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Does your church really need to be on Snapchat? Let's take a close look at the benefits and risks.

I have gone up and down on this issue. When Snapchat first came out, I was one to go against the grain and say that it was not something your church should worry about. At the time it wasn’t gaining momentum fast enough, and it was seeded in some shady history. Particularly that it was created by two frat guys for the purpose of sending naughty pictures back and forth to girls, with no way to track or save the photos. It just seemed like something too hard to redeem and not worth the investment.

Snapchat has come a long way from it’s shady beginnings and eventually surpassed Twitter in active users. It became the go-to social network for not only teenagers, but adults as well. Suddenly I was being asked the question every day, “Should our church be using Snapchat?”

So I spent a lot of time using the app and getting more familiar with it. I wanted to be able to make a definitive suggestion one way or the other whether churches should use it as a ministry tool.

After some debate with my friends Nils Smith and Jay Kranda on the SocialMedia.Church Podcast, I finally flip flopped. We started promoting Snapchat as something your church MUST get on, especially if it wanted to reach people anywhere from 16 to 34 years old. We wrote blog posts and devoted church conference sessions to it. There was still the risk of people using the platform for bad things, but that wasn’t the primary use anymore. So long as you controlled who you friended, you didn’t see anything bad on Snapchat. So it evolved into something just as useful as Facebook or Twitter. And just like Facebook or Twitter, it required some boundaries and accountability, but wasn’t any more of a risk.

I still thought it was stupid and hard to use, but nevertheless I got used to it and quickly saw the value in it as a communications tool and resource for reaching certain demographics.

Apparently so did Instagram. As quickly as Snapchat became the next biggest thing, it just as quickly faded into obscurity when Instagram basically copied the functionality and integrated it into their platform. Suddenly there was no reason to use Snapchat, as everyone was already on Instagram.

Snapchat’s user base fell dramatically. Adults basically left the platform completely, as well as most teenagers. For awhile it seemed the debate was moot. Nobody was talking about Snapchat anymore, and the conversation shifted to how we can better use all of these new Instagram features.

Now, it’s well into 2018 and as we find ourselves settled from the dust, Snapchat is still holding on for life. With 187 million active users still clinging to the network, it’s not something we can ignore. Furthermore, Pew Research just put out a report that says among teenagers, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat are the most popular social media platforms that they use daily. With 35% of them saying Snapchat is the network they use the most.

But… Snapchat has made another shift and seems to reverting back to their frat boy ways. With $1.8 Billion in investment money hanging on the line, and shareholders to appease, the platform has turned to content deals to make money. Unfortunately, they continually seem to be choosing content providers like Teen Vogue, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Brother, and the like.

As our teenagers are watching their friends stories (photos, videos, and messages) they are also greeted with articles like “What Porn Doesn’t Teach You About Sex,” and “Here’s When Your Breasts Really Stop Growing.”

These aren’t ads, and they aren’t user generated content that you can simply unfollow. This is content from publishers and news organizations that partner with Snapchat to target your teenager. There’s no way to filter most of this content or avoid it. And there’s no way to know whether your child has seen it or read it. Sure they could ignore it and use the platform without ever reading these articles, but the temptation is right there. Along with some racy images that I would definitely classify as porn, even if the world doesn’t think so.

Yes, this type of content can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram. But it’s different. On those platforms you would have to search for or follow this content to see it. You have to deliberately seek it out. On Snapchat its pushed to you and forced upon you, lingering there with the subtleness of a delicious forbidden apple. One article found between my friend’s stories was captioned “What Your Parents Don’t Want You To See.”

They aren’t even trying to hide the fact that the content they push to your kids is controversial. They want to push those boundaries and force their agenda upon our children. I absolutely believe that.

Last month Cosmopolitan launched a new Snapchat feature called Cosmo After Dark that even the secular media was calling “pornographic.” The new section of the Discover tab was aimed at anyone 18 years or older (not that kids are truthful about their age on social media), and featured explicit discussions on sex, porn, and other adult themes. The feature was shut down a week later after many people including myself posted how outraged we were.

For these reasons I can no longer suggest that churches use Snapchat, and strongly suggest that parents block it from their children. I see no redeeming value in using it. For a youth group or church to say “Follow us on Snapchat” and go through the effort of creating content on the platform, they are effectively promoting that it’s ok for your kids to look at pornographic images and read adult themed articles on sex. Unfortunately most parents will lazily think that the platform must be OK if the youth group promotes it, and won’t even bother to be involved in what their teenagers are looking at on their phones.

That’s on the parents for not being involved, but that’s also on churches for encouraging the behavior. How great would it be if youth group leaders were bold enough to stand up against Snapchat, even though it may still be popular with their students. Youth Pastors should be preaching from their pulpits on the dangers of Snapchat and doing what they can to steer students away from it, not embracing it and promoting it just because it’s cool and “they’re using it anyway.” We should be setting the example, not adapt to the culture around us.

I attended a training session at a church not too long ago and the youth pastor actually said from stage that you can’t be a youth pastor these days and not be on Snapchat. That’s so sad to me. There used to a time when all we needed was the Word of God to reach people, even youth.

I’d love to see youth leaders really step it up and host parent nights where they show parents how best to talk to their teenagers about social media use. Host a Wednesday night class on why your church doesn’t use Snapchat and invite parents and teenagers into the conversation.

Not everyone agrees with me (Bare with me, I’m just finding this out). Some still see the platform as something we can and should redeem for Christ. We should be a light in the darkness, and all that. Unfortunately I think most of this is rooted in the fact that as a society we have been desensitized to what is actually porn, and what is harmful for our minds. What is acceptable for our kids to look at and read today is vastly more mature than it was even ten years ago, let alone 20 or 30. People have argued with me over and over that the content they see in Snapchat “isn’t that bad.” I seriously don’t understand this position. Re-read the article titles above and seriously tell me that you are ok with your teenager reading that content, alone in their bedroom or at school with their friends. Take a look at those screenshots and tell me that’s appropriate for anyone to see. I hesitated to include them in this article because I think they’re too racy, but I wanted people to see that I’m not embellishing or making this stuff up.

I debated this with my dear friend Nils Smith in a Facebook Live video we did in the Church Communications Facebook Group moderated by Darrel Girardier. You can watch the full conversation below.

Nils makes some really great points, especially about our call to redeem the evil in the world. But I still can’t get on board. Let me reiterate an example I shared in the debate:

I can walk into a strip club and share the gospel with a stripper, or maybe a better example is with one of the patrons. They may even come to Christ from our conversation. That would certainly be a way to redeem something we can all agree is bad. That doesn’t mean we should all start strip club ministries and start hanging out there every Saturday night. We definitely should not be asking our youth group to “Follow us to Deja Vu this weekend.” Just because some good can come from Snapchat, doesn’t make it something we should use.

You may think that’s an extreme example. Snapchat isn’t necessarily a strip club. But my gosh, it’s pretty darn close.

Now, if the local strip club would allow our church to advertise inside their club, I think that would be a decent option for the church to consider. Flyers on the tables, or signage in the building that shares about the church and offers hope… that could be an effective way to reach that audience without condoning the platform or asking anyone to come inside. So I have no problem with churches who want to advertise inside Snapchat, or if they can somehow find their way onto the Discover tab. But I do think creating stories and content in Snapchat is taking it too far, and never should we be asking people to follow us there. That would be the equivalent of putting a Christian stripper on stage… I don’t know, maybe I’m stretching the analogy a bit but you get my point.

Let’s not also forget that Pew research says that the same demographic of teenagers is also using Instagram and YouTube. And I’d argue that Facebook is still a viable way to reach them as well. Just because they use Snapchat doesn’t mean we have to. We can still reach them. Parents who aren’t on Snapchat don’t have any issues reaching their children, neither should the church.

Here’s all I ask… pay attention to the ever changing field of social media. Just because Snapchat was OK last year doesn’t mean things haven’t changed for the worse. Pay attention, stay active, and be quick to adapt. Maybe as Snapchat continues to flounder behind Facebook they’ll eventually give in and add parental controls or drastically change their content providers. If that becomes reality, and people are still wanting to use the platform, then it may be worth looking into again.

Personally, I feel so strongly against Snapchat that I would not let my children attend any youth group that actively promotes its use. So?please prayerfully consider whether your church really needs to be using Snapchat, or if there are better ways to reach your youth and engage with your community.

Agree? Think I’m nuts? Share your thoughts in the comments, and by all means share links to churches who you think are using Snapchat well.

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