college ministry and backchannels

Yesterday morning, I woke up early (since I’m on Arizona time now) for the Christianity Today “webinar” featuring Christian Smith talking about emerging (18-23 year-old) adults. Really good stuff, and he’s definitely an author worth familiarizing yourself with if you deal with youth, college students, or young adults.

Fortunately, CT built in a “questions for the presenter” chat-box on the same screen, and the space was quickly used for far more than asking questions. We were, in real time, responding to both Smith and each other.

But not everybody liked it:

  • YELLOWSTONE09: Is this a “questions for the presenter” section, or a blog? I vote for a questions section.
  • CHASFINNEY: yes–PLEASE limit to questions
  • PLINDEMAN: I think this box is for questions…not discussion

Was it a concern about good questions being drowned out? A problem with apparent disrespect for what was taking place on the screens? An issue with the non-experts pontificating instead of learning? Or something else?

All those concerns are understandable, I guess. But a little later on, I threw out a note:

  • BENSONHINES: Just a note for those grumpy about discussion in this sidebar: Remember, “back-channel-ness” and crazy multi-tasking are emerging adult-ish, too

Is “backchannel” a term you’re familiar with? It describes the discussions that can take place behind an “official” presentation, among the audience and in the background. For instance, I’m sure there will be plenty of Twitter backchannel taking place at the Catalyst Conference this weekend, as attendees discuss the conference… in the middle of the conference! Students may instant-message each other to discuss a class they’re attending together. I’ve heard of rock bands displaying backchannel comments (sent via text message) during concerts. And when pastors participate in text message (or index card) Q&A, that’s sort of along the same lines.

I think young adults, college students, and youth have been drawn to the use of backchannels like these because it fits so many of the things they get excited about: Interactivity. Authenticity. Instant gratification. Collaboration and “team”-ness. And so on.

And it’s important to realize they probably don’t see this as either subversive OR disrespectful, even if it strikes us old folks that way. As they have “backchannel” or similar discussions, whether on Twitter or in text messages or via Facebook notes or just through what we might call “gossip” – they may not be  trying to undermine as much as trying to mine. And it’s not multi-tasking for them, just all part of the same task.

They want to go deeper with an issue, and there’s simply no automatic belief that only the “presenter” (whatever that means in the particular context) has to be the one to take them there.

Since we don’t see “backchannel-ness” in ministry all that often, I figure there’s a lot of room for us here. I think it’s worth pondering – are there ways to introduce, encourage, and add wisdom to backchannel activity within your ministry? Would that be valuable?


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written from Tempe, Arizona

Road Trip 13: Day 3 recap
exploring college ministry at Arizona State!
T-shirt: the Hokie tribe of Virginia Tech
tomorrow: more time at ASU, then leaving late to begin the trek to Northern California!


  1. mark

    Speaking as a veteran boomer, although the idea of ” backchannel” activity may bug me when I’m the teacher, I guess I have been learning that way for a while, too. Way to make me think…

  2. I plead guilty to being an initial member of the “grumpy” party (although I remained silent).
    As the webinar continued I started to shift my association over to the “backchannel” party. Where else do we get this type of discussion in real time?
    It was very interesting to see how others were interpreting the topic of “Emerging Adulthood.”

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