by Joseph Robinson
Oh, cell phones…
There is almost nothing I can think of that has as much potential to be either great or terrible for youth ministry. I’m a big believer that there’s not really anything that is inherently good or bad, but that it’s more about how something is utilized that gives it positive or negative value.
How you approach technology and its integration (or lack thereof) in your ministry can have huge ramifications. And it all comes down to how you see things. There’s huge value in forcing kids to unplug and get away from a screen for a few minutes. The Church was countercultural at its inception, and you can really emphasize the whole “narrow is the road, and only a few find it” thing (Matthew 7:14) by enforcing a countercultural atmosphere in your group. But there’s also huge value in leveraging their connected world to help reach others.
In my own ministry, and in previous ministries I’ve led or worked with, we have tended to be cautiously accepting of technology like smart phones and tablets at our youth ministry get-togethers. For the most part, students are either going to use them surreptitiously (they think), or they’re going to use them with our blessing. We’d rather leverage the presence of mobile devices instead of fighting what we believe to be a losing battle against them.
We all know there’s not much more exasperating than seeing a bunch of blue-tinged faces when you’re trying to drive home a really important point, but here are some things we’ve found that can make technology like cell phones useful at youth group:


One of our favorite games to play at midnighters and larger gatherings is one we ripped off from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: Cell Phone Shootout. We’ve played it about 10 different ways, but my favorite is a tried and true shootout. Two students stand back to back with phones locked and in their pockets. Then they take three paces forward, turn, draw phones, and snap a picture of their opponent. First one to do so wins. That’s free, and you’re welcome.
There are lots of other ways you can use cell phones for games and other creative elements. Google is your friend here.

Message Notes

The simplest way to make this happen is to just encourage your students to take notes on their phone. Anyone with an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad has the Notes app already on their device. Most Android devices don’t have a notes app built in, but there are tons of free options out there like Google Keep or Evernote.
If you’re looking for a more guided approach, you can use a feature of called YouVersion Live to create an outline that students can search for and follow along with using the YouVersion app on their phone or tablet. It takes more front-end work on your part, but it can be really valuable for keeping students a little more on track than a blank screen tends to.

Message Interaction

Most youth ministries end up doing a message or a series on dating/relationships/sex on some sort of regular basis. Talking to students about these topics is awesome, and talking with them in small group settings is even better. But even in those settings, there are some questions that students might be embarrassed to ask. So a couple of years ago, we created a dummy phone number using an app called Text+ (there are many other options out there, too) so that students could anonymously text in questions that they might be a little gun shy to ask in person. We made the last week of our series a live Q&A session using nothing but questions that students texted in.
It. Was. Awesome.
Admittedly there’s some risk in doing something like this, and you have to be willing to tackle difficult and complex topics on the fly, but for us the opportunity to address questions that students were too afraid to ask in any other setting was more than worth it.
There are, of course, other topics and instances where having student interaction during a message or small group time can be really valuable. This is just the one that had the biggest impact on our ministry.

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Want to get the word out about what your ministry is up to? Come up with a good hashtag (short, descriptive, and memorable) and let students do the work for you. Let them Instagram pictures of games that you play and tag their friends. Let them tweet memorable statements from your messages.
Lately in Custom (the name of our student ministry), we’ve been working hard on getting students to read and study scripture regularly. Our January small group study was on the SOAP method for studying the Bible (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer). We created the hashtag #cstmsoap for students to grab a quick photo or screenshot of a scripture that jumped out at them, or of their SOAP journal, and put it on Instagram. The response has been pretty good so far, and we only expect it to increase.
We also encourage students to retweet, like, favorite, etc., our posts on various social media platforms. And, we all know this, students are terrible at remembering things five minutes after service ends. So we’ve found it much more effective to simply say to them, “Take out your phones right now, like us on Instagram if you don’t already, and favorite this post so that all of your friends will see it, too.”
So that’s a quick snapshot of a few ways we try to use technology like smart phones to our advantage in our ministry. We don’t have a written policy on mobile device usage for our students. For the most part, we don’t have an issue with students abusing them, and we address problems on an individual basis. We’ve arrived at our stance on technology at youth group organically over time through trial and error. Not having a written policy might be great for your group, too, but it also might work better for you to develop something a little more concrete that you can communicate to parents.
If you take our approach for using technology at youth group, will you end up with a few students who just text their friends the whole time? Yeah, you will. Will you have students who tune you out and play Flappy Bird instead of engaging? Probably.
But you also might be surprised at how well your students will self-police each other. And you definitely might appreciate the benefit it can add to your ministry.
Joseph Robinson has been in full-time student ministry since 2006, in both small and large church settings. He is currently the student director at the Summerville, SC campus of Seacoast Church. He has a beautiful wife, Michelle, two ridiculous cats, and one really cute dachshund.