DULUTH, Ga. MySpace has been both a great asset and a burden to youth minister Ricky Smith.
Through MySpace, he has found new ways to connect with youth and promote events not only to students at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga., as well as those not attending church.
But, in viewing online pages belonging to his youth, he has shed tears seeing how some of them behave differently when not at Piney Grove. At times, he admits that it causes him to question his ability as a minister.
So goes the seemingly schizophrenic world of MySpace, the online phenomenon that is approaching 100 million users, mostly students, and that has youth ministers debating its usefulness and its dangers.
Anyone can register for a free MySpace webpage to network with friends by blogging (online journaling), uploading pictures and videos or sending messages quickly among individuals or groups.
Youth pastors are able to post bulletins "Pizza at church this Wednesday!" that are quickly viewed by many students. Meanwhile, in the entertainment industry, for example, musicians and others look to attract young consumers by using MySpace for publicity.
"I don't think you can have a conversation about youth culture right now without talking about MySpace," said Chris Trent, middle school pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. Trent initiated a dialogue on the topic at a summit meeting of youth pastors from across the state in May.
The expansion of MySpace is typical of technology and youth, Trent said.
"When the Internet first came out, there were questions about whether or not kids should mess with it. The same went with pagers and cell phones. If it's something that big, there will be a debate [on its usage]," he said.
Smith noted, "I've got three choices regarding cultural issues. Retreat from it, immerse in it or engage it. To engage the culture means I'm going to be aware of what's there and utilize it for the Kingdom. At the same time I'll establish boundaries in my own life and disciple others in using those boundaries.
"I struggle with the fact that there are so many registered users on MySpace. It's not going away."
Bryan Bulmer, youth pastor at Fletcher Memorial Baptist Church in Statesboro, Ga., grants that MySpace can have positive aspects for ministry but nonetheless voices strong words of caution for youth leaders.
"Anybody who's a minister and wants to get on MySpace needs to have some strong accountability," Bulmer said. "There are images on there that can appear before you very easily."
Something MySpace offers the youth pastor, Bulmer said, is a more candid look into the life of a student.
"The biggest things I've seen is how [youth] want to be perceived by others. In my opinion they will [build pages] thinking how they want to be perceived on the Internet. They will say things they wouldn't normally say...."
And they may post too much personal information about themselves on MySpace information they think is only being seen by their friends.
"Students do not realize who might be looking at their account," said Scott Kindig, youth ministry consultant with the Georgia Baptist Convention. "Predators could 'mine' information from a MySpace account that endangers the user. Future bosses look at MySpace histories as they consider whom they might hire, looking for the character of job candidates.
"Youth pastors want an authentic look at who their kids are. Some have learned things encouraging and discouraging about where their students really are morally and spiritually by looking at MySpace accounts."
"It's a double-edged sword," Bulmer said. "[Students] will write things in their online journal that are heartfelt and reveal their depth. On the other hand, they will post things which may be sexually charged they think will make others laugh. There's no filter for them."
"Kids are incredibly honest about what they say online," Trent said. "I don't think they realize how many eyes are seeing what they're writing.
"For some, it's a place to vent. As a society they may struggle with communication, and it's a place to be honest about their lives."
Chris Altman, youth pastor at Roopville Road Baptist Church in Carrollton, Ga., said many of his students have used Xanga, another networking site, to set up a space for prayer requests and praise reports. He has his own Xanga page to use as a journal, but also to post sermonettes and information about upcoming youth events.
Accountability is key, he said.
"It has been addressed within our ministry that students are to hold each other accountable. Our parents are aware and Web-savvy enough to check out what is happening online. For those that aren't, I'm there to look and then inform them," he stated.
Despite its faults, Smith said MySpace is an effective tool in his ministry.
"It's allowed me to make a positive connection with kids," Smith said. "It's a lot easier for me to communicate with them through MySpace than even e-mail. Kids maturing in their faith will keep me informed about their struggles. Nothing takes the place of one-on-one, but this has really opened up the door to accountability.
"On my page, I've started a devotional blog. Eventually, this will become a discipleship tool where students and I can study a passage together. I'll go online each week and comment on a passage I've read. Because of the comment section, we can have a back-and-forth-discussion on it."
In one case, a Georgia youth pastor recounted that when a student's mother was unexpectedly sent to the hospital, she didn't call or e-mail, but instead left a message on the youth pastor's MySpace page asking for prayer. In a short time, all the viewers of his page knew of the request as well.
"Youth pastors need to help parents understand how to use this site to keep up with the youth culture," Trent said. "Too often we as adults want to label something as bad because we don't want to do the work to understand it."
Scott Barkley is a writer for The Christian Index.