I work with college students and so, like it or not, I have to deal with social media.

Over the years, I have resisted being saturated in the world of the ghost, the gram, the book, and the bird, but my tech-savvy students keep dragging me back into virtual spaces I find nearly impossible to keep up with. I wish to relay my sympathy with the many who continue to push back against the social media tidal wave. There are many aspects of social media that are superficial, voyeuristic, and downright harmful.

So much for the caveats. Here’s my main point:

If you are in student ministry, I think you need to engage on social media.

Before you change the channel, take a moment to hear me out. I believe we have an opportunity that will not inevitably result in capitulating to the mainstream culture.

I recently did a study about students and social media because I wanted to know more about what was happening with my college students. They are on social media so much and I wondered if I needed to be doing something more than just preaching about how they need to limit and curate their social media habits. (By the way, this is still a good message. It aligns well with our disciplines of Sabbath, simplicity, and mindfulness, among others.)

Based on my research, here are two reasons why I think you should use social media if you’re in student ministry.

1. Social media is formative.

Though the content of social media is fleeting, the habit is formative. Anything that is forming our students is something we need to pay attention to. We are in the business of spiritual formation and transformation.

As ministers, we cultivate content that will direct our parishioners towards habits and truths that will shape them in the likeness of Christ. We are also wary of formative habits and content that are de-forming our parishioners (or ourselves).

Like it or not, social media is forming our students in powerful ways. We can preach about how they need to temper or remove their social media but the overwhelming verdict is that many of them are on it and it is having an effect on them.

2. Social media is where the students are.

A college student’s consumption of social media is so pervasive it is now one of the only places they will visit every day of every year outside of their physical home.

Given these facts, a feeling started to sink down in me and I wondered: “If this is a space my students are occupying frequently, and it is shaping and forming their identity and habits, can I afford to be absent?”

Working at a college means that it is a function of my ministry to get out of my office throughout the week and go to the student center, library, and dining hall. I go there because this is where my students are congregating and this is where important conversations are happening. There would be so much I would miss out on if I only relied on the students who happen to find my office and make appointments.

Now, I am not suggesting that we simply occupy a corner of virtual space and post our best cat videos and movie quotes. Our presence should be intentional and I believe we need to begin writing a new book on how to do ministry in virtual spaces. This is not to replace the ministry we do face-to-face, rather it should run parallel to the ministry we are already doing with our students.

But we need to get creative. Promoting events and tagging a few photos does not cut it on social media. This would be about as effective as me going to the dining hall simply to pass out flyers and call a few folks out by name.

We need to think about ministry in virtual spaces the same way we approach any other cross-cultural ministry endeavor.

To start with, my own research revealed ways we can use social media to build stronger relationships, teach Scripture, encourage good formative habits, promote generosity and justice, and combat sin. Social media is a culture and we are often called to spaces to present a kingdom counter-culture. Social media can isolate people just as easily as it can connect them. It can distort what is good and worthy while trying to image a picture of “the good life.” It can foster lust or envy as much as it can reveal what it means to truly image Christ.

If ministers can enter these social spaces and be truly present, we can come alongside our students in an effort to combat the damaging side-effects of social media consumption. We can bring a kingdom ethic and model authenticity in a feed full of filters and lies. If we fail to sit at the virtual table with our students, then their occupancy in social media will be a god-less space where competing voices drown out the few mentors and disciple-makers who login occasionally.

Let’s continue the conversation.

So this is my case. I offer it up for your consideration and analysis.

Friends, I am also a reluctant social media user. However, my occupation of virtual spaces with the intention of extending my ministry into those platforms has had positive results. I have done a good deal of research including my own ethnographic study, and though I did not want to weigh this post down with footnotes, I am more than happy to share the sources and research behind all the claims I make in this blog. You may still be skeptical and that is fair. There is much more to this conversation than we can cover here, but since social media isn’t going away any time soon, I propose this: pull up a virtual (or literal) chair with me anytime and we can continue to wrangle with this together.