Written by:
Chris Wilterdink

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Alexa, Let Me Ask You a Question…

Part of the “Things That Were Not a Thing Like 10 Years Ago” Series

By Chris Wilterdink

Some things about adolescence will never change. Pimples, hair showing up in strange places, self-reflection are a few of them. Some things about ministry will never change; the social aspect of faith, the connectedness in worship, seeking out a relationship with the divine. Yet, youth ministry is always changing. There simply are things like technology and cultural milestones that show up and force leaders to ask new and different questions about how they practically and theologically approach youth ministry. There are things that today’s youth experience as totally normal that would not have been a thing, 10, 5, or in some cases even a year ago.

You know what wasn’t a thing 5 years ago? Me talking to a physical object and expecting to get an answer. Just in the last 2 years “Smart Speakers” have become commercially available. Many of the big players have devices ready for you to buy, link to your internet, and start listening and interacting with you and your family. You may know some of the names, Amazon Echo (with Alexa), Apple HomePod (with Siri), Google Home (with Google of course) to name the heavy hitters. 7% of consumers in the United States (above age 12) now live in a home equipped with a smart speaker, and these devices have the capability to change how families interact and listen to, and for, each other. How then might smart speakers impact faith and family for a young person?

What if a children’s ministry could take a cue from that openness to questions, and make itself a place where questions are welcomed and encouraged?

They inspire question asking. Web-connected devices offer the chance to have children or youth ask any question, and immediately get back an answer. Any question! The age-restrictions and child-proofing modifications to smart speakers are not fully developed. Truly, a family, a youth group, or even just a couple of curious kids could pose questions to this speaker and get a ton of information back, unfiltered. It encourages families to be curious, to explore together. What if a children’s ministry could take a cue from that openness to questions, and make itself a place where questions are welcomed and encouraged? In youth ministry, hard questions about God and faith come up. How do we talk about listening for God’s answers to prayer when someone is used to receiving an immediate answer from Siri?

They change how we treat people. Young children with smart speakers in their homes can come to view Alexa, or Siri, as people that are part of their family unit. Children are also always watching parents for social cues on how to treat other people. If young people see us mistreating Alexa, they may react the same way, by mistreating another person. Smart speakers give parents yet another chance to demonstrate saying “please” and “thank you” when making requests. It also gives children many more opportunities to hear how adults speak to one another, because the children may assume that Alexa or Siri are adults. In children’s or youth ministry all adults serving should be aware of the power that their words have. What we say, and how we say it as adults, can truly impact the way a child understands how to treat other people.

In children’s or youth ministry all adults serving should be aware of the power that their words have.

They may actually make us better at listening. Those with smart speakers in their homes spent a substantial amount more time listening to podcasts, daily news, and music than those without. In fact, that kind of shared listening experience could inspire waves of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the 1940s listening to the radio as their source of family entertainment in the evenings. Speakers, by their current nature, offer only audio programming. Therefore, it is a chance for families to listen well together and then discuss and digest what was heard. In either youth or children’s ministries, how could we help each other to be better listeners? To focus on using the sense of hearing instead of visuals? How could we better carve out time to discuss what we just heard together? Listening can become a community exercise when we compare what we each heard. Perhaps something like Lectio Divina exercises could be used in innovative new ways to encourage deep listening and community growth.