Photo by Rachel Crowe

You’re leading an upcoming mission trip, but this time it’s different…you’ve come prepared.

You’ve mapped out excellent training sessions, you have plans for each meeting with resources to carry them out, and you want to maximize every moment when your team of students and leaders come together. You carefully cover team building, spiritual formation, cultural understanding, testimonies, logistics, and even a theology of missions during the months leading up to your trip.

However, when the training sessions are completed and as you step into the car, van, or plane on your way to your mission destination, a nagging thought arises in the back of your mind: “did we do everything we could have done to build a healthy team?”

If you maximized the time when your team was face to face and when they were apart, then the answer is yes.

But chances are you, like many of us in youth ministry, put 100% of your time and energy only into a handful of face to face training sessions.

How is it possible to maximize training when your team is apart?

This is where the power of social media, when understood theologically and sociologically, can be leveraged in order to build a healthy missional team.

Marshall McLuhan, a sociologist from the 20th century, defined media as “an extension of our humanity.” [[Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1st MIT Press ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press), 1994.]] Shane Hipps, a successful advertising executive-turned-pastor and author expands upon this and writes, “All forms of media (i.e., any human invention or technology) extend or amplify some part of ourselves. They either extend a part of our body, one or more of our senses, some function of our mental processes, or some social process. “ [[Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 35. See “Technology Matters” for more about Shane’s work.]] In practical terms this means that eyeglasses extend the ability of the eye to focus, telephones amplify and extend our voice and ears, and Facebook and MySpace extend our ability to interact on a social level.

In many ways, this helps us understand one of the newest media inventions available to us: social media.

Wikipedia, a form of social media that relies upon input from millions of users to build the largest encyclopedia in the world, defines social media as “activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction.” [[Social media (2009, March 13) In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:17, March 13, 2009, from]]

Social media has dramatically changed the cultural landscape through its ability to extend almost all of our senses. We can see, hear, and talk with people on the other side of the globe through social media. Organizations have picked up on this and are now leveraging social media to sell their products. Universities have recognized the power of social media and have created entire degree programs that can be completed from the comfort and convenience of your home computer. As we travel farther and farther into the 21st century, social media is becoming an integral part of everyday life.

However, it is essential that we have a proper sociological and theological understanding of social media before we jump right in. Hipps warns, “Understanding media as extensions of ourselves is crucial in understanding media, period. When we fail to see media this way, we become overly enamored, giving them the power to make us slaves to our own creations.” [[Shane Hipps, 35.]]

With a proper sociological and theological understanding, we can extend and enhance our ability to train a team for an upcoming mission trip through the use of social media.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “some 93% of teens use the internet, and more of them than ever are treating it as a venue for social interaction - a place where they can share creations, tell stories, and interact with others.” [[Lenhart, et. al, Teens and Social Media, Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2.]]

With a large majority of teenagers also using social media, extensive research is being done from many angles. The MacArthur Foundation launched a five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative in 2006 to help determine how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. Within this project, a three-year collaborative ethnographic work entitled the “Digital Youth Project” has gained much attention.

After interviewing 800 youth and young adults and conducting over 5,000 hours of online observation, one of the most significant findings is that “When teens are involved in friendship-driven practices, online and offline are not separate worlds - they are simply different settings in which to gather with friends and peers. Conversations may begin in one environment, but they move seamlessly across media so long as the people remain the same. Social media mirror, magnify, and extend everyday social worlds.” [[Danah Boyd, Lead Author, “Friendship.”: Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, Forthcoming).]]

Furthermore, despite the adult perception that teenage online activity is a waste of time, researchers argue that, “new media forms have altered how youth socialize and learn, and raise a new set of issues that educators, parents, and policymakers should consider.” [[Mizuko, et. al. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. 2008.]] Instead of dismissing online activity entirely, adults have the opportunity to explore new ways of teaching that promote peer to peer learning and self-directed exploration. Youth not only need us to be present in their learning but they welcome it as research shows that “adults can still have tremendous influence in setting learning goals.” [[Mizuko, et. al. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. 2008.]]


In Kara Powell and Brad Griffin’s new resource Deep Justice Journeys, they provide a holistic method for taking students through a transformational journey before, during, and after a mission trip. Before the team departs for their trip, there is an essential stage called Framing. It is during this stage where a student’s emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational capacities are formed.

Typically, this happens during the traditional training sessions when the team building, spiritual formation, cultural understanding, testimonies, logistics, and theology of missions are covered. However, we will explore how social media can be leveraged in order to enhance these four areas of formation during the Framing stage leading up to a mission trip.

Emotional Formation

Michael Bischof, the founder and executive director of Souleader Resources, describes emotional formation as “a process that begins with bringing the emotional parts of one’s being into conscious awareness and focus.” [[Michael Bischof, Holistic Formation (Part 3): Emotional Formation - The Most Neglected Area of Growth. Souleader Resources, 2006, 1.]] Emotional formation is easily missed because it is an “inside-out” process of formation rather than an “outside-in.”

Jesus understood that what “forms” a person is not always an external influence that works from the “outside-in.” We get a glimpse of this in his interaction with the scribes and Pharisees as recorded in Mark 7:20 when Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what makes them ‘unclean.’” The Apostle Paul also recognized the role of the Holy Spirit in this “inside-out” transformation of Godly character by using the metaphor of fruit growing from out of a plant for everyone to see in Galatians 5:22-23.

Like a gardener that cultivates a plant’s environment for its fruit to spring forth, it is essential that we cultivate an environment where emotions on the inside can come out in healthy ways. However, during face to face training sessions, there is not enough time for true emotional formation to occur. In fact, the larger the group, the harder it is to facilitate an environment in which each student’s emotions can be shared and addressed in person.

Yet in the midst of the limitations of group gatherings, social media can be leveraged to facilitate emotional formation through the use of private groups on social networking sites such as Facebook. [[While I have chosen to share practical examples using Facebook because this is the most popular social networking site today among adolescents, there are many other forms of social media that can accomplish the same things as Facebook. However, for those who choose to use Facebook, I believe it is essential to maintain a safe and controlled learning environment, especially as we work with minors. To do this, create a closed group within Facebook and invite leaders and students on your team to join. It is within this closed group that tremendous formation can occur in between face to face training sessions without any unwanted watching.]]

Practical Application:

Facilitate dialogue through a private discussion board on topics that will evoke emotional responses such as:

  • What are you most excited about regarding this mission trip and why?
  • What are you most nervous about regarding this mission trip and why?
  • What are some emotions that come to mind when you picture yourself on this mission trip?

Mental Formation

According to the research cited above, youth are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults through the process of self-directed exploration. For some, this may be an uncomfortable departure from the style of mental formation that occurs through formal learning institutions such as high school and university that focus on goal-directed learning. We, along with formal educators, will have to shift our focus from being “dispensers” of knowledge to being “guides” in the search for knowledge. Acting as guides that provide formative input as well, we can help navigate youth as they learn from their peers and their own exploration.

Paul reminds us in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As leaders, we have a limited amount of face to face time to influence mental formation. However, as we have seen above, social media not only extends the amount of time available for mental formation, it magnifies the content of mental formation through the network of peer-based learning.

Practical Application:

  • Choose a book such as Deep Justice in a Broken World by Chap Clark & Kara Powell or Submerge by John Hayes and have the team read a chapter a week and post their favorite quotes and why.
  • Ask students to research the country or people group they will be serving during their mission trip and have them share and discuss their findings with each other online.

Spiritual Formation

If media is an extension of our humanity, then it can be argued that media is an extension of our spirituality. As we saw above, “online and offline are not separate worlds media mirror, magnify, and extend everyday social worlds.” [[Danah Boyd, “Friendship.”]] In the same way teenagers can interact with friends online and offline, they can interact with God online and offline as well.

Paul reminds us that, unlike Moses who had to wear a veil to hide the fading radiance on his face after experiencing God’s glory, “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” [[2 Corinthians 3:18, TNIV.]] Spiritual formation is an ongoing process, and to assume that it can only occur during face to face training sessions is to view training sessions in the same way the Israelites viewed Mt. Sinai: THE location where transformation occurs. However, because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, transformation can occur in ANY environment.

When done right thoughtfully, social media can be leveraged to facilitate spiritual formation.

Practical Application:

  • Have students share passages from Scripture that they have been wrestling with and why through the discussion board. As a leader, this can be a great venue to facilitate and guide their spiritual growth.
  • Have students work through a different spiritual discipline each week and have them post and interact with their experiences through the discussion board.

Relational Formation

Recent research has found that loneliness is as harmful to your health as cigarette smoking and obesity. [[John T. Cacioppo, William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: Norton & Company, 2008), 93.]]

We were created for community.

While we understand there to be a God-shaped void in humanity, there is also a human-shaped void that God chooses not to fill. This is apparent throughout the whole of Scripture but most notably in Genesis 2:18 when God says in reference to Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Stanley Grenz writes, “Community…is central to the message of the Bible.” [[Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 23-24]]

Because face to face interaction does not equate to a true sense of healthy community, relational formation has to be intentional and it must extend beyond the face to face training sessions in order to be effective. Social media is extremely powerful in this regard because, at its core, it is an extension of social interaction.

Practical Application:

  • Post students’ testimonies (video or written) and ask students to read and interact with another student’s testimony each week.
  • Allow students to post prayer requests and praise reports
  • Facilitate a relational formation exercise online through a live blog or chat room

Some Unexpected Results

Having navigated through the process of leveraging social media for intentional purposes over the last couple of years in youth ministry, I have learned some unexpected things along the way. My understanding of incarnational ministry has been broadened as I’ve entered into the lives of youth not just on their campuses but also wherever they login to Facebook and other social networks. I’ve been surprised by the level of vulnerability that youth go to when they are online because of the inherent anonymity that they are afforded while typing away alone at their computer. In a sense, the glass bottom of my boat has been enlarged, allowing me to see more of the “world beneath” that Chap Clark describes as the adolescent world that few adults are allowed to see. Finally, quiet students that wouldn’t open up in person have communicated openly with me online. As social media continues to morph, I will have to adapt as well in order to lead and shepherd effectively.

I want to close with a post from one of our high school students who will be traveling with us for the first time to Kenya and Uganda for a mission trip. As leaders, we now see him with new eyes as he has revealed the depth of understanding and compassion that we had overlooked in person because of his shy nature.

The Pharisees and leaders during Jesus’ life thought very highly of themselves. They were in tune to the rules that God had set forth for them so much that they skipped over one of the most important ones: loving the poor and oppressed. The common story of the Good Samaritan shows this in a very bold way. The leaders of Israel deemed the poor as less important than whatever their task or objective was. As a result, the rich minority prospered while the poor struggled to get by. It seems that we are seeing much of the same thing in America. We as a people have forgotten those struggling with poverty in our very own nation. The poor are neglected and the materially wealthy, including me, hoard our wealth and spend carelessly.

We will not be able to build salvation communities amongst us if we look to build from the top down. We must build and care for the bottom first as they are first in God’s eyes. I know that I have not done this in my life. I have not cared for others as I should…especially the poor. I praise God for the opportunity to serve on this group with the rest of you and I hope to be stretched so that I can make a difference that is lasting and as I do this I hope to see change in myself. - Garrett, Age 1


1. What resonates the most with you as you read this article?

2. What forms of social media do you and your students currently use on a regular basis? Which of them could be used to expand your team formation opportunities?

3. What other forms of peer based learning have you experienced that would thrive through the use of social media?

4. Which spiritual disciplines would be enhanced by the nature of social media? Which spiritual disciplines might be limited?

Drew Sams

Drew is currently the Pastor of Student Ministries and part of the Teaching Team at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California. He is passionate about leveraging social media to increase social justice and compassion and regularly blogs at Drew has an MDiv from Fuller Seminary and is pursuing his doctorate at George Fox Seminary under Leonard Sweet on 'Narrative Ecclesiology in a New Media World.'

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