” which refers to the relational intensity that can be produced by this kind of speech.[7] Far from being less powerful than highly intellectual or informational communication, Malinowski believed that the phatic can accomplish something our well-thought and argued statements cannot by highlighting a recognition of one another’s presence.[8]

Recognition of Another’s Presence

“Who are you texting?!” I asked impatiently of two distracted ninth graders, Jake and Connor, one evening at youth group. They’d each pulled out their phones three times in a matter of minutes during Bible study. Jake looked at me sheepishly, “Him,” he said pointing at Connor just a few feet away.
I was confused. “What? Why? I mean, you’re texting each other?” I asked incredulously. “What’s so important that you needed to text each other now?”
“Just this,” Jake snickered as he turned his phone to reveal nothing but a series of thumbs up emojis shared between him and Connor. There must have been fifty or more, the last three shared during group. Then it dawned on me: Jake and Connor were in the process of communicating phatically, recognizing and affirming each other’s presence in the group and with each other.
But why does the recognition of another’s presence matter? Why is this function of the phatic so powerful? A truly phatic acknowledgement of presence is not merely an acknowledgment that the other person exists in the universe, but rather it’s a declaration that the other person is with us, and that we are with them. The insider’s language of abbreviated text speak and emojis demonstrates belonging with one another.
Beyond the sense of belonging that derives from phatic exchanges, they also provide a sense of security that you’re “with” others. Life is rough and humans do not make it very far alone, whether lost in nature or in the abyss of the 8th grade hallway. Phatic messages are a poignant reminder that social support is not far away.
Through communicating belonging and security, phatic exchanges also affirm the teenager’s personal identity. Since Erik Erikson, developmental theory has affirmed that identity doesn’t flow from self-definition alone but from those who declare us to be “with” them and “part” of them. So when a phatic message communicates belonging and security, it simultaneously reaffirms identity. Whether it’s a random emoji or the vanishing Snapchat of a friend making a funny face, the true value of these constant messages is not the content, but the sense of belonging, security and identity they impart whether teens are near one another or physically separated. It turns out that in the middle of Bible study, Jake and Connor were doing far more than trading the thumbs-up emojis I could see on their phones.
In addition, utterances of phatic communion do not merely maintain a relationship, like that of Jake and Connor, but can actually create and strengthen relational bonds. In a study of couples using social media for intimate communication, a research team headed by Frank Vetere found that simple expressions such as short text messages containing commonplace phrases and words that seemed trivial to outsiders were actually “laden with emotional significance” for senders and recipients.[9] In the couples they observed, the willingness to waste time on even apparently meaningless and idle chatter “was a valuable expression of the care they shared for each other.”[10] They concluded, “The regular and frequent exchanges that have little if any informational value, are key to the strength of ongoing social binding.”[11]
When teenagers communicate phatically, whatever the content of the actual words (and there may not be any discernable content at all), they are asking and answering a question of presence, “Are you here? Do you remember I am here?” And when the response comes—whatever it is—it communicates that, “Yes, I’m here, I remember you’re here. I am with you.” Phatic exchange is a social use of language, and a foundation for experiencing presence.

Intimacy Through the Mundane

Closely related to phatic exchange is the routine chitchat of teenagers, which also gets criticized for its seeming lack of value. Reflecting the views of many, journalist Imre Salusinszky says that teenagers use social media for nothing more than “jabbering” and “silly inconsequential” conversation.[12] However, not everyone agrees. Kate Crawford points out that women’s use of landline telephones in the 1950s was similarly dismissed as idle chatter. Yet, research showed that “intimacy over distance was sustained precisely by sharing the banalities of everyday life, by talking about what might seem to others to be insignificant details.” [13]
“Insignificant details” are what critics of the micro-blogging service Twitter contend the service traffics in—and co-founder Jack Dorsey agrees. However, what critics don’t understand, says Dorsey, is that the “small details in life are what connect us most.”[14] Indeed, small details can connect us, and even impart a sense of intimacy, if shared on an ongoing basis. Intimacy, says theologian Kenda Dean, entails the “deeply spiritual search for another who knows what it’s like to be me.” [15] And many teenagers are undertaking that search by using social media to produce a constant stream of data about their lives, in the hope that if they can just share enough information, then maybe—just maybe—someone will know what it’s like to be them. Through the constant stream of social and mobile media “small details and daily events accumulate over time to give a sense of the rhythms and flows of another’s life” to create a sense of not merely knowing another, but being intimately present with another in the living of life.[16]
Similarly, Crawford argues that the “sharing of everyday actions, habits, and experiences—everyday ‘trivia” forges important bonds because the details that are most intimate are in fact the details that are most mundane. How so? Only a person who is truly present and involved in your life would know the little details of your life—and only someone who truly loves you would actually care.[17] Thus, sharing in chatter, participating in the everyday, can be a form of love.
In light of this, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus pointed to the Father’s mundane interest in the lives of believers to highlight God’s love and provision. “Even the hairs on your head are all numbered,” Jesus assured his followers (Luke 12:7). God’s interest in our ordinary, everyday existence is also affirmed by the incarnation. In Christ, God takes on the fullness of human experience, and affirms that all of human life matters—not just the highs of life, but the ordinary moments as well: Drawing water at the well. Eating with friends. Napping on a boat.[18] When we pay attention to teenagers’ chatter as an expression of their humanity, we are choosing to look on them as God does.

The Epicletic Practice of Attentive Chatter

In a world of information overload, attending to the chatter of teenagers is a powerful form of pastoral care, which we haven’t given nearly enough time.[19] Certainly, most youth ministries allow plenty of time to hang out, unwind, play games, and just let teenagers talk. However, there’s a difference between simply providing unstructured time, and attending to the chatter and unremarkable details of teenagers’ lives.
There’s often little time in youth ministry for true attention to the chatter and commonplace happenings in teenagers’ lives. We’re busy quieting them down, gaining their attention, and teaching them scripture. We’re stretched thin just attending to the emergencies of teen lives, much less the everyday details. Yet if attention to the mundane reveals who loves us, then we should reconsider our priorities. Rather than cutting-edge technology, ministry with teenagers necessitates reclaiming practices that communicate our love for one another, and open us for the communion-making work of the Holy Spirit. Believe it or not, giving time and attention to mundane chitchat with teenagers can be this kind of practice, one I call the epicletic practice of attentive chatter.
Being attentive involves granting teenagers our attention and thereby, our presence; being present with someone is always a matter of granting the other your attention in some form or fashion. Our attentiveness is to the chatter of teenagers, which has no apparent purpose, direction, or value. We’re usually allergic to “wasting time” listening to such things, but enacted as an epicletic practice, attending to the chatter of a teenager can be a prayer for the Holy Spirit to form us into people who truly love others in the fullness of their existence.
Recently, I asked my 12-year old son, Evan, about why his friends who play video games with him are some of his closest friends. “It’s nice to have people who are interested in the stuff I’m interested in, and actually listen to what I have to say,” Evan told me. He is looking for others who are willing to engage with him in attentive chatter. Like most adolescents, Evan chatters. A lot. That chatter is almost constantly about video games. It would be easy for the youth pastor at our church simply to assume about Evan, “Hey, there’s a kid who loves video games,” and (following the moth myth) to outfit the youth room with a few consoles in hopes of attracting his attention. However, while Evan does enjoy playing video games, his deeper longing is to find belonging with a group of people who are present with him, and engaged in knowing him. It will be through relationships filled with attentive chatter that Evan will become known, and ultimately finding belonging in the Body of Christ. For this to happen, our church and youth ministry need to be a people committed to epicletic practices that lead us toward koinonia; game consoles are irrelevant.
There is resonance here with the concept of place-sharing described by Andrew Root in Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. Yet, some have interpreted the place-sharing relationships described by Root as only occurring when we dive headlong into the suffering and tragedy of teenage lives. Entering the crises of teenagers has its place, but it’s important to understand that place-sharing relationships begin, not in the tragic, the abyss or the suffering of the teenager, but rather through place-sharing presence in the mundane, the everyday, and the decidedly undramatic.
In youth ministry, teenagers are not merely looking for someone who will share just the big moments of life, the religious moments, or the crisis moments of suffering. Generally, we have been willing to enter into all three. We show up for games and graduations. We discuss personal religious milestones and decisions with teenagers. We’re there at the hospital, at the funeral, and after the breakup. But teenage use of social media reveals that teens are not looking for people to parachute into their lives on Sundays and Wednesdays, or in the big times and tough times. They’re seeking relationships of knowing and intimacy built through the sharing of “a million meaningless moments.”[20] They’re looking for those who will be present in the little things of life: in picture comments, messages, and mundane chatter whether offline or online. It’s actually these that make presence in the moments of crisis and suffering meaningful and that give entry into truly meaningful place-sharing.
Youth workers often react to hearing all this by jumping to the conclusion that it’s going to require 24/7 communication with the teenagers under their care. Not so. It will certainly require a more frequent level of contact than once a week. However, frequency of exchange is somewhat less important than our attention to the mundane details of the lives of the youth under our care, and the gift of presence we share with them in the moments when we do communicate. Boundaries are important, 24/7 availability is unhealthy and untenable. Rather, it is by means of setting aside space and time to be attentive that we actually come to see and know them.
All of this will sound impossible for the already overworked youth worker. Good. Because the epicletic practice of attentive chatter is not for the youth pastor or even youth ministry volunteers alone. The entire congregation should be a people of attentive chatter with one another. Teenagers need to be included in a community where attentive relationships are being fostered by all, not just by youth. The practice of paying attention to one another as we share the ordinary details of life, can function as a prayer for the Holy Spirit to transform us into koinonia. This means that the task of relational youth ministry in a digital age is not confined to the youth room, but extends into the whole congregation. This is a potentially larger view of the task of youth minister than has been traditionally conceived, but one that is necessary if our hope is for youth to experience the communion of the Body of Christ, rather than merely the tight-knit sociology of a youth group.
[1] These are excerpts from real text messages exchanges by youth, ages 12 to 16 in Tennessee in the summer of 2015. Gathered and used with permission. Names have been changed.
[2] Maev Kennedy, “Nobel Prize Winner Lessing Warns Against Inane Internet,” The Guardian, December 8, 2007, 20.
[3] Naomi S. Baron, Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (Oxford University Press, 2008), 152.
[4] Bronislaw Malinowski, “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages” in CK. Ogden & I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1923).
[5] Frank Vetere, Steve Howard and M. Gibbs. “Phatic Technologies: Sustaining Sociability through Ubiquitous Computing,” in First International Workshop on Social Implications of Ubiquitous Technology. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI, 2005.
[6] Malinowski, 334.
[7] Gunter Senft, “Phatic Communion” in Culture and Language Use, edited by Gunter Senft, Jan-Ola Ostman, and Jef Verschueren (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2009). Later theorists (such as Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics”, in Style in Language, edited by T.A. Sebeok [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960], 350-377) expanded upon Malinowski’s concept of phatic communion by talking about phatic communication, as the act of keeping the channels of communication open by establishing and maintaining communication. However, Senft points out that these two concepts, while related, are not identical. According to Senft, what Malinowski meant in employing the term communion was not keeping communication lines open but truly using speech to achieve a binding rapport that he intentionally called communion.
[8] Kate Crawford, ‘These Foolish Things: On Intimacy and Insignificance in Mobile Media.’ In Mobile Technologies: From Telecommunications to Media, edited by Gerard Goggin and Larissa Hjorth (New York: Routledge, 2009), 256.
[9] Vetere, Howard and Gibbs, “Phatic Technologies.”
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid. See also, Frank Vetere, Howard Gibbs, et al., “Mediating Intimacy: Designing Technologies to Support Strong-Tie Relationships” First International Workshop on Social Implications of Ubiquitous Technology. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI, 2005. Interestingly, Vincent Miller argues that phatic technologies are on the rise precisely because they can keep youth from wasting time by allowing them to engage in non-invasive communication, effectively maintaining relational presence with intimate friends while simultaneously engaging in the rest of life. See Vincent Miller, “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture” in Convergence, 14(4) (November 2008): 387-400.
[12] Salusinszky as quoted in Kate Crawford, “These Foolish Things,” 255.
[13] Crawford, “These Foolish Things,” 255.
[14] Ibid., 258.
[15] Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 129.
[16] Crawford, “These Foolish Things,” 259.
[17] Ibid., 253.
[18] I am indebted to theologian Christy Lang Hearlson for calling my attention to the ways in which the incarnation is an affirmation of the mundane aspects of human existence.
[19] The idea of sharing the mundane as caregiving is suggested by Crawford.
[20] I’m indebted to Mark and Susan DeVries for this phrase, which they use to describe the way that intimacy within marriage is built on a daily basis.