Remember Mad Libs? Here’s one for you: Millennials are so _____, and technology is making relationships so _____. Fill in the blanks, and you’ve got your lead for an Internet think piece. But in all seriousness, if you’re a college student today, you’re probably tired of seeing online articles with headlines like these and you’re trying to make your way in our technology-connected world in much the same way students always have. Sure, there are qualities of your generation that are distinct, but the differences are smaller than what so many cringe-worthy online articles would have us believe. If instead we focus on the similarities with generations past, we have an opportunity to learn from decades of InterVarsity ministry.
The Discipleship Cycle
Our hope for you as part of InterVarsity is that you are becoming more in, like, and with Christ; the Discipleship Cycle describes the process for how this happens. The cycle has three steps on repeat:
Hear the Word,
Debrief and Interpret
And repeat. The model is simple enough but was actually developed as an integration of tested ministry practices from many corners of InterVarsity.
The Discipleship Cycle suggests that you move from debriefing and interpreting these experiences into hearing a new word from God, starting a new pass through the cycle. If you’re at the core of an InterVarsity chapter, this may very well describe your experience. When you show up at the next chapter gathering (whether large group worship or small group Bible study), you’ll hear a word and in many cases it will be meaningful to you.
I’m sure you could easily list the kinds of experiences that create the ups and downs of college life: new relationships, discoveries in learning, academic disappointment, roommate tension, conflict with a teammate or study group, sexual assault, racism, global realities experienced through study abroad or an InterVarsity summer project, campus activism, job offers (or lack thereof), graduation, and so many others. These are moments fraught with meaning that need to be debriefed and interpreted.
A Reverse Discipleship Cycle
But perhaps you’re not quite in the core of an InterVarsity chapter for some reason. Perhaps you’re still skeptical of Christianity as a practice and just checking things out. Maybe you’re a student of color and the cross-cultural realities of the InterVarsity community on your campus leave you feeling like an outsider. Perhaps you’re a commuter or your studies are primarily online, and you aren’t physically present on campus often enough to feel like you’re in the middle of things. Maybe you’re a geek for whom relationships just make a lot more sense within a videogame space or communicated through a vlog.
What if, instead, you could reverse the order of the Discipleship Cycle? What if there was someone to walk with you through the debrief of these collegiate experiences, then immediately invite you into an active response. Then, after your active response, you discern together the next word from God. A Reverse Discipleship Cycle.
Debrief and Interpret
Find someone to talk to as you navigate the complexity; a mentor if you can find one, but peers are great too. Reflect and talk through these categories:
Awareness and the burden of caring
You have more awareness than ever before, but that brings with it a burden of caring about injustice, violence, and tragedy. In the past week, you’ve been expected to carry the weight of the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Stanford rape case. In the past two years, you’ve carried #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackOnCampus, and you’ve watched a spike in online harassment from mobs like GamerGate among others. Not to mention it’s a Presidential Election Year on Facebook. You’re trying to care about all these things and carry them well.
Networks and the difficulty of human connection
You’re linked to and networked with more people than ever before, but you’re trying to figure out how to have meaningful human connections with everyone. And lest we forget, human connection is hard in any medium, let alone a medium that is still maturing like social media.
Reality and the lie of moral panic
You’re trying to come to terms with what’s real in all of this. You’re spending emotional energy and mental bandwidth trying to understand the culture and limitations of specific media platforms. You’re filtering societal messages like, “It’s online and doesn’t matter; worry about what’s In Real Life (#IRL)”. You’re trying to figure out who to listen to amidst the noise of moral panic toward new technologies.
(Sidebar: Don’t panic. Socrates was an early purveyor of moral panic, but human society is still going several millennia later. Critique can be healthy; moral panic, not so much.)
With a little more understanding of social media, what might you do? What action might God be inviting you to take? How might you need to change your mind and where might you need to turn around? Here are a few ideas:
Where you have been fearful, practice presence.
Observe and notice the little things. Reframe your view from seeing threats to naming the things that are true and present in our world today. If you’ve been suspicious of people, begin to extend trust and focus on connection.
Where you have been aloof, practice engagement.
Instead of primarily seeking right answers, first seek listening and understanding. Ask questions and pay attention to others’ stories.
Where you have held privilege, practice mourning.
Mourn for those whose lack of privilege has left them in pain or as outsiders. Feel entitled to nothing, but practice gratefulness for things you do have. Stretch yourself by being more generous. Serve others.
Hear the Word
You’ve debriefed in conversation with someone else and responded actively. Now, what might God be saying to you? Discern this along with the mentor or friend you’ve been talking to.
Here are two passages that have been meaningful to me related to discipleship and social media:
Jesus sends his disciples out in every direction to talk about the good news of God and to bring healing. Once a pair of disciples finds someone wiling to open their home, they are supposed to stay in that house as long as they are in town. If no one will host them, they are supposed to shake the dust off their feet and move on.
Ministry in social media could be experienced as an outreach where you are begged to come and join. Go to their towns, stay in their houses. This might be Academic Twitter or Black Twitter. The house might be a videogame or a web forum. The point is to find any place where there are hospitable people asking you to join. Let go of the need to engage uninterested parties; move on.
God says to his people, “Seek the wholeness of the place I’ve sent you into exile.” Maybe your social life on campus feels like exile, or maybe it’s Facebook or Snapchat or another social media platform you feel obligated to use. Regardless of the location of your exile, the call is the same: Put down roots, settle in. Do the equivalent of building a house and planting a garden, planning a wedding and having kids. Choose all these markers of stability. What would you need in order to believe that in the wholeness of this place lies your own wholeness? In the wholeness of your guild likes your wholeness. In the wholeness of your subscriber community lies your wholeness. Invest here.
Once you’ve taken the word to heart, you’re ready to move through the Discipleship Cycle in the traditional direction: Hear the Word. Respond actively. Debrief and interpret. And remember, the main point of the Discipleship Cycle is to see where Jesus is in these moments and learn how to meet him there.
Bret loves thinking about human connections in digital spaces. He still exchanges Christmas cards with his first online friend from AOL in the early 1990s, and he’s a PhD student at Michigan State University where he’s researching digitally-mediated affinity spaces. He loves many digital spaces, but he’s found the best connections in Twitter (@bretsw) and Elder Scrolls Online. He is InterVarsity’s Ministry in Digital Spaces Director and a member of the Discipleship Steering Committee.
The blog is an avenue for staff and student leaders to hear from the visionary leaders of Collegiate Ministries about theological formation, discipleship, chapter planting, chapter growth, and other key ministry themes for campus work.