Jun 12, 2017


Do College Ministers Need Snapchat?

Andy Cimbala shares some data on social media usage and talks about the role of technology in campus contextualization. Do you need Snapchat?

“You open your phone and have a notification badge on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and LinkedIn…which do you click first?” In a survey of college students, 58% said Snapchat, 27% Instagram, and Facebook was only 13%. Wow!

I graduated from college in 2007, right before the original iPhone was announced. I didn’t have Facebook. I didn’t use Twitter. I didn’t even text. I had an old flip-phone with a broken screen, so I kept a printed piece of paper with all my contacts and their phone numbers. I used AOL Instant Messenger on my desktop.

The college campus has certainly changed over the last ten years! I can no longer assume that students today are the same as I remember back in 2007. Technology has changed. Communication has changed. What’s popular and debated has changed. Should I change with it?

I’ve been thinking about getting Snapchat for a few years now. I would ask a few students what they like about it, why they use it, and if they think I should get it. But the biggest thing that held me back was I didn’t WANT to get it. I thought it was unnecessary, even stupid, and would only be adding to the noise. Does it have any use? Why do I need to get ANOTHER online account? Another communication method? Another app? Why isn’t email or Facebook good enough? And yet even as I say that, I fear getting “stuck in my ways,” especially since I’m now 31 and I’m sensing in myself a tiredness of the latest tech trends. I don’t need to be cool. I don’t need to be on the cutting edge anymore. I’m getting older, and that’s okay, right?

But I did get Snapchat this semester, and let me tell you why. The reason is a simple but powerful principle that will help shape not only your technology decisions but also your talk prep, Bible study topics, the way you disciple and train your leaders, and what kind of events you host.

Principle: Missionaries must contextualize.

Contextualizing means researching your people group and wisely using the communication methods that best reach your people. Learn the language and the culture, take the timeless truth of the gospel, then speak and apply it into the context in a timely way. It’s not about Snapchat, it’s about being a good missionary, and being willing out of love to do new things even when it doesn’t fit your preferences. The apostle Paul understood this principle when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

If you are a college ministry leader serving college students, you are a missionary. So you must contextualize. You are not a college student! But you’re serving them. You’re getting older! But they’re staying the same age. You have your favorite topics and tech! But each year they’re evolving. To be a good missionary to your students, you need to study them, research your campus, and make sure you’re not stuck in the last decade. Every day you step onto campus, you’re entering a foreign world. Each year it gets “younger” than you. Are you willing to become all things to all people, that by all means you might save some?

As college ministry leaders, we need to keep one eye to the high school world, to know what will hit our campuses in just a few short years. Snapchat reports that users under 25 years old visit the app more than 20 times per day. I was talking with a youth pastor recently and he said 90% of his students use Snapchat, “there is no question [it] has an incredible influence”, and we need to at least be engaging with them in conversation about how they use it.

Here’s just a few things I’ve noticed about Snapchat:

  • What is it? “Friendly noises.” It’s not super profound communication. It’s pictures of a flower you see as you’re walking to class. It’s an awkward selfie of you studying with your friends. It’s a video of people rolling down a hill. Friendly noises. Little samples of what your day is like. Saying hi and staying connected.
  • How am I using it? I can view student’s stories, stay connected to their lives, send pictures of books I’m reading, and send videos or pics of our 1-year old son that they adore.
  • Snapchat is more personal and intimate than the general life announcements on Facebook. Less political than Twitter. You don’t share on Snapchat the same things that you’d share on Facebook. It’s for friends, not for the world.
  • Texting is still one of the most important messaging platforms, and Snapchat doesn’t replace this, it’s used alongside texting, but paid more attention to because it’s usually funny, personal, and more engaging because it’s a picture or video.
  • I probably would NOT use Snapchat with new contacts. When I got it I announced it to our student leadership team and since then have accepted friend requests from any students who’ve asked. It’s more personal, once you’ve built trust with a student.
  • One caution: The Discover section regularly has some sexually suggestive or inappropriate content. This could be a source of temptation for folks, so be prayerful and wise. If it’s a regular gateway to sin for you, delete it. Not worth it! (Romans 13:14)
  • Do I now love Snapchat? Not really. But I want to use it as a tool, a tool to connect with my students because I love them. Not every student uses it, so it’s not a magic tool, but it is a helpful one to add to your toolbox.

Am I saying you need to get Snapchat today? Nope. But I am saying you need to research your campus context, and enter into that world. Is Snapchat the most important thing in the world? Heck no. The gospel is! But I wanted to let you all into my thinking to see how I went about making this decision, that it was strategic, slow, and intentional. And 5 years from now I assume the landscape of the college communication platforms will completely change. Snapchat will be old and busted, and something new will be cool. But if we keep in mind this principle of contextualization then we’ll get the new thing so we can reach our students, because we love them and want to be good missionaries.

about the author

Andy Cimbala

Andy Cimbala and his wife Melissa have a passion to make disciples of college students. They work with DiscipleMakers at Shippensburg University, leading Bible studies and mentoring leaders. Andy also blogs for The Relentless Fight.