Too Much E-Reliance?
The Dangers of eMail in Youth Ministry
by Kent Clayton with Youth Specialties
The plans were set. The food was purchased. The reservations had been made. This was going to be one of the coolest events of the year!
Though I normally call all volunteers and many of the key leaders in the youth group to remind them about big events, I instead sent out mass eMail messages pumping up our special Fall outreach event, which involved laser tag, loud music, and large amounts of junk food.
After months of collecting data, I had finally finished an eMail list by which I could send out information to all the kids, parents, and volunteers in one fell swoop. I guessed that between one-third and one-half of the families in my church would actually turn in eMail addresses to me. Instead over 80% of the kids or families involved gave me an address! I collected a grand total of over 180 eMail addresses (most were for individual kids and parents; some were a single address for a whole family). Furthermore, my list included the church staff, most of my volunteers, and all of the youth committee. This was a tremendous response! I figured using eMail to send out information would save me time (and my church a lot of money in postage). I figured wrong.
The big Fall outreach event attracted less than half the number of kids that normally show up for youth group. Though it had been announced in the youth calendar sent out a month earlier, I know people need reminders. This is why normally I spend several afternoons and evenings on the phone before special events. But with a well-organized eMail list I thought my days of phone calls were behind me…nothing could be farther from the truth. The kids just didn’t check the messages announcing the event. Even some of my volunteers asked me “Was that event this Friday? Why didn’t you tell me?”
After my fall outreach eMail failure, I decided to run a little experiment.
On a Tuesday morning, I sent out an e-message that had the following brief announcement: THIS IS A TEST. I am trying to find out who actually reads the messages and announcements I send them electronically. I need your help. AS SOON AS YOU GET THIS, REPLY TO ME IMMEDIATELY letting me know the date and time you first read this message. Thanks for your help.
I sent the message to my 180 addresses and waited (this test included youth volunteers, the youth committee, and the church staff). I told nobody in person I was doing this…I wanted to see what would happen on its own. To respond to the test meant the recipient actually took the time to read the instructions and reply. Here are the results of the test:
- Approximately 25% of the recipients responded by the end of the first day.
- Another 10% responded by the end of the second day.
- Nearly 10% more responded by the end of the weekend (5 days).
- Three more people (less than 2%) responded by the end of the second week.
- Nobody responded after two weeks had passed.
The grand total: less than 47% of the youth, families, volunteers, and staff read my eMail messages. Ouch! Was this a sign that I was un-liked and should get my resume together? Were people only as attentive to my talks as they were to my e-messages??? Not really. Here are some more statistics:
- Over 80% of the church staff responded to my test-message
- Three-fourths of the youth committee responded to my test-message
- About 60% of the youth volunteers responded to my test-message.
- About 50% of the parents responded to my test-message
- Fewer than 30% of the kids with personal eMail responded to my test-message.
So, here’s my conclusion about the experiment: though people got the messages, they were either too busy to reply or they weren’t reading the message with enough intent to follow instructions. Kids might have received the test-announcement, but they didn’t read it in its entirety because they knew it was a form letter.
Also, when many people read eMail, they do it very quickly. It’s difficult to remember dates, times, and special instructions if you’re sifting through spam. While electronic communication is a great tool, it definitely has its drawbacks.
So, here are some general guidelines for using eMail effectively.
- Broadcast general announcements well in advance of any event, and do not rely on this form of communication alone. Most kids don’t go on line every day (nor should we expect them to).
- Keep information brief and easy to read. You should not have to tell five jokes before telling kids that the youth group time has changed.
- Use eMail for fun, personal contact that has no time-critical information. Sure, kids love to eMail friends, but they may not go on line until the homework is finished and the soccer practices are over.
- Include a personal greeting early in the message or even in the text box (“Hey Lisa” or “Mike, this is for you…”). This alerts people that information is person-specific.
- Use eMail to send encouragements, weekly updates, or prayer requests; but don’t forward lots of jokes or stories; people will get in the habit of deleting your messages before even reading them.
- Keep a list of who normally responds to e-messages promptly. Use this knowledge when sending out announcements.
- Ask people ahead of time if it’s okay to eMail pertinent information. Some will be frank and say that they rarely go on line. Other groups such as church staff or committees may agree together to check eMail for specific reasons.
- Pick up the phone. Remember, eMail does not reflect mood or tone the way person-to-person contact does.
- Finally, don’t forget that there’s something special about getting a letter in the mailbox. Send kids a personal, handwritten note once in a while—they love it!